A LITTLE LUMPEN NOVELITA

A concise but welcome addition to a major writer’s canon.

A modest fable, the final work by the Chilean master Bolaño (1953-2003) published in his lifetime, encompassing sex, theft and doing what’s necessary to get by.

Bianca, the narrator of this short but philosophically prickly tale, tells us two things early on: first, that she used to live a life of crime; and second, that she was never a prostitute. What follows, though, complicates both assertions. When Bianca’s parents died in a car wreck when she was a teenager, she and her brother were left to scrape together a living in Rome doing odd jobs. While working at a gym, her brother befriends two men who propose a scheme: Bianca will go to work for an aging, blind and wealthy former bodybuilder, effectively for sex, then case his mansion for a safe to crack. The two men have sex with Bianca as well while she’s in the midst of her weekly assignations, but she deliberately avoids knowing which man has entered her room when. This kind of avoidance, Bolaño suggests, is just part of the emotionally fuzzy atmosphere a young woman needs to create to survive a man’s world; Bianca self-medicates with television and can’t distinguish night and day. For Bolaño, who’s best known for epics like The Savage Detectives (1998) and 2666 (2008), this slim tale related in 16 brief chapters is relatively unambitious. But its watertight prose (via Wimmer’s translation) and themes of criminality and the treatment of women make it of a piece with the writer’s grander works. Bianca’s narrative registers less as a mournful abuse confessional and more as a memoir of hard-won wisdom, about her acquiring the power to keep predatory men at arm’s length. Did she truly commit a crime? Is what she did prostitution or not? Bolaño leaves those questions provocatively open.

A concise but welcome addition to a major writer’s canon.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8112-2336-2

Page Count: 128

Publisher: New Directions

Review Posted Online: July 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2014

A CONSPIRACY OF BONES

Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

Another sweltering month in Charlotte, another boatload of mysteries past and present for overworked, overstressed forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan.

A week after the night she chases but fails to catch a mysterious trespasser outside her town house, some unknown party texts Tempe four images of a corpse that looks as if it’s been chewed by wild hogs, because it has been. Showboat Medical Examiner Margot Heavner makes it clear that, breaking with her department’s earlier practice (The Bone Collection, 2016, etc.), she has no intention of calling in Tempe as a consultant and promptly identifies the faceless body herself as that of a young Asian man. Nettled by several errors in Heavner’s analysis, and even more by her willingness to share the gory details at a press conference, Tempe launches her own investigation, which is not so much off the books as against the books. Heavner isn’t exactly mollified when Tempe, aided by retired police detective Skinny Slidell and a host of experts, puts a name to the dead man. But the hints of other crimes Tempe’s identification uncovers, particularly crimes against children, spur her on to redouble her efforts despite the new M.E.’s splenetic outbursts. Before he died, it seems, Felix Vodyanov was linked to a passenger ferry that sank in 1994, an even earlier U.S. government project to research biological agents that could control human behavior, the hinky spiritual retreat Sparkling Waters, the dark web site DeepUnder, and the disappearances of at least four schoolchildren, two of whom have also turned up dead. And why on earth was Vodyanov carrying Tempe’s own contact information? The mounting evidence of ever more and ever worse skulduggery will pull Tempe deeper and deeper down what even she sees as a rabbit hole before she confronts a ringleader implicated in “Drugs. Fraud. Breaking and entering. Arson. Kidnapping. How does attempted murder sound?”

Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9821-3888-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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NORMAL PEOPLE

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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