Sympathetic, fully realized characters and good use of period details make this a winning work of historical fiction.

THE ANCHORESS

Quiet, assured debut novel set in medieval England, concerning a young woman’s entry into the religious life—one as tumultuous as anything on the outside.

Early on in Australian writer Cadwallader’s narrative, we learn that young Sarah, still a teenager, has lost her sister in childbirth: “Emma didn’t speak, just looked at me, her eyes fading. Blood dripped, then ran.” The elegant understatement of that terrible moment speaks to Cadwallader’s approach throughout: the England of the mid-13th century is a place of rupture, oppression, intolerance, and violence outside, but within the tight-holding walls of the Midlands church and the “rough lodging” it offers, little of that outside world can enter. Even so, in time, Sarah, though seeking escape, engages with that world—and she must, for it presses in on all sides. And besides, she’s not quite cut out for the isolation. Cadwallader is a poet of loneliness; few writers have captured so completely the essential madness that accompanies hermitage, the grayness and sameness of each and every day: “The stones were faces that came out when my candle was alight, some laughing, some staring, some as sad as me.” She is also very good at describing the power relations that inhere in religious hierarchy (“Sister, I’m your confessor and guide. You are to obey me in all things, as your Rule says”) without resorting to too-easy anachronisms, though Sarah does have her protofeminist moments. In a time when self-assertion was tantamount to sin, Cadwallader’s language and tone seem just right. Readers may wish there were a little more action to move the story along, but this is an appropriately contemplative piece that is kin less to Ellis Peters’ Cadfael mysteries than to Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations as imaginings of medieval faith and the faithful.

Sympathetic, fully realized characters and good use of period details make this a winning work of historical fiction.

Pub Date: May 12, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-374-10425-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: March 5, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2015

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

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. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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