A lyrical and evocative portrait of a Sri Lankan boyhood friendship and the life lessons that came with it.

SUNCATCHER

A young boy comes of age against a backdrop of class conflict and political unrest in 1960s Sri Lanka.

Gunesekera (Noontide Toll, 2014, etc.) sets his latest in Sri Lanka in 1964—then known as Ceylon—as uncertainty looms for the fledgling democracy and ethnic Sinhalese nationalism is on the rise. In the novel’s opening pages, narrator Kairo meets Jay, two boys riding their bikes in a church parking lot in the capital city of Colombo. Charismatic Jay challenges Kairo to a race, and the dynamic of their brief boyhood friendship is established: “I needed a guide, a hero, illumination,” Kairo explains. “Jay, I now know, needed an acolyte.” The middle-class son of a disillusioned socialist father in the Labour Department and a mother who works at Radio Ceylon, Kairo drifts in a dream world of pulp Western comics until he is swept into Jay’s glamorous orbit (the Gatsby echo must be intentional). Jay’s family home is grand enough to have a name, Casa Lihiniya; his mother, Sonya, drifts about in a caftan like a film star, and his uncle Elvin maintains a fleet of cars and runs a coconut estate in the countryside. Jay himself collects fish in tanks and birds in a backyard aviary. A vivid set piece takes the boys to Elvin’s estate, where a game of Cowboys and Indians, played with the son of an estate laborer, turns ugly and Kairo has his first intimations of class privilege: “I could see how easily [Jay] could slip into his uncle’s place one day: inherit this estate and loom over the shorter lives of less favoured people.” The story winds its unhurried way to a dramatic conclusion, although a subplot involving a girl who comes between the two friends never quite comes into focus.

A lyrical and evocative portrait of a Sri Lankan boyhood friendship and the life lessons that came with it.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-62097-559-6

Page Count: 288

Publisher: The New Press

Review Posted Online: Nov. 11, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2019

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Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

A wild child’s isolated, dirt-poor upbringing in a Southern coastal wilderness fails to shield her from heartbreak or an accusation of murder.

“The Marsh Girl,” “swamp trash”—Catherine “Kya” Clark is a figure of mystery and prejudice in the remote North Carolina coastal community of Barkley Cove in the 1950s and '60s. Abandoned by a mother no longer able to endure her drunken husband’s beatings and then by her four siblings, Kya grows up in the careless, sometimes-savage company of her father, who eventually disappears, too. Alone, virtually or actually, from age 6, Kya learns both to be self-sufficient and to find solace and company in her fertile natural surroundings. Owens (Secrets of the Savanna, 2006, etc.), the accomplished co-author of several nonfiction books on wildlife, is at her best reflecting Kya’s fascination with the birds, insects, dappled light, and shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s collections of shells and feathers, her communion with the gulls, her exploration of the wetlands are evoked in lyrical phrasing which only occasionally tips into excess. But as the child turns teenager and is befriended by local boy Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, the novel settles into a less magical, more predictable pattern. Interspersed with Kya’s coming-of-age is the 1969 murder investigation arising from the discovery of a man’s body in the marsh. The victim is Chase Andrews, “star quarterback and town hot shot,” who was once Kya’s lover. In the eyes of a pair of semicomic local police officers, Kya will eventually become the chief suspect and must stand trial. By now the novel’s weaknesses have become apparent: the monochromatic characterization (good boy Tate, bad boy Chase) and implausibilities (Kya evolves into a polymath—a published writer, artist, and poet), yet the closing twist is perhaps its most memorable oddity.

Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1909-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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While the love triangle is interesting, perhaps most compelling is the story of one woman's single-minded pursuit of her...

LITTLE GODS

Love and ambition clash in a novel depicting China's turbulent 1980s.

Jin's debut is at heart a mystery, as a young Chinese American woman returns to China to try to understand her recently deceased mother's decisions and to find her biological father. Liya grew up with a single mother, the brilliant but troubled physicist Su Lan, who refused to talk about Liya's missing father. Mother and daughter grew increasingly estranged as Su Lan obsessed over her theoretical research. Complicating Liya's search for truth is the fact she was born in Beijing on June 4, 1989, the very night of the government crackdown on the protesters at Tiananmen Square. Su Lan changed Liya's birth year on her papers to obscure this fact in America. The reader is meant to wonder if Liya's father perhaps died during the crackdown. However, this is not a novel about the idealism of the student reform movement or even the decisions behind the government's use of lethal force. Instead Jin focuses on the personalities of three students: the young Su Lan as well as Zhang Bo and Li Yongzong, two of her high school classmates who were rivals for her affection. The novel shifts point of view and jumps back and forth in time, obscuring vital pieces of information from the reader in order to prolong the mystery. Not all the plot contrivances make sense, but Su Lan is a fascinating character of a type rarely seen in fiction, an ambitious woman whose intellect and drive allow her to envision changing the very nature of time. The title refers to the thoughts of a nurse, musing about the similarities that she sees between the Tiananmen student demonstrators and the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution: "A hunger for revolution, any Great Revolution, whatever it stands for, so long as where you stand is behind its angry fist. Little gods, she thinks."

While the love triangle is interesting, perhaps most compelling is the story of one woman's single-minded pursuit of her ambition.

Pub Date: Jan. 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-293595-3

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Custom House/Morrow

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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