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JULIA

Adding a major plot twist, a nice shot of (somewhat cynical) hope, and more graphic sex should win over even purists.

In a retelling of 1984, Winston Smith's lover takes center stage.

As the author of two previous dystopian novels (The Heavens, 2019; The Men, 2022) and a humorous guide to classic literature (The Western Lit Survival Kit, 2012), Newman seems uniquely qualified to update Orwell’s anti-fascist cri du cœur. If you haven’t recently read 1984, it's worth perusing a plot summary to appreciate her achievement, placing Julia Worthing at the center of the action and moving Smith to a supporting role. All the familiar lineaments are here—Airstrip One, Oceania, Big Brother, Newspeak, the Ministries of Truth and Love, the dreaded Room 101, the rats (oy, the rats), as well as every character, many of them revised in clever ways. Though Newman sticks with the worldbuilding Orwell planned in 1949, not adding post-'84 developments like smartphones, home assistants, or the internet (though these actually do seem to play the surveillance role that Orwell assigned to the telescreens), she embroiders the edges of the original WWII-flavored vision with myriad amusing flourishes (and if you remember anything about 1984, you remember that amusing is not one of the adjectives that comes to mind). For example, though Julia is still a mechanic, working on the machines of Fiction, her first job at the Ministry of Truth was producing porno novels for proles, e.g., Inner Party Sinners: ‘My Telescreen is Broken, Comrade!’ She meets “a very willing but ignorant girl with the preposterous name of Typity. It was one of the new ultra-Party names; its letters stood for ‘Three-Year Plan In Two Years.’ ” Orwell described Julia as “a rebel from the waist down” and Newman runs with that, making Winston Smith one of many lovers and recasting his noble anti-state obsessions through Julia’s much more pragmatic eyes. “Most folk muddled along, but Old Misery Smith couldn’t even say ‘ungood’ without looking as if it scalded his mouth.” Book clubs could have great fun reading the two together.

Adding a major plot twist, a nice shot of (somewhat cynical) hope, and more graphic sex should win over even purists.

Pub Date: Oct. 24, 2023

ISBN: 9780063265332

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Mariner Books

Review Posted Online: July 26, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2023

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LONG ISLAND

A moving portrait of rueful middle age and the failure to connect.

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An acclaimed novelist revisits the central characters of his best-known work.

At the end of Brooklyn (2009), Eilis Lacey departed Ireland for the second and final time—headed back to New York and the Italian American husband she had secretly married after first traveling there for work. In her hometown of Enniscorthy, she left behind Jim Farrell, a young man she’d fallen in love with during her visit, and the inevitable gossip about her conduct. Tóibín’s 11th novel introduces readers to Eilis 20 years later, in 1976, still married to Tony Fiorello and living in the titular suburbia with their two teenage children. But Eilis’ seemingly placid existence is disturbed when a stranger confronts her, accusing Tony of having an affair with his wife—now pregnant—and threatening to leave the baby on their doorstep. “She’d known men like this in Ireland,” Tóibín writes. “Should one of them discover that their wife had been unfaithful and was pregnant as a result, they would not have the baby in the house.” This shock sends Eilis back to Enniscorthy for a visit—or perhaps a longer stay. (Eilis’ motives are as inscrutable as ever, even to herself.) She finds the never-married Jim managing his late father’s pub; unbeknownst to Eilis (and the town), he’s become involved with her widowed friend Nancy, who struggles to maintain the family chip shop. Eilis herself appears different to her old friends: “Something had happened to her in America,” Nancy concludes. Although the novel begins with a soap-operatic confrontation—and ends with a dramatic denouement, as Eilis’ fate is determined in a plot twist worthy of Edith Wharton—the author is a master of quiet, restrained prose, calmly observing the mores and mindsets of provincial Ireland, not much changed from the 1950s.

A moving portrait of rueful middle age and the failure to connect.

Pub Date: May 7, 2024

ISBN: 9781476785110

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Feb. 3, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2024

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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