Bynum is undoubtedly gifted with language and well-versed in literary allusion, but her first is almost unreadable and...

MADELEINE IS SLEEPING

A self-consciously exquisite first novel, written in one-page (sometimes one-sentence) chapters, about the difference between a young French girl’s dreams and her real life.

Madeleine lies in a deep sleep, watched over by her jam-making mother, her distracted farmer father, and her various younger siblings. Madeleine’s hands are wrapped in bandages, having been dipped in lye as punishment for her sexual relations with the town half-wit. Meanwhile, like an x-rated Sleeping Beauty or Dorothy, if Kansas and Oz were equally weird, Madeleine is dreaming stories and characters: Saint Michel, whom she idolizes; a woman who sprouts wings; a woman whose husband carves her face on his viola; a man with a magic gift for expressive flatulence. Eventually in her dreams, also possibly in her past, Madeleine travels to Paris to live as the storybook Madeleine with Mme. Clavel (oddly the original Madeleine is not credited in the notes at the back of the book, where Bynum lists her “literary” references). Madeleine runs away from Mme. Clavel’s convent to join a gypsy circus, where she meets the characters of her dreams. Back home, no one will buy preserves from Madeleine’s mother anymore, and the siblings are getting into trouble. While her mother appears to dote on Madeleine, she can’t help escalating acts of violence toward the unconscious girl. As Madeleine sleeps on, she and the gypsies are supported by a rich widow who pays Madeleine to slap the flatulence-maker’s naked backside. Madeleine and the circus photographer both fall in love with the flatulence-maker, who ends up in the same asylum where the half-wit who molested Madeleine has been placed. In other words, dream and reality begin to converge. Madeleine wakes long enough to organize a performance in the village barn. Then she falls back to sleep while the villagers watch.

Bynum is undoubtedly gifted with language and well-versed in literary allusion, but her first is almost unreadable and frankly sleep-inducing.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2004

ISBN: 0-15-101059-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2004

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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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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/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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