Well-crafted tales from a laudable tradition, though Ravenal might encourage more experimental voices next time.

NEW STORIES FROM THE SOUTH

THE YEAR’S BEST, 2004

A mixed bag of 18 mostly unsurprising stories by names both celebrated and more regionally obscure in the 19th installment of this well-established series.

As usual, series editor Ravenel aims for a broad readership with stories ranging from the generic writing-program sort (Michael Knight’s blithely paced account of a divorced father’s kidnapping of his young daughter, “Feeling Lucky”; Bret Anthony Johnston’s lachrymose and rather derivative “The Widow”) to more truly weird tales informed by innate southern proclivities for dogs, church signs, and General Lee (in, respectively, Ann Pancake’s “Dog Song,” Drew Perry’s delightful “Love is Gnats Today,” and R.T. Smith’s forlorn visit to the Lee Chapel in “Docent”). What makes this collection specifically southern? Tim Gautreaux in his preface suggests love for their region and for storytelling as salient traits. “A Rich Man,” which first appeared in The New Yorker (the others were published in literary magazines across the country), meets these criteria: The language is colloquial and stylistically unforced, the characters quirky and richly depicted, as Edward P. Jones shows his elderly protagonist taking up a life as a swinger and drug dealer following his wife’s death after 50 years of marriage mostly living in the same apartment house in Washington, DC. But not every story fits the mold; two that stand out in a most welcome fashion from the conventional selections are Brock Clarke’s edgy “The Lolita School,” delineating the curriculum of a “alternative country day school of some sort” in South Carolina that will mold young girls into Nabokov’s seductive heroine, and Elizabeth Seydel Morgan’s “Saturday Afternoon in the Holocaust Museum,” which follows an estranged couple's trek through a Richmond afternoon. Each author was asked to offer commentary on his or her story, which many find an unfortunate invasion of their fictional space: “I have trouble remembering whether much in my life was fact or imagined,” notes “Pagan” author Rick Bass in discomfort).

Well-crafted tales from a laudable tradition, though Ravenal might encourage more experimental voices next time.

Pub Date: June 4, 2004

ISBN: 1-56512-432-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2004

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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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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