Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Hari Kunzru, et al. need to make room on the podium. Booker judges should pay attention too.

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THE LAST SONG OF DUSK

A lively debut gives vivid magical-realist form to the necessity of loving others—and the sorrows to which doing so exposes us.

Anglo-Indian author Shanghvi’s warm, witty omniscient narrative voice gets the story off to a dazzling start, as transcendently beautiful Anuradha Patwardhan travels (at a time in the early 1920s) to Bombay for her arranged marriage to impossibly handsome young physician Vardhamaan Gandharva. The couple’s blissful, too-perfect union is blighted by the enmity of Vardhamaan’s ferocious stepmother Divi-bai (accompanied everywhere by her verbally malevolent parrot), and by the accidental early death of their son Mohan (“a child of mythic good looks”)—a misfortune that seems to confirm the sentiments of the melancholy “song of dusk” the Patwardhan women are fated to croon. Shanghvi then shifts to the capsule history of Dariya Mahal, a Bombay seaside mansion whose owner had literally died from loving too much. It’s there that Vardhamaan brings Anuradha following their brief separation after Mohan’s death. Enter Nandini Hariharan, Anuradha’s teenaged distant cousin: a seductively gorgeous self-taught painter whose inherent animality (rumor speaks of her lineal descent from “a woman [who] had mated with a leopard”) makes her sexually irresistible and preternaturally self-assured, and propels her rapid ascent to the highest levels of Bombay’s artistic and social worlds. Meanwhile, Anuradha has borne her second son Shloka, a physically perfect child whose slowness to learn speech ironically foreshadows Vardhamaan’s unexplained withdrawal from her. And Shloka’s growth—into language, loving, and eventual independence—both validates the legacy of Dariya Mahal (itself a virtual character in the novel) and parallels Nandini’s embattled liberation from her own nature. The logic of the narrative and the gorgeous atmospheric and verbal trappings make this wonderful novel as insistently readable as it is – particularly in its moving final pages – immensely satisfying.

Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Hari Kunzru, et al. need to make room on the podium. Booker judges should pay attention too.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2004

ISBN: 1-55970-734-8

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Arcade

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2004

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Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

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SUCH A FUN AGE

The relationship between a privileged white mom and her black babysitter is strained by race-related complications.

Blogger/role model/inspirational speaker Alix Chamberlain is none too happy about moving from Manhattan to Philadelphia for her husband Peter's job as a TV newscaster. With no friends or in-laws around to help out with her almost-3-year-old, Briar, and infant, Catherine, she’ll never get anywhere on the book she’s writing unless she hires a sitter. She strikes gold when she finds Emira Tucker. Twenty-five-year-old Emira’s family and friends expect her to get going on a career, but outside the fact that she’s about to get kicked off her parents’ health insurance, she’s happy with her part-time gigs—and Briar is her "favorite little human." Then one day a double-header of racist events topples the apple cart—Emira is stopped by a security guard who thinks she's kidnapped Briar, and when Peter's program shows a segment on the unusual ways teenagers ask their dates to the prom, he blurts out "Let's hope that last one asked her father first" about a black boy hoping to go with a white girl. Alix’s combination of awkwardness and obsession with regard to Emira spins out of control and then is complicated by the reappearance of someone from her past (coincidence alert), where lies yet another racist event. Reid’s debut sparkles with sharp observations and perfect details—food, décor, clothes, social media, etc.—and she’s a dialogue genius, effortlessly incorporating toddler-ese, witty boyfriend–speak, and African American Vernacular English. For about two-thirds of the book, her evenhandedness with her varied cast of characters is impressive, but there’s a point at which any possible empathy for Alix disappears. Not only is she shallow, entitled, unknowingly racist, and a bad mother, but she has not progressed one millimeter since high school, and even then she was worse than we thought. Maybe this was intentional, but it does make things—ha ha—very black and white.

Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-54190-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

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Offill is good company for the end of the world.

WEATHER

An ever growing list of worries, from a brother with drug problems to a climate change apocalypse, dances through the lively mind of a university librarian.

In its clever and seductive replication of the inner monologue of a woman living in this particular moment in history, Offill’s (Dept. of Speculation, 2014, etc.) third novel might be thought of as a more laconic cousin of Lucy Ellmann's Ducks, Newburyport. Here, the mind we’re embedded in is that of a librarian named Lizzie—an entertaining vantage point despite her concerns big and small. There’s the lady with the bullhorn who won’t let her walk her sensitive young son into his school building. Her brother, who has finally gotten off drugs and has a new girlfriend but still requires her constant, almost hourly, support. Her mentor, Sylvia, a national expert on climate change, who is fed up with her fans and wants Lizzie to take over answering her mail. (“These people long for immortality, but can’t wait ten minutes for a cup of coffee,” says Sylvia.) “Malodorous,” “Defacing,” “Combative,” “Humming,” “Lonely”: These are just a few of the categories in a pamphlet called Dealing With Problem Patrons that Lizzie's been given at work, Also, her knee hurts, and she’s spending a fortune on car service because she fears she's Mr. Jimmy’s only customer. Then there are the complex mixed messages of a cable show she can't stop watching: Extreme Shopper. Her husband, Ben, a video game designer and a very kind man, is getting a bit exasperated. As the new president is elected and the climate change questions pour in and the doomsday scenarios pile up, Lizzie tries to hold it together. The tension between mundane daily concerns and looming apocalypse, the "weather" of our days both real and metaphorical, is perfectly captured in Offill's brief, elegant paragraphs, filled with insight and humor.

Offill is good company for the end of the world.

Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-385-35110-2

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 11, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2019

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