A masterpiece of midcentury modernist literature triumphantly translated into our times.


The first English translation of Argentinian surrealist Ocampo's debut book.

By any account, Ocampo is an underrecognized literary innovator. Born in Buenos Aires in 1903, she trained as a visual artist under the tutelage of Giorgio de Chirico in Italy but returned home to launch a career as the lucid chronicler of Argentina's characters, colors, and drifting seasons. Her legacy is often overshadowed by her association with her sister, the well-known editor Victoria Ocampo, her marriage to acclaimed novelist Adolfo Bioy Casares, and her friendship with Jorge Luis Borges, but Ocampo's short vignettes—determinedly dreamlike, constitutionally opposed to traditional structures, quietly feminist in their focus on domestic menace and the underrecorded lives of women, children, and the laboring class—hold their own as masterworks of midcentury modernism. In her debut collection, originally published in 1937, Ocampo introduces the reader to singular characters like Miss Hilton, the world-traveling tutor undone by her apparent lack of modesty, who "blushed easily, and had translucent skin like wax paper, like those packages you can see through to all that's wrapped inside"; or Mademoiselle Dargere, the caregiver to a "colony of sickly children," who is haunted by the vision of a man's head wreathed in flames; or Eladio Rada, the caretaker of a stately country home who measures the seasons of his life by the house's relative emptiness. Ocampo's landscapes are just as central to the stories' thematic development as her unforgettable characters. Set on the streets of Buenos Aires itself, in the decaying summer homes of the country's interior or the fishing villages along its coast, Ocampo's stories lovingly detail the landscape that nurtures, haunts, or condemns her characters within the spiral cycles of their lives. Often these stories culminate in dreams or dreamlike violence—as in "The Lost Passport," in which 14-year-old Claude dreams of the fire that sinks her trans-Atlantic ship, or "The Two Houses of Olivos," in which two young girls take advantage of their guardian angels' siestas to escape to heaven, "a big blue room with fields of raspberries and other fruits," riding on the back of a white horse. Sometimes Ocampo's play with surrealism and metaphysical symbolism is more overt, as in "Sarandí Street," in which the speaker's entrapment in her family's house is blamed on her sisters, "dying of strange diseases," who emerge from their rooms with "their bodies withered away and covered in deep blue bruises, as if they had endured long journeys through thorny forests." Indeed, it is Ocampo's skill with the blurred line between dream and memory that marks her oeuvre and distinguishes her from contemporaneous masters of the modernist vantage like Virginia Woolf or Katherine Mansfield. Yet regardless of the author's historical importance, it is for the precise and terrible beauty of her sentences that this book should be read.

A masterpiece of midcentury modernist literature triumphantly translated into our times.

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-87286-772-7

Page Count: 134

Publisher: City Lights

Review Posted Online: Aug. 19, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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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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The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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