Evocative but incomplete.




A manuscript found in Baghdad’s Directorate of General Security recalls life under Saddam Hussein’s regime.

I’jaam, explains Iraqi expatriate Antoon in a prefatory note, is the Arabic word used to describe the diacritical dots added to the basic alphabet to represent different phonetic characters. Since these dots can also clarify a word’s meaning, I’jaam has come to mean “elucidating” or “clarifying.” A manuscript written entirely without diacritics is clearly intended to be unintelligible, and that’s the premise of Antoon’s novel. It’s 1989; a manuscript without diacritics is unearthed in the dreaded security headquarters, where a request is made for “qualified personnel…to insert the diacritics and write a brief report of the manuscript’s contents.” The resulting document unfolds a series of vignettes of a government-regulated life. Furat, the manuscript’s author, is a poet and student of literature in Baghdad. A limp makes him unfit for service in the army, but he feels the restraints of Hussein’s oppressive dictatorship in countless other ways. His grandmother, who raised him after his parents were killed, and his girlfriend Areej plead with him to be compliant, but Furat finds it difficult to live and study under such conditions. Though his protests are minor—trying to write his senior thesis on 1984 (banned by the state) and using newspapers with pictures of the Leader as toilet paper—he is nonetheless carted off to prison by guards posing as students. Furat’s manuscript swings among an account of his past, flashes of life in prison and hopeful hallucinations envisioning reunions with his grandmother and Areej. His rantings become increasingly incomprehensible and end just as suddenly as they began. Marginal notes and an addendum by the state translator nervously cavil at Furat’s consistent disparagement of the government, dismissing the text as a “disgraceful transgression.” Antoon’s frenetic tone is very effective, and Furat’s unraveling feels heartbreakingly familiar. But the novel is choppy and unfinished, ending far too soon. What could have been well-developed, timely fiction reads like a character sketch.

Evocative but incomplete.

Pub Date: June 15, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-87286-457-3

Page Count: 112

Publisher: City Lights

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2007

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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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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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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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