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WAR AND TURPENTINE

Hertmans provides a richly detailed excavation of a life and a thoughtful exploration of familial memory. Not easy, but...

Flemish author Hertmans' latest offers a grandson's often haunting reconstruction of his grandfather's life.

Shortly before his death in 1981, Urbain Martien—an artist, widower, survivor of many a brutal campaign in World War I—left his grandson, a young writer, two notebooks in which he'd recorded (mostly) his harrowing tales of his experiences as a soldier. Decades later, the grandson uses those notebooks as a way to understand, even to reinhabit, his grandfather's life. Using the methods of narrative collage—excerpts from the notebooks (possibly reconfigured), interpretations of his grandfather's paintings (both originals and copies of masters), meditations on childhood incidents he didn't fully understand at the time, decipherings of photographs (these deployed in the text in a W.G. Sebald way), archival digging, visits to various locales of importance to Urbain, and affectionate detective work—the writer evokes his grandfather's life in full: his impecunious childhood, early work at a relative's smithy and then at a foundry that left his back scarred by red-hot tailings, his asthmatic painter-father's early death, his grotesque experiences in the trenches interspersed with hospital stays during the war. Soon after, Urbain's first love was cut short by the influenza epidemic, after which he dutifully proposed to his beloved's older sister, who dutifully acquiesced, and for the next four decades they lived together in harmony and respect and ambient disappointment: his at the loss of his love, for whom his passion never abated, and hers at having to play the role of poor substitute to her long-dead sister. The book is especially eloquent and persuasive about the role that art—especially painting but also music and, by extension, narrative—played in Urbain's life and in the life of the grandson who is his visitant and scribe and portraitist. And Ghent as setting is beautifully portrayed, too.

Hertmans provides a richly detailed excavation of a life and a thoughtful exploration of familial memory. Not easy, but worth the effort.

Pub Date: Aug. 9, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87402-8

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 16, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2016

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THE NIGHTINGALE

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 19, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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THE SECRET HISTORY

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 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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