Like James Michener, Saylor the novelist (A Gladiator Dies Only Once, 2005, etc.) is upstaged by Saylor the historian—except...

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ROMA

Livy meets Michener in this sprawling, episodic 1,000-year novel of the rise of ancient Rome from its first settlement to the assassination of Julius Caesar.

How to give a millennium of Roman history the coherence of a fictional epic? Saylor uses three devices to shape his story. He chooses his 11 focal points selectively, sometimes leaping hundreds of years between chapters. He focuses on the shifting fortunes of the families descended from two cousins, Potitia and Pinarius, and he traces the descent of a fascinum, a gold amulet in the shape of a winged penis, as it’s passed down from generation to generation of the often warring families. The results are decidedly mixed. Although his discontinuous story requires repeated infusions of arid exposition at the beginning of each chapter, Saylor’s gift for dramatic narrative brings alive familiar tales from Roman history: the establishment of the city by the twins Romulus and Remus, Hercules’ defeat of the monstrous Cacus, Tarquin’s rape of Lucretia, the rise and fall of Coriolanus, Verginius’ sacrifice of his defiled daughter, the sacred geese that raise the cry against an invasion by the Gauls, the campaign against Hannibal and Carthage. Although he freely embroiders on historical events in order to make room for the Potitii and the Pinarii, he makes many of their encounters with historical figures touching and compelling, particularly in the first half of the story, which finds both families dwindling to virtual extinction. After the Gallic siege of the Capitoline, however, Saylor’s resurgent heroes increasingly come to seem like onlookers and spear-carriers to historical events more interesting than they are, and by the time of the Caesars, the clans, although they’ve merged, are clearly showing their age.

Like James Michener, Saylor the novelist (A Gladiator Dies Only Once, 2005, etc.) is upstaged by Saylor the historian—except when he suggests that history itself is fact-based fiction.

Pub Date: March 6, 2007

ISBN: 0-312-32831-1

Page Count: 576

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 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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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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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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