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SILENCE IS MY MOTHER TONGUE

A memorable chronicle about “the bitterness of exile” and the endurance of the spirit.

A headstrong young woman and her brother attempt to rebuild their lives in a refugee camp.

At the opening of Addonia’s novel, court is in session. For the refugees in a Sudanese camp for those fleeing Eritrea, trials are held in the ersatz cinema where skits are sometimes put on with cardboard figures. The accused is a young woman called Saba; her alleged crime, incest with her mute brother, Hagos. As Saba awaits her verdict, the novel takes us back in time to illuminate how so many in the community have turned on her. Stubborn, intelligent, and bold, Saba excelled at school and wanted to attend university before her life was uprooted. She also has complicated ancestry: half-Eritrean, half-Ethiopian, “half from an occupied country and the other half from the occupying....Half of her was at war with the other half.” Saba’s more traditionally masculine qualities are balanced by Hagos, who is “the girl [their] mother had always wanted,” taking care of the domestic work and taking an interest in Saba’s hair, makeup, and clothing. Unable to understand either sibling’s unorthodoxies, the growing community in the camp attempts to police their adherence to traditions. As more refugees arrive, Saba and Hagos draw increasing scrutiny until these outside forces threaten to overwhelm their seemingly unbreakable bond. Addonia’s greatest strength is the arresting image, imbued with symbolism—as when a man tears a newspaper into pieces and the crowd scatters “in different directions with broken sentences” or when a girl is sentenced to physically carry the man she allegedly seduced on her back through the camp as punishment—while the novel’s vignette structure underscores the fragmentary, hallucinatory quality of trauma and memory.

A memorable chronicle about “the bitterness of exile” and the endurance of the spirit.

Pub Date: Sept. 8, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-64445-033-8

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Graywolf

Review Posted Online: June 16, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2020

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LONG ISLAND

A moving portrait of rueful middle age and the failure to connect.

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An acclaimed novelist revisits the central characters of his best-known work.

At the end of Brooklyn (2009), Eilis Lacey departed Ireland for the second and final time—headed back to New York and the Italian American husband she had secretly married after first traveling there for work. In her hometown of Enniscorthy, she left behind Jim Farrell, a young man she’d fallen in love with during her visit, and the inevitable gossip about her conduct. Tóibín’s 11th novel introduces readers to Eilis 20 years later, in 1976, still married to Tony Fiorello and living in the titular suburbia with their two teenage children. But Eilis’ seemingly placid existence is disturbed when a stranger confronts her, accusing Tony of having an affair with his wife—now pregnant—and threatening to leave the baby on their doorstep. “She’d known men like this in Ireland,” Tóibín writes. “Should one of them discover that their wife had been unfaithful and was pregnant as a result, they would not have the baby in the house.” This shock sends Eilis back to Enniscorthy for a visit—or perhaps a longer stay. (Eilis’ motives are as inscrutable as ever, even to herself.) She finds the never-married Jim managing his late father’s pub; unbeknownst to Eilis (and the town), he’s become involved with her widowed friend Nancy, who struggles to maintain the family chip shop. Eilis herself appears different to her old friends: “Something had happened to her in America,” Nancy concludes. Although the novel begins with a soap-operatic confrontation—and ends with a dramatic denouement, as Eilis’ fate is determined in a plot twist worthy of Edith Wharton—the author is a master of quiet, restrained prose, calmly observing the mores and mindsets of provincial Ireland, not much changed from the 1950s.

A moving portrait of rueful middle age and the failure to connect.

Pub Date: May 7, 2024

ISBN: 9781476785110

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Feb. 3, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2024

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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