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Evocative yet oblique, this meandering tale creates an intriguing milieu while leaving its confrontation between science and...

The allegiances of a Polish servant are divided between Nobel Prize–winning physicist Marie Curie and well-known medium Eusapia Palladino.

Like the spirits in the séances it describes, the plot in Sherman’s (The Little Russian, 2012) second novel is slow to materialize. Its central character, Lucia Rutkowska, is tracked lengthily from her unhappy Polish origins through her escape to Paris and her eventual job as maid and cook to a poor family with Polish roots, namely the Curies, to whom she becomes devoted. Paris in 1902 is a place of intellectual ferment, and people are just as interested in the strange energy manifested at séances as they are in the work of the rare lady scientist Marie Curie—“a Polish governess who marries a Frenchman, discovers radium, and receives a doctorate from the Sorbonne.” Struggling Parisian journalist Gabriel Richet has a different take on these facts and fads. His older brother, Charles, a physiologist running experiments on spiritualists, wants him to photograph the mediums at work, while his newspaper wants an article on the Curies. Sherman’s tale is a feast of detail and description, from the dangerous drudgery of the Curies’ work creating radioactive matter to the trickery behind the table-turning and ectoplasmic effects at the séances. Yet the pace and integration of her plot seem less focused. Lucia develops a friendship with Gabriel which waxes and wanes, as does her allegiance to the Curies. After attending a séance in Madame Curie’s stead, Lucia falls under the spell of Eusapia (like Curie, an actual historical figure), and she quits her job to become the medium's companion. A final tragedy will juxtapose the scientific and the psychical while leaving the question of what to believe open.

Evocative yet oblique, this meandering tale creates an intriguing milieu while leaving its confrontation between science and spirituality unresolved.

Pub Date: Jan. 20, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-61902-845-6

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: Nov. 6, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2016

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THE UNSEEN

A deeply satisfying novel, both sensuously vivid and remarkably poignant.

Norwegian novelist Jacobsen folds a quietly powerful coming-of-age story into a rendition of daily life on one of Norway’s rural islands a hundred years ago in a novel that was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

Ingrid Barrøy, her father, Hans, mother, Maria, grandfather Martin, and slightly addled aunt Barbro are the owners and sole inhabitants of Barrøy Island, one of numerous small family-owned islands in an area of Norway barely touched by the outside world. The novel follows Ingrid from age 3 through a carefree early childhood of endless small chores, simple pleasures, and unquestioned familial love into her more ambivalent adolescence attending school off the island and becoming aware of the outside world, then finally into young womanhood when she must make difficult choices. Readers will share Ingrid’s adoration of her father, whose sense of responsibility conflicts with his romantic nature. He adores Maria, despite what he calls her “la-di-da” ways, and is devoted to Ingrid. Twice he finds work on the mainland for his sister, Barbro, but, afraid she’ll be unhappy, he brings her home both times. Rooted to the land where he farms and tied to the sea where he fishes, Hans struggles to maintain his family’s hardscrabble existence on an island where every repair is a struggle against the elements. But his efforts are Sisyphean. Life as a Barrøy on Barrøy remains precarious. Changes do occur in men’s and women’s roles, reflected in part by who gets a literal chair to sit on at meals, while world crises—a war, Sweden’s financial troubles—have unexpected impact. Yet the drama here occurs in small increments, season by season, following nature’s rhythm through deaths and births, moments of joy and deep sorrow. The translator’s decision to use roughly translated phrases in conversation—i.e., “Tha’s goen’ nohvar” for "You’re going nowhere")—slows the reading down at first but ends up drawing readers more deeply into the world of Barrøy and its prickly, intensely alive inhabitants.

A deeply satisfying novel, both sensuously vivid and remarkably poignant.

Pub Date: April 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-77196-319-0

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Biblioasis

Review Posted Online: Jan. 12, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules...

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Sentenced to house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel by a Bolshevik tribunal for writing a poem deemed to encourage revolt, Count Alexander Rostov nonetheless lives the fullest of lives, discovering the depths of his humanity.

Inside the elegant Metropol, located near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi, the Count slowly adjusts to circumstances as a "Former Person." He makes do with the attic room, to which he is banished after residing for years in a posh third-floor suite. A man of refined taste in wine, food, and literature, he strives to maintain a daily routine, exploring the nooks and crannies of the hotel, bonding with staff, accepting the advances of attractive women, and forming what proves to be a deeply meaningful relationship with a spirited young girl, Nina. "We are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade," says the companionable narrator. For the Count, that way of life ultimately becomes less about aristocratic airs and privilege than generosity and devotion. Spread across four decades, this is in all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight. Though Stalin and Khrushchev make their presences felt, Towles largely treats politics as a dark, distant shadow. The chill of the political events occurring outside the Metropol is certainly felt, but for the Count and his friends, the passage of time is "like the turn of a kaleidoscope." Not for nothing is Casablanca his favorite film. This is a book in which the cruelties of the age can't begin to erase the glories of real human connection and the memories it leaves behind.

A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules of Civility (2011).

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-670-02619-7

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 20, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016

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