Was this intense, enlightening novel really written not by a British Muslim girl but a male Indian novelist who lives in...

JUST ANOTHER JIHADI JANE

Two British Muslim girls run away to Syria to join the Islamic State group but find something far beyond disillusionment.

This superb novel is a cousin to Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) in both theme and structure. Here again a murky, reviled aspect of Muslim experience is brilliantly revealed; here again the form of the story is a single confidence shared with a silent listener. Jamilla and her friend Ameena are childhood friends from a town in the north of England. At home they speak Urdu; elsewhere, English with the local accent—“A think A told yer to bugger off.” Jamilla’s family is conservative; she is a passionate student and believer. She never goes out without her niqab, for which she is endlessly harassed, but she also feels at odds with the Islam of her parents, who “reduce God to a little bookkeeping clerk.” Ameena’s mum and dad are divorced, materialistic, and Westernized; Ameena herself smokes cigarettes and is mad for a soccer player at school who looks like David Beckham. The girls’ on-again, off-again friendship takes a fateful turn when Ameena is humiliated by her crush, then meets on Facebook a strikingly beautiful woman with an adorable cat. Hejjiye is a recruiter for Daesh, the Arabic acronym for ISIS. “Just pack your bags and leave,” she tells them. The plan is for them to become brides of jihadis, but while the more boy-crazy Ameena, who travels with a pack of made-in-China artificial hymens, is quickly married off, Jamilla schemes to remain at the so-called orphanage run by Hejjiye. Both girls quickly get to know their new associates. “The careerists win everywhere, believe me!” exclaims Jamilla. “Hassan’s fanaticism was a career to him. Killing was his corporate job. Apocalypse was how he planned to corner the market.” By the way, this is Ameena’s husband she is talking about. And there is no cat.

Was this intense, enlightening novel really written not by a British Muslim girl but a male Indian novelist who lives in Denmark? It seems impossible. Required reading for anyone interested in trying to understand our mad, bloody world.

Pub Date: Jan. 17, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-56656-067-2

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Interlink

Review Posted Online: Sept. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2016

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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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