For those who can swallow the premise, the rest goes down more easily.

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THE HEADMASTER RITUAL

Though the sinister dynamics of boarding school have long proven fertile ground for fiction, the political premise of this debut strains credulity.

It’s a shame that the setup requires such a suspension of disbelief, for the first novel by journalist/critic Antrim otherwise shows considerable promise. As the headmaster of Britton, the most prestigious prep school in the country, Edward Wolfe has left a tenured position at Harvard under shadowy circumstances that some said were political, some said were sexual and could well have been both. A 1960s SDS-er and a sympathizer (or more) with the violent tactics of the Weather Underground, Wolfe now finds himself at odds with his estranged wife, a former hippie who has returned to her family industry that works in league with the Defense Department. The headmaster wears Mao jackets on campus and makes no secret of his allegiance toward the nuclear-armed North Korea. If the reader can accept the possibility that a vigilant board would allow such a headmaster (who is also in charge of fundraising) to keep this job, the rest gets better. The novel mainly focuses on the parallel stories of two characters: the headmaster’s son, James, a sensitive soul who has been shattered by the breakup of his parents’ marriage and who receives more than his share of hazing, and a new history teacher, Dyer Martin, with no prior experience, plainly there to do the headmaster’s increasingly nefarious bidding. With the headmaster using the children of the ruling class in his attempts to bring the war home, he involves Martin and a select group of students (including James) in a mock UN prep-school forum where Britton represents (you’ll never guess) North Korea. The novel proceeds to a climax in which real-world terrorism intrudes on the students’ hypothetical diplomacy, with the headmaster suspected of even greater villainy than previously known. Various romantic intrigues and unlikely allegiances, in a school were everybody wants something from somebody else, help sustain the narrative momentum.

For those who can swallow the premise, the rest goes down more easily.

Pub Date: July 9, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-618-75682-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 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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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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