A brutally atmospheric tale of the horrors of war.

Messineo follows The Fire by Night (2017), her first war story, with a tale of an American nurse battling PTSD.

Tuscany, 1945. Diana Bolsena, an American Red Cross nurse, has gone through hell struggling to save her patients when she’s left behind, penniless and starving, in a small town. Diana’s chance to escape comes when she hears of a child care job. Arriving at a villa seemingly untouched by the war, she’s engaged by Signora Bugari to care for a 9-year-old boy, her ward. All goes well until the house is turned upside down by the hiring of new staff members in preparation for the arrival of the palpably evil Herr Adler, who holds some mysterious power over Bugari. Bugari warns Diana against Adler, who’s ransacking the house looking for something, and they all live in fear until Adler is found drowned in the pool. When the local police ignore Diana’s report, she returns to the villa with DI Giacomo Travere, who says he just happens to be passing through the town. The personable English speaker, whom Diana finds attractive, seems less interested in solving the murder than in searching for something hidden in the villa. The discovery shows Travere is not who she thought, and a battle ensues between them over the nature of good and evil.

A brutally atmospheric tale of the horrors of war.

Pub Date: June 7, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-44830-867-5

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Severn House

Review Posted Online: March 29, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2022


The writing is inspired, the imaginative power near mystic, but some will wish for more plot.

This historical fever dream of a novel follows the flight of a servant girl through the Colonial American wilderness, red in tooth and claw.

As in her last novel, Matrix (2021), Groff’s imaginative journey into a distant time and place is powered by a thrumming engine of language and rhythm. “She had chosen to flee, and in so choosing, she had left behind her everything she had, her roof, her home, her country, her language, the only family she had ever known, the child Bess, who had been born into her care when she was herself a small child of four years or so, her innocence, her understanding of who she was, her dreams of who she might one day be if only she could survive this starving time." Those onrushing sentences will follow the girl, “sixteen or seventeen or perhaps eighteen years of age,” through the wilderness surrounding the desperate colony, driven by famine and plague into barbarism, through the territory of “the powhatan and pamunkey” to what she hopes will be “the settlements of frenchmen, canada,” a place she once saw pointed out on a map. The focus is on the terrors of survival, the exigencies of starvation, the challenges of locomotion, the miseries of a body wounded, infected, and pushed beyond its limit. What plot there is centers on learning the reason for her flight and how it will end, but the book must be read primarily for its sentences and the light it shines on the place of humans in the order of the world. Whether she is eating baby birds and stealing the fluff from the mother’s nest to line her boots, having a little tea party with her meager trove of possessions, temporarily living inside a tree trunk that comes with a pantry full of grubs (spiders prove less tasty), or finally coming to rest in a way neither she nor we can foresee, immersion in the girl’s experience provides a virtual vacation from civilization that readers may find deeply satisfying.

The writing is inspired, the imaginative power near mystic, but some will wish for more plot.

Pub Date: Sept. 12, 2023

ISBN: 9780593418390

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: June 8, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2023


Intelligent and thoughtful but not quite at this groundbreaking writer’s usual level of excellence.

An obscure English novelist and a missing-heir trial are the real historical springboards for Smith’s latest fiction.

Eliza Touchet is cousin and housekeeper to William Ainsworth, whose novel Jack Sheppard once outsold Oliver Twist but who, by 1868, has been far eclipsed by his erstwhile friend Dickens. Widower William is about to marry his maid Sarah Wells, who has borne him a child. Characteristically, he leaves the arrangements to Eliza, who manages everything about his life except the novels he keeps cranking out, which his shrewd cousin knows are dreadful. The new Mrs. Ainsworth is obsessed with the man claiming to be Sir Roger Tichborne, heir to a family fortune who was reported drowned in a shipwreck. The Claimant, as he is called, is likely a butcher from Wapping, but Sarah is one of many working-class Britons who passionately defend him as a man of the people being done wrong by the toffs. Eliza gets drawn into the trial by her fascination with Andrew Bogle, formerly enslaved by the Tichbornes in Jamaica, who recognizes the Claimant as Sir Roger. A Roman Catholic in Protestant Britain and William’s former lover who's been supplanted by a younger woman, Eliza feels a connection to Bogle as a fellow outsider. (Some pointed scenes, however, make it clear that this sense of kinship is one-sided and that well-intentioned Eliza can be as patronizing as any other white Briton.) Smith alternates the progress of the trial with Eliza’s memories of the past, which include tart assessments of William’s circle of literary pals, who eventually make clear their disdain for his work, and intriguing allusions to her affair with William’s first wife and to her S&M sex with William. (Eliza wielded the whips.) It’s skillfully done, but the minutely detailed trial scenes provide more information than most readers will want, and a lengthy middle section recounting Bogle’s African ancestry and enslaved life, though gripping, further blurs the narrative’s focus. Historical fiction doesn’t seem to bring out Smith’s strongest gifts; this rather pallid narrative lacks the zest of her previous novels’ depictions of contemporary life.

Intelligent and thoughtful but not quite at this groundbreaking writer’s usual level of excellence.

Pub Date: Sept. 5, 2023

ISBN: 9780525558965

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: June 8, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2023

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