At first, Nissen’s narrator (Osprey Island, 2004, etc.) seems clever and voluble, so daring with her spanking-scene opener,...

OUR LADY OF THE PRAIRIE

Against the backdrop of the Bush-Kerry election, an Iowa Democrat has a midlife crisis that gives the tornadoes that rip through the state a run for their money.

The timing of Phillipa Maakestad’s decision to tell her husband about her passionate affair is unfortunate—the two theater professors are due to play parents of the bride at their daughter Ginny’s wedding to a wonderful Amish boy. The responsibility is torqued by the facts that his parents, who were close friends of Phillipa’s, were killed when an SUV hit their buggy and raising Ginny has been like a scene out of The Exorcist. Bulimic, addicted, promiscuous, filled with rage—Ginny has touched all the bases. After they get through the (literal) tornado that strikes the wedding, the Ginny problem is finally solved, though not for long. And by then, Phillipa herself has gone off the rails, living in a cheap motel, phoning in her classes, and freaking out about the election. If the author did not intend the Bush-era political ravings to be alienating, she overshot the mark. “Passing the monstrous W barn on 26, I wanted to drive up onto the grass, get out of my car, and hammer on the door, shouting ‘How do you live with yourselves? Why not put up an I’m a Greedy Bigot sign?'” Then, after a flash of self-awareness (I sound like Ginny! she thinks), she returns to form. “The miserable world into which I brought my own miserable child, now a miserable adult, fully aware and sickened to the marrow of her bones by the injustice of this godforsaken place, and as wholly incapable as her pathetic mother to do a goddamn thing about it. About anything. How does anyone with a conscience…do anything but cry, all day every day, navigating this godforsaken world.” This sort of thing, combined with random classist comments—on the baby of a woman she drives to the polls: “Travis: a name destined for the meth den”—seems designed to make the reader hate liberals. Throw in church-sign puns and musicals you can’t get out of your head and a whole mininovel about Nazis in France…whew.

At first, Nissen’s narrator (Osprey Island, 2004, etc.) seems clever and voluble, so daring with her spanking-scene opener, but eventually she wears a bit thin.

Pub Date: Jan. 23, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-328-66207-1

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Oct. 16, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2017

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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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

THE UNSEEN

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. 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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