Haunting prose. Unrelenting horror. An almost unreadable must-read.


Redemption is in short supply in these five stories by a Nigerian priest about children caught in the crossfire of various African countries’ upheavals.

The opener of this debut collection, “An Ex-mas Feast,” is one of the more upbeat entries—which isn’t saying much, since its eight-year-old narrator describes sniffing shoe glue to ward off hunger in a Nairobi shanty town while his 12-year-old sister proudly moves from street prostitution to a brothel. In “Fattening for Gabon,” a morbid variation on Hansel and Gretel, an uncle literally fattens up his nephew and niece to sell them into slavery. Although he genuinely loves them, his repentance comes too late and with not-unexpected tragic results. The least arresting story is the slight and familiar “What Language Is That?” Their families profess liberal, inclusive attitudes, but a Christian child and her Muslim best friend are prohibited from communicating when rioting breaks out in Addis Ababa, although the girls do find, perhaps briefly, “a new language.” That miniscule glimmer of hope for humanity disappears in “Luxurious Hearses,” an emotionally exhausting encapsulation of the devastation caused by religion. Baptized as an infant by his Catholic father, raised in a strict Muslim community by his mother, adolescent Jubril is targeted by extremists who happen to be his former playmates. Fleeing religious riots in northern Nigeria on a luxury bus full of Christians, he keeps his right wrist in his pocket; if they see that his hand has been amputated (for stealing, under Sharia law), they will know he is Muslim. Jubril comes close to finding acceptance among his fellow passengers, which only makes their ultimate violence against him that much more disturbing. The final story, “My Parents’ Bedroom,” goes beyond disturbing toward unbearable as the children of a Tutsi mother and Hutu father in Rwanda witness the unspeakable acts their decent parents are forced to commit.

Haunting prose. Unrelenting horror. An almost unreadable must-read.

Pub Date: June 9, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-316-11378-6

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2008

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It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.


One of America’s great novelists (Lost Memory of Skin, 2011, etc.) also writes excellent stories, as his sixth collection reminds readers.

Don’t expect atmospheric mood poems or avant-garde stylistic games in these dozen tales. Banks is a traditionalist, interested in narrative and character development; his simple, flexible prose doesn’t call attention to itself as it serves those aims. The intricate, not necessarily permanent bonds of family are a central concern. The bleak, stoic “Former Marine” depicts an aging father driven to extremes because he’s too proud to admit to his adult sons that he can no longer take care of himself. In the heartbreaking title story, the death of a beloved dog signals the final rupture in a family already rent by divorce. Fraught marriages in all their variety are unsparingly scrutinized in “Christmas Party,” Big Dog” and “The Outer Banks." But as the collection moves along, interactions with strangers begin to occupy center stage. The protagonist of “The Invisible Parrot” transcends the anxieties of his hard-pressed life through an impromptu act of generosity to a junkie. A man waiting in an airport bar is the uneasy recipient of confidences about “Searching for Veronica” from a woman whose truthfulness and motives he begins to suspect, until he flees since “the only safe response is to quarantine yourself.” Lurking menace that erupts into violence features in many Banks novels, and here, it provides jarring climaxes to two otherwise solid stories, “Blue” and “The Green Door.” Yet Banks quietly conveys compassion for even the darkest of his characters. Many of them (like their author) are older, at a point in life where options narrow and the future is uncomfortably close at hand—which is why widowed Isabel’s fearless shucking of her confining past is so exhilarating in “SnowBirds,” albeit counterbalanced by her friend Jane’s bleak acceptance of her own limited prospects.

Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-185765-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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