Lush with tropical heat and heated emotions, this is no easy read but impossible to put down.

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MUSIC OF THE GHOSTS

Ratner (In the Shadow of the Banyon, 2012), a survivor of the Khmer Rouge years in Cambodia, has written a novel-length smot, a form of "poetry sung in honor of loved ones, living or dead."

As in two other recent novels concerning life under communist regimes—Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land, about Bulgaria, and Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, about China—music is central to this tale. In 1979, 13-year-old Suteera and her aunt Amara escaped Cambodia, the only members of their family to survive. Despite the comfortable lives they achieve in America, Suteera, now called Teera, remains haunted by the mystery surrounding her father’s early disappearance. After Amara’s death in 2003, 37-year-old Teera flies to Cambodia to visit Wat Nagara, a Buddhist temple where her aunt bequeathed a memorial to all who perished during the Khmer Rouge years. Coincidentally, Teera has recently received a letter from a stranger offering her musical instruments he claims her father gave him while they were imprisoned together. The stranger is Tun, a former musician weighed down by enormous guilt over choices he made during the war years and deep grief over the daughter he lost. Now poor and disabled, he lives at Wat Nagara, where he heard about Teera from the abbot. Teera and Tun’s awkward first meeting stirs up memories for each. Meanwhile Teera begins a love affair with Tun’s friend Dr. Narunn, a former novice monk who runs a medical clinic. Also orphaned during the war years, Narunn chooses to embrace life despite his difficult past. The novel is organized in three movements: the first is a careful exposition of grief and unresolved remorse as themes; the fast-tempoed second covers a period of months as the characters interact with each other while remembering individual pasts of “so much cruelty, so much generosity”; the third resolves the initial themes while attaching hope—for the human characters and possibly Cambodia, Ratner’s true central character.

Lush with tropical heat and heated emotions, this is no easy read but impossible to put down.

Pub Date: April 11, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-4767-9578-2

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2017

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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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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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