A caustic portrait of the blank generation facing middle age.

VERNON SUBUTEX 1

French punk rockers get old.

There’s a lot of Gen X history here, some aging French pop culture, and a general feeling of hysteria at living in a dystopian time. Let’s start from the top. Despentes (Pretty Things, 2018, etc.) is a French writer, filmmaker, etc. who is most famous for her debut novel, Baise-Moi (1992), which she adapted and directed into the controversial cult film. Like her characters, the author seems to have aged but not grown, which isn’t all that troublesome at a time when Danny Boyle has fashioned Irvine Welsh’s profane swindlers from Trainspotting (1993) into a sequel. This is literally a portrait gallery of French punk rockers passing middle age, most of them badly. The central figure is the titular 50-ish Vernon Subutex, who can pretty much be summed up by “used to own a record store.” (Thanks, High Fidelity.) Much like a TV series (Surprise! There's already a French series based on this book), this is a soap-operatic portrait of a variety of burnouts rather than an actual narrative. With Vernon as the central figure and the death of famous rock star Alex Bleach as the semi-uniting event, Despentes drops in on the lives of a dozen or so desperate people who don’t know how to fill the holes in their own lives. Vernon is simple: He's broke and couch-hopping at the best of times. Most notable is Xavier Fardin, nominally a screenwriter but mostly a psycho who makes Welsh’s Begbie look like a lapdog by comparison. We also visit Vernon’s weird ex, Sylvie; Laurent, a successful but obsessive filmmaker; ex-porn star Pamela, who is still competing with her dead rival; and Lydia Bazooka, a journalist who doesn’t know it’s too soon to start a biography of Alex. The writing here is evocative of any number of transgressive writers, including Welsh and Kathy Acker, but while the characters are tangible, the lack of a narrative keeps the book from feeling satisfying.

A caustic portrait of the blank generation facing middle age.

Pub Date: Nov. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-374-28324-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Aug. 19, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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