ADA, OR ARDOR

A FAMILY CHRONICLE

Probably few people would question that Nabokov is the greatest living writer and he reached his apogee with Pale Fire and Lolita. This new novel, his first in ten years, intended to deal with the problem of time which has always been a paramount concern and preceded by much intimidating advance commentary, is pure Nabokov. All his readers will recognize the particular specifics of his apparatus. That is if they get past the opening chapters with their impedimenta which Nabokov himself recognizes ("The modest narrator has to remind the rereader of all this"). Rereading entails not only impenetrable sentences but also the entangling introduction of characters: two sisters Aqua and Marina (a portmanteau name) who marry two cousins of the same name, namely Walter D. Veen with alternate appellations (Demian or Dementius or Demon). Their progeny, that is Marina's, will be the central characters of the book: Van Veen who is presumably Aqua's child (Aqua dies with the delusion-allusion that he is not hers as indeed he isn't) and Marina's two legitimate little girls, Ada (Ardor if pronounced in Russian) and Lucette. This takes place in the kingdom of Terra (America) and more specifically on the family estate, Ardis, where the "romantic siblings" Van and Ada enjoy each other immoderately as youngsters. A little later they will be joined by the lewd Lucette, a paranymph, but in spite of endless tumbling together, it will be Ada that Van loves all of his 97 years and to whom he comes back again and again and finally permanently. To return to the theory of time with which the book essentially deals (however rakish, or raffish, the fictional substructure) Nabokov discusses it at length (and finally in a closing essay) via Veen who makes it his lifework (along with dreams and dementia): time as memory and memory in the making, time as perception, time as a "continuous becoming" and a threatening disintegration into "everlasting nonlastingness" or oblivion, time and space, space and time with the defeating recognition that "I am because I die." But as Ada says, "We can know the time, we can know a time. We can never know Time." . . . And to return to the above mentioned apparatus: it's all there—the wordmanship and the polylingual punning (Aujourd'hui— heute-toity); the entomological and botanical addenda (maidenhair and butterflies); and the particular pleasures of little girls although, as in Lolita, the erotica is a dalliance of the intellect rather than the flesh. But as compared to the earlier books, there is little passion or compassion: some of it is dazzling, much of it is enervating. And as for that general reader, Caveat caviar.

Pub Date: May 5, 1969

ISBN: 0679725229

Page Count: 626

Publisher: McGraw-Hill

Review Posted Online: Oct. 1, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1969

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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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