Hermetic, self-absorbed, and not at all above peevishness—and consistently fascinating by virtue of its potent rhetorical...


Naipaul’s first novel in six years is another installment in the extended fictional autobiography begun with The Enigma of Arrival (1993) and A Way in the World (1994).

Its protagonist is Willie Chandran, only son of an Indian Hindu family, who escapes from the stultifying barrenness of his passive father’s reduced intellectual and emotional circumstances for college and modest literary success in London, then a gradually unraveling affair with an admiring reader who takes him to her family’s estate in West Africa. The novel records a progress toward professional and sexual maturity that’s simultaneously a rueful realization that Willie is “living” other people’s lives rather than emerging fully into his own—and one suspects that further sequels are forthcoming. Half a Life is discursive and occasionally static, replete with exhaustive exposition and summary in place of specificity and drama—and ought, therefore, to be an irredeemably dull book. It isn’t, though, because the author projects with remarkable subtlety and plangency the experiences of failing to realize one’s promise (especially in a marvelous opening story told by Willie’s father, about his own cautious vacillations between spirituality and career-building) and being forever a fish out of water, in other countries, among intimate acquaintances who’ll never be more than strangers. Willie’s timid entry into London intellectual life and journalistic labors, terrified ascension to authorship (of a book of stories that sounds very like Naipaul’s own debut, Miguel Street), and conflicted assimilation into the privileged world of Portuguese colonials who luxuriate in “comfort . . . squeezed from the hard land, like blood out of stone” are brilliantly described as risky balancing acts accomplished within a context of uncertainty created by the pressures of an insidious caste system Willie cannot shake off, however far he travels from his inhibiting origins. This intensely claustrophobic fiction may, therefore, tell us more about the essential Naipaul than he has ever heretofore revealed.

Hermetic, self-absorbed, and not at all above peevishness—and consistently fascinating by virtue of its potent rhetorical and logical starkness. The work of a master who has rarely, if ever, written better.

Pub Date: Oct. 24, 2001

ISBN: 037570728X

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2001

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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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