Another tale of community and transition from a writer to watch.

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REQUIEM BY FIRE

The author returns to Cataloochee (2007).

In his debut, Caldwell traced the history of a homesteading community in the Appalachians from the 1830s to the 1930s, when the U.S. government bought—or, depending on how you look at it, seized—this land to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Now, Caldwell picks up his tale more or less where he left off, following the disparate paths of residents who leave, those who stay and the newcomers drawn by the park. Oliver Babcock Jr., the dandyish lawyer who emerged as an unlikely hero in the first novel, returns on behalf of the Parks Commission, trying to convince people who have grown to trust him to sell their property. Similarly, Cataloochee native Jim Hawkins attempts to ease his one-time neighbors into a new life of federal restrictions as the park’s warden. Then there’s Silas Wright, a farmer who stubbornly decides to neither sell out nor leave. There’s drama here—from domestic strife in the Hawkins household to arson—but this story is not quite as compelling as Cataloochee, and Caldwell occasionally succumbs to some of the temptations he avoided in his first outing. There are, for example, several speeches, monologues that strain the reader’s credulity and exude a rather clunky sentimentality. Southerners, dirt farmers, individuals who favor mules to motorcars: Characters such as these have been so thoroughly romanticized and caricatured that it’s almost impossible to render them as real people, and doing just that was one of Caldwell’s greatest achievements in Cataloochee. That novel was also graced by a sort of organic wholeness that was a perfect match for its subject, and Caldwell does not accomplish that again. Nevertheless, to say that this novel is not quite as good as its predecessor is hardly an insult.

Another tale of community and transition from a writer to watch.

Pub Date: March 2, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6344-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Jan. 24, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2010

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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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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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