Johnston may be the best of all the 21st century’s neo-Victorian novelists, and this riveting three-decker is not to be...

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THE CUSTODIAN OF PARADISE

One of contemporary fiction’s most memorable characters dominates this hefty companion volume to the prizewinning Canadian author’s 1999 masterpiece The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.

That novel told the Dickensian story of Newfoundlander (and historical character) Joseph Smallwood’s circuitous ascent to the positions of provincial prime minister and father of its act of union (or “confederation”) with Canada in 1949. Here, Smallwood figures only peripherally in an exhaustive dramatization of the afflicted, stoical and intrepid emotional life of the woman who was his childhood friend and enemy, soul mate and scourge and—oddly—his de facto muse. Sheilagh Fielding (known to all by only her surname)—crippled daughter of an embittered physician, abandoned by her mother when she was six, a prodigy of “mockery” whose sharp tongue found expression in caustic newspaper commentary on all things provincial and conventional—was the engine that drove Colony’s irresistible plot; the harpy to whom “Joey” Smallwood was, without realizing it, forever trying to prove himself. Her story begins here with Fielding’s retreat, during the waning days of WWII, to the uninhabited island of Loreburn, off Newfoundland’s western coast, and life alone in a restored house (whose provenance is a story in itself), where she relives her past, perusing a trunkful of letters, diaries and (acerbic and hilarious) newspaper columns. Juggling his materials expertly, Johnston constructs an absorbing patchwork narrative, which artfully reveals Sheilagh’s lonely girlhood, the scandal and pregnancy that send her to New York City and force her to surrender to the wishes of her remarried mother, then her unhappy return to Newfoundland, and further solitude, estrangement and bereavement. And on Loreburn, less removed from the present than she believes, Fielding is forced into a confrontation with the ghosts of her past that even this consummate pessimist could not have foreseen.

Johnston may be the best of all the 21st century’s neo-Victorian novelists, and this riveting three-decker is not to be missed.

Pub Date: April 1, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-393-06491-9

Page Count: 528

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2007

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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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