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

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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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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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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