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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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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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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