AUSTERLITZ

Superbly translated, hypnotically written, a volume that requires and rewards slow, careful reading.

Another haunting mixture of history, memoir, and photo album from the author of The Rings of Saturn (1998) and Vertigo (2000).

Sebald’s fourth novel, like its predecessors, is a melancholy meditation on the dark side of human history. The unnamed narrator recounts the life story of Jacques Austerlitz, a polymath whose erudition, like the author’s, runs the gamut from his chosen field of architectural history to his avocation of zoology. Meeting by chance in the Antwerp railroad station, Austerlitz and the narrator fall easily into a learned conversation about the building itself that gradually leads to a discussion of the history and mysteries of Europe’s fortified cities. A friendship of sorts develops and the two meet from time to time, at first apparently without planning, to continue their chat as if no time had elapsed in between. Gradually, Austerlitz begins to reveal his personal history. In 1939, at the age of five, he was adopted and raised by an austere Welsh cleric and his equally forbidding wife. He knows nothing of his past until he is encouraged to explore history by an inspirational teacher. Eventually, Austerlitz discovers that he is a child of a Jewish couple who vanished in the Holocaust after sending him to England to escape—no surprise to those who are familiar with Sebald’s earlier work. Austerlitz recounts his story in a low-key, slow-moving, but utterly engrossing prose style, with almost no paragraph or chapter breaks, interrupted only by a series of eerie photographs of landscapes, architectural features, and hazily glimpsed faces. The tale is cunningly constructed around internal echoes, phrases repeated many pages apart, whose larger significance can be grasped only on repetition, and a complex, multilayered set of thematic correspondences that cannot be unraveled on a single reading.

Superbly translated, hypnotically written, a volume that requires and rewards slow, careful reading.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-375-50483-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2001

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THE NIGHTINGALE

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 19, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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CIRCE

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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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. 22, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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