Provocative ideas straitjacketed in an overdetermined plot.

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THE HIGH MOUNTAINS OF PORTUGAL

Three grieving men’s odysseys fitfully interconnect in this latest meditation on loss, faith, and belonging from Martel (Beatrice and Virgil, 2010, etc.).

In December 1904, Tomás leaves Lisbon in a new car he hardly knows how to drive. Since the deaths a year ago of his servant lover, their young son, and his father, he has become obsessed with the 17th-century diary of a Portuguese priest stationed in Africa who wrote of making a special kind of crucifix that Tomás believes ended up in the high mountains of Portugal. After a long journey that makes vividly palpable the perils of early-20th-century motoring, he finds the crucifix, makes a dramatic pronouncement about it that reveals his personal fury at the god who robbed him of everyone he loved—and this first portion of the novel abruptly ends. Cut to New Year’s Eve 1938, as pathologist Eusebio Lozora, catching up on work at the hospital, receives an odd visit from his devoutly religious wife and an even odder one from a woman carrying a suitcase containing her dead husband’s body, on which she insists Eusebio immediately perform an autopsy. The autopsy’s outré results seem to have some link to the crucifix Tomás found, but rather than elucidating, Martel piles on more bizarre developments before once again chopping off his narrative with multiple dangling ends. Both of these sections are extremely readable, with strongly developed characters whose intriguing stories make it frustrating when they are truncated. This authorial strategy might be acceptable if the third section, set in 1981—which features human/animal interaction as provocative and moving as the one in Martel’s mega-selling Life of Pi (2001)—drew together these narrative strands in a way that made sense of the novel’s spiritual and artistic themes. Instead, we get by-the-numbers connections of incidents and family relations that obscure Martel’s much more interesting musings on how we deal with tragedy and find our true home.

Provocative ideas straitjacketed in an overdetermined plot.

Pub Date: Feb. 2, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9717-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: Nov. 17, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2015

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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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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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