A grainy montage of suffering and survival, by turns morbid and mordant.

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CRIES IN THE DRIZZLE

Now in English translation, the 1991 novel by bestselling Chinese author Yu Hua (To Live, 2003).

Yu’s first full-length work—actually, a serpentine, episodic collection of anecdotes forming a kind of Maoist-era kinderscenen—details the boyhood of Sun Guanglin and his encounters with some dreadfully unfortunate (or just plain dreadful) people in two Chinese rural villages—the discordantly Midwestern-sounding “Southgate” and “Littlemarsh.” Guanglin’s father, Kwangtsai, beats him, tries unsuccessfully to capitalize on youngest son Guangming’s death by drowning and molests both women in elder son Guangping’s life. Kwangtsai cavorts with the nymphomaniac widow next door, giving her his wife’s household goods, then starves his own father and ultimately drinks himself to death. Guanglin’s Littlemarsh adoptive parents, to whom he’s farmed out at age six, turn him into a household servant and entrust his education to sadistic teachers. The foster father dies spectacularly (suicide by grenade) after blowing up the apartment of the woman who exposed his extra-marital affair. Alone once more, Guanglin, now 12, borrows the fare from another unwanted child, his friend Guoqing, and returns home to where the story began: Kwangtsai’s cottage is engulfed in flames. Flashbacks reveal that Guanglin’s grandfather, Sun Youyuan, fled the Japanese invasion and rescued a former aristocrat and fellow refugee, Guanglin’s grandmother, who was turned out of her mandarin home because she happened to glimpse two sparrows mating. Youyuan saves the rice harvest by urging Southgate residents to toss out their Buddha figurines, but then dies, convinced his soul has already departed. Guanglin’s friends are equally doomed: Schoolmate Su Yu, after doing time in reform school for embracing a girl, dies of a brain hemorrhage while his family follow their morning routine, assuming Yu is sleeping late. Guoqing, whose father abruptly remarried, leaving the nine-year-old with a spooky old lady, prospers from subsidies from other relatives but at 13 is arrested for attacking a family who won’t let him court their daughter.

A grainy montage of suffering and survival, by turns morbid and mordant.

Pub Date: Oct. 9, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-307-27999-6

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Anchor

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 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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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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