THE FACULTY OF USELESS KNOWLEDGE

An imposing fictional portrayal of the Stalinist terror, set in 1937 in the eastern Russian republic of Kazakhstan (on the Chinese border) and featuring themes and characters from Dombrovsky's earlier novel, The Keeper of Antiquities (1969). That phrase in fact identifies the central character here, Georgi Zybin, an archaeologist who has the bad luck to supervise an expedition during which an ancient gold diadem is unearthed and stolen by workmen employed on the dig. Zybin is accused of the theft, and also other crimes against the state, and is imprisoned and subjected to a long process of interrogation that widens to include his former lover Polina, his colleague Kornilov (who will betray him), and Father Andrey Kutorga, an exiled priest who is writing a history of the trial and crucifixion of Christ. This big book (first published in 1978) succeeds brilliantly on several levels: As a nail-biting anatomy of the repetitive rigor of the imprisonment and interrogation process; as a series of incisive character portraits, not just of the embittered and defiant Zybin and his fellow victims (several of whom tell their stories in excruciating detail), but also of the zealous Soviet functionaries whose determination to emulate the ``show trials'' of supposed traitors currently taking place in Moscow is shown to be rooted in their own servility and insecurity. And, in a stunning parallel narrative, the career of Christ's judge Pontius Pilate is implicitly compared—in a number of impassioned conversations between Kornilov and Father Andrei—to the banality of evil (to borrow Hannah Arendt's resonant phrase) exhibited by those cogs in the Soviet machinery, struggling to express the will of their Beloved Leader Josef Stalin (who makes several vivid cameo appearances). Thickly textured, eloquently argued, as informative as it is dramatic: a superb novel that brings to our attention an important near-contemporary (Dombrovsky died in 1978) whose books belong on the same shelf with those of Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn.

Pub Date: Oct. 28, 1996

ISBN: 1-86-046053-4

Page Count: 544

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1996

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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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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

THE RESCUE

High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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