A gorgeous novel of Africa's entanglement with the wider world.

THE DRAGONFLY SEA

A magisterial novel about life amid East Africa's tumultuous cultural and political ferment in the shadow of the American war on terror.

Owuor (Dust, 2014) returns with a sweeping story of lives that intersect on Pate, an island off the coast of Kenya. The island is a palimpsest, a place where people come to forget or rewrite their life stories, and Owuor introduces us to a vivid set of characters who all want to begin their lives again in the island's embrace. We first meet Munira, the daughter of a wealthy business family that tries to marry her off to "an austere scholar" after she becomes pregnant with an unknown man's child. The incident proves ignominious for her family, and soon Munira is left alone on Pate with her irrepressible daughter, Ayaana. The duo lives a quiet life until the sudden arrival of Muhidin, an avowed infidel who long ago abandoned Pate for the life of a sailor. "Between religion and my black skin there shall be a sky's distance until the day I hear the Call to Atonement," he promised upon leaving the island. In his old age, though, he begins to fixate on his home: "Pate," he ruminates. "A phantom-calling invocation. Memories crawled over Muhidin like arachnids sneaking out of forgotten crypts." He soon finds himself bound up in Munira’s and Ayaana's lives, as the daughter sees in him the father she never knew, and Muhidin feels himself drawn into a paternal bond with her. Meanwhile, the island is beset by American troops—whom the locals refer to derisively as "the Terrorized"—who hope to combat terrorism by cultivating the islanders' hearts and minds. In the midst of the conflict, another stranger arrives: Ziriyab, a migrant fleeing military retribution after his brother participates in the bombing of a foreign navy ship. His appearance forever alters Munira, Ayaana, and Muhidin's motley family. For all the emphasis on contemporary geopolitics, however, Owuor has ultimately written a novel that is about everything the war on terror cannot register: the vastness, complexity, and richness of East Africa's cultural world. She represents it as a stunning mélange of Islamic and African cultural traditions that are woven together via the motif of the sea. Pate becomes the epicenter of an ethos and a people who move freely, sailing without regard for cultural and national borders. The novel features an enormous cast of vividly drawn characters, from Chinese businessmen to Wahhabi Islamic fundamentalists. Its heart, however, is the quartet of characters who motivate the novel's primary narrative. Rendered in language that is heart-rendingly lyrical (even if it does border on purple at times), Munira, Ayaana, Muhidin, and Ziriyab are unforgettable figures. Owuor's language is so lush, and her vision so vibrant, that by the time Ayaana emulates Muhidin and embarks upon her own sea journey, it doesn't much matter; the reader is likely sunken down into the pleasure of Owuor's sentences. To do so feels like sinking down into the intricacy of East Africa.

A gorgeous novel of Africa's entanglement with the wider world.

Pub Date: March 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-451-49405-4

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

A wild child’s isolated, dirt-poor upbringing in a Southern coastal wilderness fails to shield her from heartbreak or an accusation of murder.

“The Marsh Girl,” “swamp trash”—Catherine “Kya” Clark is a figure of mystery and prejudice in the remote North Carolina coastal community of Barkley Cove in the 1950s and '60s. Abandoned by a mother no longer able to endure her drunken husband’s beatings and then by her four siblings, Kya grows up in the careless, sometimes-savage company of her father, who eventually disappears, too. Alone, virtually or actually, from age 6, Kya learns both to be self-sufficient and to find solace and company in her fertile natural surroundings. Owens (Secrets of the Savanna, 2006, etc.), the accomplished co-author of several nonfiction books on wildlife, is at her best reflecting Kya’s fascination with the birds, insects, dappled light, and shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s collections of shells and feathers, her communion with the gulls, her exploration of the wetlands are evoked in lyrical phrasing which only occasionally tips into excess. But as the child turns teenager and is befriended by local boy Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, the novel settles into a less magical, more predictable pattern. Interspersed with Kya’s coming-of-age is the 1969 murder investigation arising from the discovery of a man’s body in the marsh. The victim is Chase Andrews, “star quarterback and town hot shot,” who was once Kya’s lover. In the eyes of a pair of semicomic local police officers, Kya will eventually become the chief suspect and must stand trial. By now the novel’s weaknesses have become apparent: the monochromatic characterization (good boy Tate, bad boy Chase) and implausibilities (Kya evolves into a polymath—a published writer, artist, and poet), yet the closing twist is perhaps its most memorable oddity.

Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1909-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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The rare immigrant chronicle that is as long on hope as it is on heartbreak.

INFINITE COUNTRY

A 15-year-old girl in Colombia, doing time in a remote detention center, orchestrates a jail break and tries to get home.

"People say drugs and alcohol are the greatest and most persuasive narcotics—the elements most likely to ruin a life. They're wrong. It's love." As the U.S. recovers from the repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, from the misery of separations on the border, from both the idea and the reality of a wall around the United States, Engel's vital story of a divided Colombian family is a book we need to read. Weaving Andean myth and natural symbolism into her narrative—condors signify mating for life, jaguars revenge; the embattled Colombians are "a singed species of birds without feathers who can still fly"; children born in one country and raised in another are "repotted flowers, creatures forced to live in the wrong habitat"—she follows Talia, the youngest child, on a complex journey. Having committed a violent crime not long before she was scheduled to leave her father in Bogotá to join her mother and siblings in New Jersey, she winds up in a horrible Catholic juvie from which she must escape in order to make her plane. Hence the book's wonderful first sentence: "It was her idea to tie up the nun." Talia's cross-country journey is interwoven with the story of her parents' early romance, their migration to the United States, her father's deportation, her grandmother's death, the struggle to reunite. In the latter third of the book, surprising narrative shifts are made to include the voices of Talia's siblings, raised in the U.S. This provides interesting new perspectives, but it is a little awkward to break the fourth wall so late in the book. Attention, TV and movie people: This story is made for the screen.

The rare immigrant chronicle that is as long on hope as it is on heartbreak.

Pub Date: today

ISBN: 978-1-982159-46-7

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Avid Reader Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2021

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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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