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

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. 20, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019


The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992



A tour de force.

In 1974, a troubled Vietnam vet inherits a house from a fallen comrade and moves his family to Alaska.

After years as a prisoner of war, Ernt Allbright returned home to his wife, Cora, and daughter, Leni, a violent, difficult, restless man. The family moved so frequently that 13-year-old Leni went to five schools in four years. But when they move to Alaska, still very wild and sparsely populated, Ernt finds a landscape as raw as he is. As Leni soon realizes, “Everyone up here had two stories: the life before and the life now. If you wanted to pray to a weirdo god or live in a school bus or marry a goose, no one in Alaska was going to say crap to you.” There are many great things about this book—one of them is its constant stream of memorably formulated insights about Alaska. Another key example is delivered by Large Marge, a former prosecutor in Washington, D.C., who now runs the general store for the community of around 30 brave souls who live in Kaneq year-round. As she cautions the Allbrights, “Alaska herself can be Sleeping Beauty one minute and a bitch with a sawed-off shotgun the next. There’s a saying: Up here you can make one mistake. The second one will kill you.” Hannah’s (The Nightingale, 2015, etc.) follow-up to her series of blockbuster bestsellers will thrill her fans with its combination of Greek tragedy, Romeo and Juliet–like coming-of-age story, and domestic potboiler. She re-creates in magical detail the lives of Alaska's homesteaders in both of the state's seasons (they really only have two) and is just as specific and authentic in her depiction of the spiritual wounds of post-Vietnam America.

A tour de force.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-312-57723-0

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 30, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2017

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