Flawed or not, a terrific introduction to a world-class literary talent.

WAYS OF DYING

This first (1995) novel by the South African playwright and author of The Heart of Redness (above) creates a vivid, bustling image of contemporary Africa in transition from the unusual symbiotic relationship between a bereaved former prostitute and a stoical “professional mourner.”

In a time when government officials and revolutionary “liberators” alike are orchestrating wholesale slaughter of innocent villagers, middle-aged Toloki supports himself as an itinerant paid mourner who grieves publicly at strangers’ funerals. During one unusual Christmas Day burial service, he encounters Noria, once a notoriously wild young girl in their common home village, whose young son has been murdered. They form a strange, sexless union: a premise that, though it provides relatively little in the way of drama, initiates a rhythmic alternation of present-day experiences (rife with political violence and peril) with extended flashbacks to their (briefly) shared and (mostly) separate pasts. We learn a great deal about Toloki’s conflicted relationship with his harsh father Jwara (a blacksmith and would-be artisan) and the manner in which Toloki has sublimated his own artistic gifts, and also about Noria’s difficulties with her aloof majestic mother (“That Mountain Woman”) and the vagrant sexual life to which she was eventually driven. A communal voice (“we live our lives as one”) tells their stories, also layering in colorful related tales involving such striking characters as the wily pragmatic taxicab driver Shadrack, a vainglorious archbishop (whose “war” with the young Toloki is one of several such conflicts that echo the country’s larger one), Nefolovhowe the coffin-maker, and a compassionate “twilight mum” (Madimvhaza) who cares for abandoned children. Their several stories cohere to underscore the insight that has shaped Toloki’s life: “Death lives with us every day. Indeed our ways of dying are our ways of living.” The story falters in its final third, and it’s a mess structurally almost from start to finish. But that’s largely irrelevant, in a charming narrative that has the incremental repetitive quality of a folk ballad spun out through successive generations.

Flawed or not, a terrific introduction to a world-class literary talent.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2002

ISBN: 0-312-42091-9

Page Count: 216

Publisher: Picador

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2002

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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