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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THE SECRET HISTORY

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 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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