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

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 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2002

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The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and cinema-derived rhetoric up the ante continuously, and stunningly.  One of the most impressive excursions into the supernatural in many a year.

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000

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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

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