Thubron isn’t subtle in his themes or structure, but he intrigues with his many resonances and takes the reader on a journey...

NIGHT OF FIRE

Flashbacks provide a glimpse of the lives of seven seemingly disconnected people who occupy an old British building in this engrossing novel by the celebrated travel writer.

Faulty wiring sparks a fire one night in the basement of the building, and as it moves from flat to flat, Thubron (To a Mountain in Tibet, 2011, etc.) visits each tenant in six long chapters, all bracketed by two short ones on the landlord. “Priest” features a cleric named Stephen as a photograph sends his memory back 50 years through a variety of religious experiences, from the seminary to the asceticism of a Mount Athos monastery and missionary work in Tanzania. Memory is both physical and personal in the “Neurosurgeon” section, which alternates between the doctor on a hike deciding whether to propose to his companion and contemplating operations where patients may lose more than excised tissue. In the “Naturalist” section, the title character is Stephanie, the frequent subject is butterflies—sometimes thought to be “spirits of the departed”—and the book’s high point of sensuality is her making love with a woman named Samantha. The “Photographer” is Steve, who tries to reach his dead mother through a séance. The “Schoolboy” lies to gain sympathy by saying his parents are dead. And then comes the “Traveller,” named Steven, who has been roaming for 50 years. He has recently had brain surgery. He visits a Tibetan monastery in Varanasi, where the dead are burned in public. The book by this point is bursting not just with variations of Stephen, but with nearby death, which all the building’s dwellers may be facing on the night of fire they unavoidably share, as the traveler unites them in mirroring many details of their stories—a pilgrim not unlike the author, who is 77 and can look back at 50 years of travel and fiction writing.

Thubron isn’t subtle in his themes or structure, but he intrigues with his many resonances and takes the reader on a journey through life’s essential questions.

Pub Date: Jan. 17, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-06249974-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Oct. 19, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2016

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Romance and melodrama mix uneasily with mass murder.

THE WINTER GUEST

An 18-year-old Polish girl falls in love, swoons over a first kiss, dreams of marriage—and, oh yes, we are in the middle of the Holocaust.

Jenoff (The Ambassador’s Daughter, 2013, etc.) weaves a tale of fevered teenage love in a time of horrors in the early 1940s, as the Nazis invade Poland and herd Jews into ghettos and concentration camps. A prologue set in 2013, narrated by a resident of the Westchester Senior Center, provides an intriguing setup. A woman and a policeman visit the resident and ask if she came from a small Polish village. Their purpose is unclear until they mention bones recently found there: “And we think you might know something about them.” The book proceeds in the third person, told from the points of view mostly of teenage Helena, who comes upon an injured young Jewish-American soldier, and sometimes of her twin, Ruth, who is not as adventurous as Helena but is very competitive with her. Their father is dead, their mother is dying in a hospital, and they are raising their three younger siblings amid danger and hardship. The romance between Helena and Sam, the soldier, is often conveyed in overheated language that doesn’t sit well with the era’s tragic events: “There had been an intensity to his embrace that said he was barely able to contain himself, that he also wanted more.” Jenoff, clearly on the side of tolerance, slips in a simplified historical framework for the uninformed. But she also feeds stereotypes, having Helena note that Sam has “a slight arch to his nose” and a dark complexion that “would make him suspect as a Jew immediately.” Clichés also pop up during the increasingly complex plot: “But even if they stood in place, the world around them would not.”

Romance and melodrama mix uneasily with mass murder.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-7783-1596-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Harlequin MIRA

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2014

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A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.

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MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION

A young New York woman figures there’s nothing wrong with existence that a fistful of prescriptions and months of napping wouldn’t fix.

Moshfegh’s prickly fourth book (Homesick for Another World, 2017, etc.) is narrated by an unnamed woman who’s decided to spend a year “hibernating.” She has a few conventional grief issues. (Her parents are both dead, and they’re much on her mind.) And if she’s not mentally ill, she’s certainly severely maladjusted socially. (She quits her job at an art gallery in obnoxious, scatological fashion.) But Moshfegh isn’t interested in grief or mental illness per se. Instead, she means to explore whether there are paths to living that don’t involve traditional (and wearying) habits of consumption, production, and relationships. To highlight that point, most of the people in the narrator's life are offbeat or provisional figures: Reva, her well-meaning but shallow former classmate; Trevor, a boyfriend who only pursues her when he’s on the rebound; and Dr. Tuttle, a wildly incompetent doctor who freely gives random pill samples and presses one drug, Infermiterol, that produces three-day blackouts. None of which is the stuff of comedy. But Moshfegh has a keen sense of everyday absurdities, a deadpan delivery, and such a well-honed sense of irony that the narrator’s predicament never feels tragic; this may be the finest existential novel not written by a French author. (Recovering from one blackout, the narrator thinks, “What had I done? Spent a spa day then gone out clubbing?...Had Reva convinced me to go ‘enjoy myself’ or something just as idiotic?”) Checking out of society the way the narrator does isn’t advisable, but there’s still a peculiar kind of uplift to the story in how it urges second-guessing the nature of our attachments while revealing how hard it is to break them.

A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.

Pub Date: July 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-52211-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2018

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