One of Némirovsky’s lesser works. All Our Worldly Goods (2011) covers the same period more successfully.

THE FIRES OF AUTUMN

Another in a string of reissues of the work of the French novelist who died in Auschwitz in 1942, prompted by the discovery of her incomplete but widely acclaimed Suite Francaise; written during the same period just before her death, this multigenerational novel spans war and peace.

It’s a tight fit. The short novel covers the period 1912-1941; Némirovsky always has one eye on the clock. She focuses on a small circle of bourgeois Parisians. Old timers and youngsters alike are fervent patriots. When war breaks out, one of them, Martial Brun, mans a first-aid post at the front; his early death is a shock, especially for his cousin and new bride, Thérèse. Their friend Bernard, dreaming of Napoleonic glory, volunteers at 18. Four years of war turn the twice-wounded Bernard bitter and cynical. Another friend, Raymond Détang, has become a war profiteer, one with a patriotic veneer. In the interwar period, the heart of the novel, Détang and his wife, Renée, become a formidable couple: He’s the consummate wheeler-dealer, and she’s the blithely adulterous society hostess. “They democratised vice and standardised corruption.” It’s disappointing that Némirovsky, with her impressively sharp eye and tart indictments, relegates them to the background. In the foreground are Bernard and the virtuous Thérèse. Bernard becomes Renée’s lover; when she discards him, he marries Thérèse. He’s also been involved in Détang’s shady armaments deals; for this he will receive savage authorial punishment. By now it’s 1939 (the clock is ticking), and Bernard’s boy, Yves, is old enough for the new war. The son, fiercely critical of his father and his money-grubbing cronies, will become a pilot and, if necessary, a sacrificial victim, while Bernard joins the ground war. The ending is rushed and tumultuous.

One of Némirovsky’s lesser works. All Our Worldly Goods (2011) covers the same period more successfully.

Pub Date: March 17, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-101-87227-7

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Vintage

Review Posted Online: Dec. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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A deeply satisfying novel, both sensuously vivid and remarkably poignant.

THE UNSEEN

Norwegian novelist Jacobsen folds a quietly powerful coming-of-age story into a rendition of daily life on one of Norway’s rural islands a hundred years ago in a novel that was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

Ingrid Barrøy, her father, Hans, mother, Maria, grandfather Martin, and slightly addled aunt Barbro are the owners and sole inhabitants of Barrøy Island, one of numerous small family-owned islands in an area of Norway barely touched by the outside world. The novel follows Ingrid from age 3 through a carefree early childhood of endless small chores, simple pleasures, and unquestioned familial love into her more ambivalent adolescence attending school off the island and becoming aware of the outside world, then finally into young womanhood when she must make difficult choices. Readers will share Ingrid’s adoration of her father, whose sense of responsibility conflicts with his romantic nature. He adores Maria, despite what he calls her “la-di-da” ways, and is devoted to Ingrid. Twice he finds work on the mainland for his sister, Barbro, but, afraid she’ll be unhappy, he brings her home both times. Rooted to the land where he farms and tied to the sea where he fishes, Hans struggles to maintain his family’s hardscrabble existence on an island where every repair is a struggle against the elements. But his efforts are Sisyphean. Life as a Barrøy on Barrøy remains precarious. Changes do occur in men’s and women’s roles, reflected in part by who gets a literal chair to sit on at meals, while world crises—a war, Sweden’s financial troubles—have unexpected impact. Yet the drama here occurs in small increments, season by season, following nature’s rhythm through deaths and births, moments of joy and deep sorrow. The translator’s decision to use roughly translated phrases in conversation—i.e., “Tha’s goen’ nohvar” for "You’re going nowhere")—slows the reading down at first but ends up drawing readers more deeply into the world of Barrøy and its prickly, intensely alive inhabitants.

A deeply satisfying novel, both sensuously vivid and remarkably poignant.

Pub Date: April 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-77196-319-0

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Biblioasis

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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