An impressive if occasionally labored debut.

A PLAY FOR THE END OF THE WORLD

A play by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore serves as a source of hope for Jewish orphans in wartime Warsaw and, decades later, for Communist revolutionaries in the Indian state of West Bengal.

Jaryk Smith is just 9 in 1942 and living in the (real-life) Warsaw ghetto orphanage run by doctor and author Janusz Korczak when he plays the role of Amal—a sickly Indian child who dreams of worlds beyond his home—in the Tagore play Dak Ghar. Days later, the Nazis send all the area's Jews to the Treblinka death camp; Jaryk is the only one of Korczak's 200 charges to escape the gas chambers. In the displaced persons camp where he winds up after the war, he's reunited with Misha Waszynski, who had worked at the orphanage. Nearly three decades on, having immigrated to New York, Jaryk and Misha have become lifelong friends with a shared history. Despite being wracked by survivor’s guilt, Jaryk is beginning to explore a relationship with Lucy Gardner, a woman who works in the city’s employment agency. Their relationship is disrupted when Jaryk learns of Misha’s death thousands of miles away, in the Indian state of West Bengal, where he had traveled to help produce the very same Tagore play. Unsettled by his friend’s demise, Jaryk travels to India to retrieve Misha’s ashes and inadvertently gets embroiled in the Naxalite uprising, the Communist movement that sparked in 1970s India. Chakrabarti deftly explores the weight of history, a touching love story, and Jaryk’s heart-wrenching survivor’s guilt. Woven throughout is the play that teaches you not about life, but about dying. It prepared the orphans for the unimaginable, as Jaryk remembers. The narrative struggles under the weight of its responsibility to these compelling themes and shortchanges a few, such as the Communist uprising, while Jaryk’s internal struggles and love for Lucy stretch on for too long.

An impressive if occasionally labored debut.

Pub Date: Sept. 7, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-525-65892-4

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2021

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Unanswerable questions wrapped inside a thought-provoking yarn.

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THE STRANGER IN THE LIFEBOAT

An inspirational novel about a disaster and an answered prayer by the author of The Five People You Meet in Heaven (2003).

What if you call out for the Lord and he actually appears before you? Days after billionaire Jason Lambert’s luxury yacht Galaxy suddenly sinks in the North Atlantic with many illustrious passengers aboard, a few survivors float in a life raft. Among them is Benji, a deckhand who narrates the ordeal in a notebook while they desperately hope for rescue. Lambert is a caricature of a greedy capitalist pig who thinks only of himself and his lost ship and mocks Benji as “scribble boy,” but the main character is a young stranger pulled out of the water. “Well, thank the Lord we found you,” a woman tells him. “I am the Lord,” he whispers in reply. Imagine the others’ skepticism: If you’re not lying, then why won’t you save us? Why don’t you answer our prayers? I always answer people’s prayers, he replies, “but sometimes the answer is no.” Meanwhile, the ship’s disappearance is big news as searchers scour the vast ocean in vain. The lost survivors are surrounded by water and dying of thirst, “a grim reminder of how little the natural world cares for our plans.” Out of desperation, one person succumbs to temptation and drinks ocean water—always a bad mistake. Another becomes shark food. The Lord says that for him to help, everyone must accept him first, and Lambert, for one, is having none of it. The storyline and characters aren’t deep, but they’re still entertaining. A disaffected crew member might or might not have sunk the ship with limpet mines. And whether the raft’s occupants survive seems beside the point—does a higher power exist that may pluck believers like Benji safely from the sea? Or is faith a sucker’s bet? Lord knows.

Unanswerable questions wrapped inside a thought-provoking yarn.

Pub Date: Nov. 2, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-06-288834-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2021

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As the pieces of this magical literary puzzle snap together, a flicker of hope is sparked for our benighted world.

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CLOUD CUCKOO LAND

An ancient Greek manuscript connects humanity's past, present, and future.

Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you” wrote Antonius Diogenes at the end of the first century C.E.—and millennia later, Pulitzer Prize winner Doerr is his fitting heir. Around Diogenes' manuscript, "Cloud Cuckoo Land"—the author did exist, but the text is invented—Doerr builds a community of readers and nature lovers that transcends the boundaries of time and space. The protagonist of the original story is Aethon, a shepherd whose dream of escaping to a paradise in the sky leads to a wild series of adventures in the bodies of beast, fish, and fowl. Aethon's story is first found by Anna in 15th-century Constantinople; though a failure as an apprentice seamstress, she's learned ancient Greek from an elderly scholar. Omeir, a country boy of the same period, is rejected by the world for his cleft lip—but forms the deepest of connections with his beautiful oxen, Moonlight and Tree. In the 1950s, Zeno Ninis, a troubled ex–GI in Lakeport, Idaho, finds peace in working on a translation of Diogenes' recently recovered manuscript. In 2020, 86-year-old Zeno helps a group of youngsters put the story on as a play at the Lakeport Public Library—unaware that an eco-terrorist is planting a bomb in the building during dress rehearsal. (This happens in the first pages of the book and continues ticking away throughout.) On a spaceship called the Argos bound for Beta Oph2 in Mission Year 65, a teenage girl named Konstance is sequestered in a sealed room with a computer named Sybil. How could she possibly encounter Zeno's translation? This is just one of the many narrative miracles worked by the author as he brings a first-century story to its conclusion in 2146.

As the pieces of this magical literary puzzle snap together, a flicker of hope is sparked for our benighted world.

Pub Date: Sept. 28, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-982168-43-8

Page Count: 656

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: June 29, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2021

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