One of our best novelists (The Time of Our Singing, 2003, etc.) once again extends his unparalleled range.

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THE ECHO MAKER

The theme of cognitive disorder, variously explored in Powers’s forbiddingly brainy earlier fiction, is the central subject of his eerie, accomplished ninth novel.

An image of sand-hill cranes migrating from Nebraska’s Platte River sets the scene, where 20-something slaughterhouse-worker Mark Schluter crashes his truck in an adjacent field, sustaining severe bodily and neurological injuries. Repeating an all-too-familiar pattern, Mark’s older sister Karin leaves her job and life in Sioux City to be with him—stirring up memories of their shared childhood in thrall to a violent, alcoholic father and religious zealot mother. But Mark (whose inchoate, terrified viewpoint is rendered in a rich mélange of semi-coherent thoughts and visions) no longer knows Karin; he is, in fact, convinced she’s a stranger masquerading as his sister. Eventually, he’s diagnosed as suffering from “Capgras syndrome . . . one of a family of misidentification delusions.” But Mark’s symptoms elude the pattern familiar to Gerald Weber, a prominent New York cognitive neurologist and bestselling author, summoned by Karin’s importuning letter. Weber’s “tests” fail to relieve or explain Mark’s delusive paranoia, and Karin turns first to the siblings’ former childhood friend Daniel Riegel, long since estranged from Mark, now a deeply committed environmental activist; then to her former lover Robert Karsh, a manipulative charmer who has risen to local prominence as a successful developer. Contrasts thus established seem pat, but Powers explores the mystery surrounding Mark through suspenseful sequences involving his raucous drinking buddies (who may know more about his accident than they’re telling); compassionate caregiver Barbara Gillespie; and the unidentified observer who left a cryptic message about Mark’s ordeal at the patient’s hospital bedside. Issues of environmental stewardship and rapine, compulsions implicit in migratory patterns and Weber’s changing concept of the fluid, susceptible nature of the self are sharply dramatized in a fascinating dance of ideas.

One of our best novelists (The Time of Our Singing, 2003, etc.) once again extends his unparalleled range.

Pub Date: Oct. 3, 2006

ISBN: 0-374-14635-7

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2006

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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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