Somber, spare stories that let the reader crawl inside, searching for insight, only to be left greedily craving more.

SEVASTOPOL

Three snapshots of lives spent striving but ultimately falling short.

On the surface, these stories have little in common: Each is titled by a month—December, May, August; each takes place in Brazil—the first and last in São Paulo, the second in “the middle of nowhere.” In the first, Lena writes to the creator of a short film playing on a loop in an art gallery near her home. The piece seems to portray her life, but in ways that make her question her lived experience, especially her relationship with Gino, a photographer who accompanied her on a fateful ascent of Everest. In the second, Adán and his wife, Veronica, stop at a hotel that's defunct, but the owner, Nilo, lets them stay anyway. Veronica leaves after one week; Adán seems content on his own, then vanishes, leading Nilo to search for him. In the third, Nadia, a young writer, quits her job to work on a play with Klaus, a much older director who cruises for men to cast in his work. The lone reference to the book’s titular city comes in a gloss at the start of Nadia’s tale—“Sevastopol, a soulless port...a generic scene, the kind with no story to tell.” It is immaterial to what follows, almost an overt wink to the reader that there is no hidden message in this slim volume. Similar metatextual sentiments run throughout: “The stories ran in parallel, never meeting”; “People always tell the same stories, even when they try to tell new stories.” These are merely moments in time, lives lived and—with the possible exception of Nadia’s—lives mismanaged, leaving disappointment, regret, or, at minimum, probing introspection. With deft precision, Fraia bares his characters just enough to reveal only these stories—nothing is extraneous.

Somber, spare stories that let the reader crawl inside, searching for insight, only to be left greedily craving more.

Pub Date: June 1, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-8112-3091-9

Page Count: 128

Publisher: New Directions

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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Strong storytelling in service of a stinging moral message.

HORSE

A long-lost painting sets in motion a plot intertwining the odyssey of a famed 19th-century thoroughbred and his trainer with the 21st-century rediscovery of the horse’s portrait.

In 2019, Nigerian American Georgetown graduate student Theo plucks a dingy canvas from a neighbor’s trash and gets an assignment from Smithsonian magazine to write about it. That puts him in touch with Jess, the Smithsonian’s “expert in skulls and bones,” who happens to be examining the same horse's skeleton, which is in the museum's collection. (Theo and Jess first meet when she sees him unlocking an expensive bike identical to hers and implies he’s trying to steal it—before he points hers out further down the same rack.) The horse is Lexington, “the greatest racing stallion in American turf history,” nurtured and trained from birth by Jarret, an enslaved man who negotiates with this extraordinary horse the treacherous political and racial landscape of Kentucky before and during the Civil War. Brooks, a White writer, risks criticism for appropriation by telling portions of these alternating storylines from Jarret’s and Theo’s points of view in addition to those of Jess and several other White characters. She demonstrates imaginative empathy with both men and provides some sardonic correctives to White cluelessness, as when Theo takes Jess’ clumsy apology—“I was traumatized by my appalling behavior”—and thinks, “Typical….He’d been accused, yet she was traumatized.” Jarret is similarly but much more covertly irked by well-meaning White people patronizing him; Brooks skillfully uses their paired stories to demonstrate how the poison of racism lingers. Contemporary parallels are unmistakable when a Union officer angrily describes his Confederate prisoners as “lost to a narrative untethered to anything he recognized as true.…Their fabulous notions of what evils the Federal government intended for them should their cause fail…was ingrained so deep, beyond the reach of reasonable dialogue or evidence.” The 21st-century chapters’ shocking denouement drives home Brooks’ point that too much remains the same for Black people in America, a grim conclusion only slightly mitigated by a happier ending for Jarret.

Strong storytelling in service of a stinging moral message.

Pub Date: June 14, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-39-956296-9

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: March 16, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2022

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

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THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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