A sharp debut by a writer with wit and confidence.

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MY MONTICELLO

Stories centered on racism and Virginia, anchored by a dystopian tale set in Thomas Jefferson’s home.

The title novella that closes Johnson’s debut book is stellar and could easily stand on its own. Plainly inspired by the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Johnson imagines a near future in which an “unraveling” has forced some of the town’s brown and Black residents to find safety on Jefferson’s homestead. The narrator, a University of Virginia student named Da’Naisha, is a descendant of Jefferson and Sally Hemings and used to have an internship on the Monticello grounds. She’s well aware of the irony of taking cover on a former plantation, but she has more pressing issues: She’s pregnant, uncertain of the father, and her grandmother is suffering from asthma but lacks medicine. In depicting Da'Naisha's attempts to organize her fellow refugees to fend off an impending attack from marauding racists, Johnson crafts a fine-grained character study that also harrowingly reveals how racist violence repeats. Not all of the remaining stories have the same force, but Johnson has a knack for irony and inventive conceits. “Buying a House Ahead of the Apocalypse” is a story in the form of a checklist, suggesting all the ways that pursuing a sense of security can be products of self-delusion (“Never mind the dark-skinned guard who wouldn’t even let you in…”). And the opening “Control Negro” is narrated by a man who uses his son to study whether a Black man who's “otherwise equivalent to those broods of average American Caucasian males” could transcend racism. In a few taut pages, Johnson uses the setup to explore not just institutional racism, but fatherhood, fatalism, policing, and social engineering. “How does anyone know if they are getting more or less than they deserve?” the narrator asks, a question the story makes both slippery and plain as day.

A sharp debut by a writer with wit and confidence.

Pub Date: Oct. 5, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-250-80715-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2021

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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Royals, revenge, curses, and prophecies done right.

ELEKTRA

The tale of the Trojan War told by three women who have their own battles to fight.

Elektra is just a girl when her father, Agamemnon, leads the largest Greek army ever assembled to wage war against Troy. She pines for his return as she comes of age over the decade it takes for Troy to fall. Her mother, Clytemnestra, seethes with rage, grief, and, above all, the desire for vengeance for what her husband is willing to sacrifice for this war of vanity. Meanwhile, in Troy itself, Cassandra watches the daily horrors unfold. Try as she might to warn her people of the devastation she sees coming, she can’t overcome her reputation as a madwoman. The novel is told from the first-person points of view of these three women, and, at first, trying to sort out all the names and family histories, however familiar, feels like the homework assignment it once was. But with the pieces in place, author Saint animates the three women and sets them off. Clytemnestra, the most fully realized, propels the narrative forward with a fresh, raw depth of emotion for a story that’s been told through the ages. Elektra’s and Cassandra’s sections can feel repetitive, but they tend to be shorter, which quickens the pace. Together, these voices show how three very different women understand family, the costs of war, and how to exercise their power. While Helen, Clytemnestra’s twin sister, has some nuance in this version, it seems odd that Saint chose not to take the opportunity to animate the perspective of the legendary beauty who incited the war. Nevertheless, the women whose perspectives are represented are riveting.

Royals, revenge, curses, and prophecies done right.

Pub Date: May 3, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-250-77361-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Review Posted Online: March 30, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2022

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