Sharp, strange, propellant—and a whole lot of fun.

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LUSTER

After losing her day job, a troubled young artist finds herself living with her much-older lover, his inscrutable wife, and their adopted daughter in Leilani’s electric debut.

Edie meets Eric online: She's a 23-year-old Black art school dropout with a mouse-infested apartment in Bushwick and an ill-fitting administrative job at a children’s publishing imprint; he's a White archivist in an open marriage and twice her age. “The age discrepancy doesn’t bother me,” she explains, keenly aware of the dynamics of these types of exchanges, his stability and experience for the redemptive power of her youth. Of course, she has been curious about the wife, but it's only after Eric goes silent that she wanders into his unlocked house and comes face to face with Rebecca, who knows who she is and coolly invites her to stay for dinner. Afterward, Rebecca leaves her a voicemail: “I enjoyed meeting you, let’s do that again.” And so it begins. Newly fired from the publishing house for being “sexually inappropriate,” Edie is working for a delivery app when she gets an order for lobster bisque and a bone saw delivered to a VA hospital. The customer is Rebecca. The bone saw is because she’s a medical examiner. The reason Rebecca then takes Edie home with her…can’t be reduced into straightforward facts. Edie’s role in their household is perpetually tenuous and always unspoken: It is clear to her that she has been brought in, in part, “on the absurd presumption” she’d know what to do with their traumatized daughter, Akila, “simply because we are both black.” So she bonds with Akila. Sometimes, she cleans. She is neither Rebecca’s friend nor her rival. Regular envelopes with money appear on her dresser in irregular amounts, a cross between an allowance and a paycheck. And all the while, the dynamics among the four of them keep shifting, an unstable ballet of race, sex, and power. Leilani’s characters act in ways that often defy explanation, and that is part of what makes them so alive and so mesmerizing: Whose behavior, in real life, can be reduced to simple cause and effect?

Sharp, strange, propellant—and a whole lot of fun.

Pub Date: Aug. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-374-19432-1

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: June 3, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2020

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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