Jacobsen has a reputation. This work can only harm it.

CHILD WONDER

From the respected Norwegian novelist (The New Water, 1997, etc.), an artless trifle about the impact of a small girl on a family in Oslo. 

It’s 1961. Finn lives with his mother Gerd in a small apartment in the projects. Fate has dealt her a number of blows. Her husband, a crane operator, divorced her. A year later, he died in an accident on the job. No widow’s pension for Gerd, though, for her ex had re-married. Gerd works part-time in a shoe store; money is tight. Wallpapering the apartment means they must rent a room to a lodger. Their ad draws the attention of the second wife. She’s a drug addict who intends to unload her daughter on them. So their household expands by two: the lodger Kristian, a union official, and 6-year-old Linda, Finn’s half-sister. Finn is the narrator and, we gather, a little older than Linda. He’s a mama’s boy who often breaks into tears. Linda does not make a good first impression. She smells funny, her hair is wild and she’s silent as the grave. Nonetheless Finn has a jealous fit, biting his mother and breaking windows in the building. When that passes, he becomes protective of his new sister, and bristles when Kristian asks if she’s retarded. But maybe she is, or at least dyslexic. We never really know, because this episodic novel is such a muddle, ill-served by a wretched translation. Nor do we know Kristian’s true character, and what is transpiring between him and Gerd, who’s still battling problems from her own childhood (her father abused her). At one point she visits a mental hospital. The story ends when Linda is removed to a foster home. She was, thinks Finn, “destiny, beauty and a catastrophe.” She had had, we infer, a transformative effect on Gerd and Finn, though the novel has failed to make the case.

Jacobsen has a reputation. This work can only harm it. 

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-55597-595-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Graywolf

Review Posted Online: April 18, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2011

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Romance and melodrama mix uneasily with mass murder.

THE WINTER GUEST

An 18-year-old Polish girl falls in love, swoons over a first kiss, dreams of marriage—and, oh yes, we are in the middle of the Holocaust.

Jenoff (The Ambassador’s Daughter, 2013, etc.) weaves a tale of fevered teenage love in a time of horrors in the early 1940s, as the Nazis invade Poland and herd Jews into ghettos and concentration camps. A prologue set in 2013, narrated by a resident of the Westchester Senior Center, provides an intriguing setup. A woman and a policeman visit the resident and ask if she came from a small Polish village. Their purpose is unclear until they mention bones recently found there: “And we think you might know something about them.” The book proceeds in the third person, told from the points of view mostly of teenage Helena, who comes upon an injured young Jewish-American soldier, and sometimes of her twin, Ruth, who is not as adventurous as Helena but is very competitive with her. Their father is dead, their mother is dying in a hospital, and they are raising their three younger siblings amid danger and hardship. The romance between Helena and Sam, the soldier, is often conveyed in overheated language that doesn’t sit well with the era’s tragic events: “There had been an intensity to his embrace that said he was barely able to contain himself, that he also wanted more.” Jenoff, clearly on the side of tolerance, slips in a simplified historical framework for the uninformed. But she also feeds stereotypes, having Helena note that Sam has “a slight arch to his nose” and a dark complexion that “would make him suspect as a Jew immediately.” Clichés also pop up during the increasingly complex plot: “But even if they stood in place, the world around them would not.”

Romance and melodrama mix uneasily with mass murder.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-7783-1596-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Harlequin MIRA

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2014

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A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.

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MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION

A young New York woman figures there’s nothing wrong with existence that a fistful of prescriptions and months of napping wouldn’t fix.

Moshfegh’s prickly fourth book (Homesick for Another World, 2017, etc.) is narrated by an unnamed woman who’s decided to spend a year “hibernating.” She has a few conventional grief issues. (Her parents are both dead, and they’re much on her mind.) And if she’s not mentally ill, she’s certainly severely maladjusted socially. (She quits her job at an art gallery in obnoxious, scatological fashion.) But Moshfegh isn’t interested in grief or mental illness per se. Instead, she means to explore whether there are paths to living that don’t involve traditional (and wearying) habits of consumption, production, and relationships. To highlight that point, most of the people in the narrator's life are offbeat or provisional figures: Reva, her well-meaning but shallow former classmate; Trevor, a boyfriend who only pursues her when he’s on the rebound; and Dr. Tuttle, a wildly incompetent doctor who freely gives random pill samples and presses one drug, Infermiterol, that produces three-day blackouts. None of which is the stuff of comedy. But Moshfegh has a keen sense of everyday absurdities, a deadpan delivery, and such a well-honed sense of irony that the narrator’s predicament never feels tragic; this may be the finest existential novel not written by a French author. (Recovering from one blackout, the narrator thinks, “What had I done? Spent a spa day then gone out clubbing?...Had Reva convinced me to go ‘enjoy myself’ or something just as idiotic?”) Checking out of society the way the narrator does isn’t advisable, but there’s still a peculiar kind of uplift to the story in how it urges second-guessing the nature of our attachments while revealing how hard it is to break them.

A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.

Pub Date: July 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-52211-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2018

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