Twin sisters cut adrift in a perilous, duplicitous world learn that “only the wise survive.” A formidable debut.

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BLACK SUNDAY

When things fall apart, four modern Nigerian siblings will need cunning to survive.

In this piercing, supple debut, a Nigerian father is scammed into ruin, and his wife, wearing her "favorite perfume, Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door," soon flees to New York. The couple had honeymooned in Spain and lived a comfortable life, but “my family unraveled rapidly,” says their daughter Ariyike, “in messy loose knots, hastening away from one another, shamefaced and lonesome, injured solitary animals in a happy world.” Ariyike sells water on the Lagos streets while her sister scrubs hospital toilets, their younger brothers both hungry and in need of school fees. All subsist with their complaining Yoruba grandmother. In a riveting sequence, Bibike helps her twin, Ariyike, transform into Keke to audition for an on-air radio job. A male acquaintance advises: “Dress sexy, be confident, smell nice, and if you are offered something to drink, ask for water first....If they insist, ask for something foreign and healthy, like green tea.” Keke isn’t chosen but leverages a position anyway by trading sex and plying her encyclopedic knowledge of Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospels. Thus begins her rise in Christian radio. Sex—often predatory—forms and deforms all four siblings; the novel features several rapes. Chapters alternate in each sibling’s voice over a stretch of 20 years. The brothers grow up and move to Chicago and out of the story. Abraham stuffs her novel past brimming, but its sophisticated structure and propulsive narration allow her to tuck in a biting critique of corrupt colonial religion and universally exploitative men. “It was fortunate to be beautiful and desired,” says Bibike, whose voice opens the story. “It made people smile at me. I was used to strangers wishing me well. But what is a girl’s beauty, but a man’s promise of reward?” Bibike eventually becomes a healer who cherishes their Yoruba grandmother while Keke, the wife of a powerful and monstrous pastor, tastes ashes—the source of the novel’s title.

Twin sisters cut adrift in a perilous, duplicitous world learn that “only the wise survive.” A formidable debut.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-948226-56-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Catapult

Review Posted Online: Nov. 11, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2019

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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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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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