Our gaggle of glorious reviews this week includes Parul Sehgal on Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, Nicole Flattery on Anne Enright’s Actress, Jonathan Dee on James McBride’s Deacon King Kong, Hillary Kelly on Lily King’s Writers & Lovers, and Emma Phillips on Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem.
“When a hawk makes a kill, it drapes its wings over its prey, concealing it from other predators. This gesture is called ‘mantling,’ and it’s a fine description of reading Mantel’s work. The world is blotted out as you are enveloped in the sweep of a story rich with conquest, conspiracy and mazy human psychology …. The Mirror and the Light is the triumphant capstone to Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell … At more than 700 pages, this is the longest book in the series, the most mournful—and the slackest. It lacks the formal play (and humor) of Wolf Hall and the ruthless compression of Bring Up the Bodies … This new novel is a different creature—Cromwell is a different creature, less tentative and more ruminative … The startling, bony style of the first two books has been abandoned. The prose is plush, the sentences longer and more adorned, tricked out with little tassels and extended metaphors. Even as certain pages proved a slog, certain scenes repetitive, even as I entertained heretical thoughts about pruning certain sections, or striking them entirely, these choices follow a certain logic … This is not a younger man’s book, not a book of striving. It is a novel of late middle age, a novel of preserving what one has seized … Above all, it is a novel of living with the dead.”
“…revenge is what Actress is about: the ugliness of it, the tedium and, finally, the futility … On the face of it, Actress shouldn’t be as powerful a novel as it is. It’s full of clichés: the ingénue actress, the bad man, the older, alcoholic actress dosed up to her eyeballs on lithium, the other bad man. But to reduce this novel to its plot components traduces it—like forcing an object into a container that doesn’t fit. Many novels about actresses seem weary of their subject matter, desperate to prove that their interest in celebrity belongs to the deeper, morally righteous trade of Literature. Enright has no such boring qualms and showbusiness is well within her scope. She understands the illusion; she also understands the cost … his book could easily, and mistakenly, be lumped together with other #MeToo novels; work that seems to feed the patriarchy rather than challenge it. Enright, sensibly, doesn’t care if she has your sympathy—she’s too cold, too sharp. She also knows all about the everyday sadism to which successful women are subjected, the sly condescension and barbed remarks … No one understands rage, or the lucid, bleached moments that follow it, better than Enright … Enright’s early characters are full of desire and fear and are determined not to show it. Often they are baffled about how they wound up so staunchly middle class…They are, very calmly and discreetly, losing their minds at the cosmetics counter. Their lives are open wounds. They are heartless observers of their own self-destruction. If these stories took a physical form, I imagine they would be a well-dressed woman screaming into a silk pillowcase. Which is to say, I love them.”
“The sheer volume of invention in Deacon King Kong—on the level of both character (the first chapter alone introduces twenty individuals by name) and language—commands awe. Reading it is like watching a movie in which one’s occasional impulse to ask questions is pleasantly swamped by the need to keep up with the pace of events … And the sentences! The prose radiates a kind of chain-reaction energy. After some chapters, you feel empathetically exhausted, in the way you might feel drained by watching an overtime football game. The experience of traversing a simple flashback paragraph is like trying to leap from stone to stone across a river, except occasionally one of them turns out to be not a stone after all but a lily pad, or a shadow, and into the river you go … A consciously suppressed anger emerges only rarely, but often enough to make you read the comedy differently. It’s as if any sentence in the book would, if allowed to flow all the way to its digressive end, empty into the pool of injustices that put these characters in the Cause Houses to begin with … In Deacon King Kong, narrative omniscience leaves room for despair, as it must, but its over-all energy never flags. Sometimes the most affirmative thing you can do, as a storyteller, is to service that story’s momentum, in the hope that there’s some just reward for everyone in the end.”
“Yes, both of the love interests are writers, but this smooth, deliberate chronicle of creation keeps the men in their place and Casey firmly rooted at the center of her own story. Instead of casting her as a woman torn between archetypes of male creativity, Writers & Lovers portrays her as a woman in thrall to her own generative processes, a devotee to the art of (her own) attention … This isn’t an exploration of what it means to be a writer; it’s an exploration of what it means to write. And King’s prose, simple, clear and accretive, mimics in form what she’s conveying—that art is an accumulation of details and that, in the IRL present, close attention is slipping away from us with every swipe of the screen … What’s most refreshing is that after a spate of novels and memoirs that fix a female creator in reference to a great man, Casey emerges as a woman who builds her literary identity out of parts all her own … while describing the intense effort of putting words in order, feels effortless, or at least like an unconscious natural process. King’s sentences are like layers of silt and pebbles condensed into sedimentary rock—distinct from one another but fitted into an indestructible whole. And she pulls off a considerable trick: she convinces us that the miracle of attention, that coveted capability we all imagine slipped from our grasps as the new millennium dawned, must still lie somewhere inside writers, even if their fingers are swiping as often as typing. After all, in the year 2020, she’s produced this, a classic bildungsroman for struggling artists everywhere.”
“Violence against Indigenous people is not just historical but ongoing, systemic and institutional, Diaz reminds us … This knowledge, however fraught, emboldens Diaz to celebrate her survival as a queer Aha Makhav woman living in the 21st century … the book rejects stereotypes that cast Indigenous people as monocultural … Postcolonial Love Poem is charged by the often violent intersection of colonizing languages (in this case, first Spanish and then English) with an Indigenous one (Mojave). That’s not to say the poems long for a pre-colonial culture … There is an extreme lushness to the language Diaz uses, especially about love, sex and desire … This book asks us to read the world carefully, knowing that not everything will be translated for us, knowing that it is made up of pluralities … Diaz’s collection is no doubt one of the most important poetry releases in years, one to applaud for its considerable demonstration of skill, its resistance to dominant perspectives and its light wrought of desire.”