Alden Mudge

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Growing up, Liz Scheier’s mother, Judith, insisted that all parties be held in their Upper West Side, rent-controlled apartment and nowhere else, because you simply couldn’t trust other people. At first, Scheier thought her schoolmates’ moms accompanied them to these parties because these women were friends with her mother. Only later did she understand that the women were there because they didn’t trust her mother, who frequently screamed at their children and raged at and battered her own daughter.

Even as Scheier began to doubt everything her mother said—Had her father really died in a car accident? How could the two of them afford to live in their apartment when Judith had no means of support? Was everything Judith said a lie?—she worshiped her mother. “I loved her smoky cackle and her jokes. . . . I loved that she adored me above everything else on earth,” she writes.

In her teens and 20s, Scheier tried to separate from her loving, controlling, raging, truth-shading mother. After college, during her first job in publishing, she learned that Judith had been concealing a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. This knowledge didn’t protect Scheier from her mother’s incessant, desperate phone calls, but it did force her onto a wobbly identity quest. Scheier tracked down information about her deceased father, with help from her first girlfriend’s aunt. She found jobs that took her away from New York. She drank to excess. She refused her mother’s calls. Still, when Judith was threatened with eviction, Scheier sold her eggs to a fertility clinic to pay back rent. Even after Scheier got married, moved to Washington, D.C., and had two children, there seemed to be no escape from her mother.

This is just the beginning of the tense and heart-rending story Scheier tells in Never Simple, her memoir of growing up with her ”petite, stylish, sardonic mother.” In relating this story, Scheier is sometimes as sardonic as her mother, as well as funny and frequently clever. (For example, she titles the chapter describing her hookup with the man who became her husband “Switching Teams.”) The narrative sometimes feels undercooked, but ultimately Never Simple writhes with the sorrow and guilt only a deep and complicated love can arouse.

Liz Scheier’s memoir of growing up with her loving, controlling, raging mother writhes with the sorrow and guilt only a deep, complicated love can arouse.
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Gayle Jessup White’s multilayered autobiography, Reclamation: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and a Descendant’s Search for Her Family’s Lasting Legacy, is divided into three parts. The first, most directly autobiographical part of Reclamation offers a fascinating look at Black life in a prosperous neighborhood in Washington, D.C., during the 1960s and ’70s—a neighborhood that has since been washed away in a wave of gentrification. White describes growing up in this neighborhood as the baby of her family. Her reserved father and acquisitive mother did not get along, but they protected and pampered White so that she did not experience “what racism felt like” until she was 13.

Part two is the heart of the book, documenting White’s scrupulous search to prove her family’s claim that they are Black descendants of Thomas Jefferson. White, who is now in her mid-60s, first heard that claim as a young teenager, from her much older sister. Her sister had heard it from Aunt Peachie, an elderly relative who died before White was born. Although she was fascinated almost to the point of obsession, White didn’t begin her genealogical search until much later.

The long process White went through to establish her lineage will be especially interesting to amateur genealogists. But it is also of great interest in general because of the subtle and not-so-subtle obstacles she faced as a Black person claiming to be a descendant of the author of the Declaration of Independence. In one chapter, White describes developing a relationship with a white Jefferson descendant, a poet and writer, only to end up feeling like her personal narrative had been appropriated and diminished by her would-be collaborator.

During her research, White developed a relationship with historians at Monticello, Jefferson’s home, which is the focus of the third part of the book. For a number of powerful reasons, White, who trained as a journalist and has worked as a TV reporter throughout the South, decided Monticello was where she wanted to work at the end of her career. Getting hired there required superhuman persistence, and after becoming Monticello’s first Community Engagement Officer, she was one of only a few Black employees and frequently faced criticism from her white co-workers. Overcoming the institution’s doubts about her, her work eventually transformed Monticello into a place committed to updating the ways it portrays the lives of people who were enslaved there.

As a Black person working to prove her family’s claim that they are descendants of Thomas Jefferson, Gayle Jessup White faced plenty of obstacles.
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Lily King has been publishing fiction for more than 20 years, but in the last decade, she has earned a new level of acclaim and success with the two ravishing, highly praised novels Euphoria and Writers & Lovers. The latter landed on shelves two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down bookstores (and just about everything else in the world), so she was unable to do much in the way of promotion. She has greater hopes—and a scheduled book tour—for her collection of 10 startling short stories, Five Tuesdays in Winter

King’s new book takes the long view. The stories span the entirety of the 58-year-old writer’s career, and about half of them are new material, not previously published in magazines. In a call to her home in Maine, she explains that she fell in love with short stories in high school. She’s been keeping journals since fifth grade (and still has them all, lined up on three shelves in her office), but she didn’t dream of becoming a published writer until her discovery of the short story form. 

“I hadn’t had a happy childhood, I hadn’t loved the cold. But here I am.” 

“Short stories are much harder [to write] than novels,” she says. “They can be more satisfying because you get to the end faster and don’t have to carry the despair for years and years. If you don’t like them, you can walk away from them. But you can’t make the mistakes that you can make in a novel. You can’t have those weird little spasms that a novel allows.”

The stories here are layered, incisive, sometimes dark and often funny. The opening tale, “Creature,” is about 14-year-old Carol, a nascent writer who is hired by a wealthy woman who lives in a mansion on a rocky New England coastal promontory. For two or three weeks in summer, Carol is to be the live-in babysitter for the woman’s very young grandchildren. Carol’s services are meant to free up the children’s mother, Kay, to spend more time with her own mother. Even before the arrival of Kay’s ne’er-do-well brother, Hugh, Carol observes the silences between mother and daughter. 

“Creature” exposes the divisions within families, the flinty coldness and deliberate, doting blindness of a certain kind of parent. In its surprising conclusion we understand the hard shift in awareness that will inform Carol’s future as a writer. But is it autobiographical? 

Not quite, explains King, though it is set in the town where she grew up: Manchester, Massachusetts, renamed Manchester-by-the-Sea in 1989. “I feel I was straddling a lot of different worlds,” she says of those days. “My parents got divorced. My mother and I were in an apartment downtown without a lot of money. My father was up in the house on the point. Then my father remarried and remarried again. My mother remarried and we moved to a different part of town in a big house. I was both a babysitter trying to make money and then a person who sometimes lived in a big house.”

Read our starred review of Five Tuesdays in Winter.

King’s experiences with this class dichotomy burn through this story collection, as do strong impulses instilled by years of babysitting, which she began at age 11 and continued until she was 32. “You step into somebody else’s family, and you have to intuit their whole ethos,” she says. “I’m interested in fitting in and not fitting in. How a situation in a house becomes very fraught. About the power, about everybody’s dysfunction.”

For the past few years, King and her family have lived in Portland, Maine, but the pandemic hit shortly after their move, so she still doesn’t feel completely settled. They previously lived in the smaller town of Yarmouth, but when her older daughter went off to college, her younger daughter lobbied for the family to move to Portland, “the big city.” 

Now their house is on a hill, and King’s top-floor office gives her an expansive view of city rooftops and the Atlantic Ocean. Her husband, a writer and fine arts painter, has a studio on the top floor as well. His mother, also an artist, painted the vivid work that constitutes the cover art of Five Tuesdays in Winter. The full painting graces King’s living room. 

Even after 20-plus years in Maine, King still expresses surprise to be living in New England. “When I left Massachusetts at the age of 18, I thought I would never, ever live in New England again,” she says. “And I didn’t for a long time. But I just kept kind of circling back and then leaving again and coming back.”

King’s life has taken her all over the U.S. and even to Valencia, Spain, but starting a family with her husband helped her make the decision to return. “It just seemed that I had to raise my kids with seasons,” she says. “With winter, with snow. I didn’t think it could happen because I hadn’t had a happy childhood, I hadn’t loved the cold. But here I am.” 

The author of Euphoria and Writers & Lovers takes us into the memories that inspired a story in her terrific first collection.
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Lily King has been rightly praised for two terrific recent novels, Euphoria and Writers & Lovers. But who knew she was such an exceptional short story writer? Maybe a few readers of Ploughshares or O Magazine, where a couple of the stories gathered in Five Tuesdays in Winter first appeared. But about half of these stories are new. All of them flash with brilliance.

King’s stories are mostly situated in New England in the 1980s, and her characters are often in adolescence, revealed at their moments of emerging into adult life and consciousness. Three tales are about would-be writers whose experiences shape them: a teen girl just beginning to consider writing, a woman in her early 20s trying to figure out her life, and, in the collection’s exhilaratingly surreal final story, “The Man at the Door,” a married mother being confronted about her audacity in thinking she has the right to write.

Lily King shares the New England memories that inspired one of the stories in her first collection.

King places these lynchpin stories at the beginning, middle and end of the collection. But four other stories are from the perspectives of young men. This includes the astonishing “When in Dordogne,” in which a boy’s wealthy and neglectful parents leave their house in the care of two college students for the summer. “As I came with the house, these two college boys were obliged to take care of me, too,” the son observes sardonically. A disaster in the making, right? As it turns out, no. The college boys are funny, sensitive and caring. The story is a soulful exploration of male sensitivity and love.

The very satisfying title story is about the fairly rigid owner of a used bookstore, his teenage daughter and the bookstore’s sole employee, who agrees to teach Spanish to her boss’s daughter. Over five Tuesdays, a tentative and then quite wonderful relationship develops among the three of them.

King’s observations are both sharp and generous. Five Tuesdays in Winter is a collection worth dipping into again and again.

King's sharp and generous observations make for a story collection worth dipping into again and again.
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Jonathan Franzen, one of our best chroniclers of suburban family life (The Corrections, Freedom), does not disappoint with his terrific new novel, Crossroads.

The story opens just before Christmas 1971 and centers on the Hildebrandt family, who live in the “Crappier Parsonage” in New Prospect, a suburb of Chicago. The head of the family, Reverend Russ Hildebrandt, a middle-aged associate pastor, is frustrated that his career has stalled, humiliated that a young, hip minister has snatched away control of the church’s youth group that he founded, tired of his wife and marriage, and enamored of a widowed parishioner.

The youth group is called Crossroads, and it’s just one of the many crossroads the family arrives at throughout this big, ambitious novel. The good reverend’s wife, Marion, is well aware of Russ’ infatuations and is filled with anger and self-loathing. Their daughter, Becky, the coolest girl in high school, becomes suddenly unmoored. Their middle son, Perry, is super smart and contemptuous of others; he’s also one of the biggest pot dealers in school. Eldest son Clem, the epitome of responsibility, is on his way home from college and seeking a reckoning with the father he has so long admired.

In some ways this family’s internal conflicts seem fairly typical. But as the novel progresses, we discover there are deeper histories at work. Some have to do with the basic assumptions of marriage and family life, while others reflect the tumult of the 1970s, when much of society was divided about America’s participation in the Vietnam War and young people especially struggled with issues of equality and justice for people of color and Native Americans. It is also no coincidence that the major sections of the novel are titled “Advent” and “Easter.” Each individual Hildebrandt grapples with matters of Christian faith and its place in their lives.

Franzen writes about all of this with penetrating insight delivered through incisive sentences. By turns funny and terrifying, Crossroads is promised to be the first novel in a planned trilogy. I can’t wait to read what happens next.

By turns funny and terrifying, Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel of suburban family life does not disappoint.
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Like its brilliant predecessors, All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, Cities of the Plain tells a riveting story that is simple in form but presses outward toward the archetypal and the infinite. The novel can surely be read on its own, but those who have read the earlier novels in the trilogy will find a richer reward.

Those two novels tell oddly similar stories. In All the Pretty Horses, John Grady Cole and his companion ride down into Mexico in search of adventure and discover a wider and more mysterious world than they had imagined. In The Crossing, Billy Parham's wanderings into Mexico are more darkly shaded. If John Grady Cole's adventures have about them a kind of innocence, Billy Parham's seem to be about fate and expiation. In both books, in beautiful, powerfully rendered episodes, Cormac McCarthy explores the borderlands of human experience, the oppositions and crossings as lives intersect.

In Cities of the Plain, John Grady Cole and Billy Parham's youthful wanderings have ended. The two protagonists wind up working together on a ranch outside El Paso, a place we soon learn is to be shut down and turned into an Army base. Their infrequent journeys across the border are now to whorehouses in Juarez. On one such trip, John Grady Cole falls in love with a teenage prostitute, an epileptic named Magdalena. The novel's central storyline is about this love and John Grady Cole's obdurate attempts to rescue and marry her. At one point John Grady asks Billy to go as his agent and buy Magdalena out of prostitution, but until the novel's disquietingly radiant epilogue, Parham is mainly a witness to the grimly unfolding events.

As the title's reference to Sodom and Gomorrah suggests, Cities of the Plain is about the end of things. But the end of what? John Grady Cole has an extraordinary innocence and openness of heart (something quite different from stupidity or naivete) that does not seem to belong in the dailiness of the modern world. But Cities of the Plain is also about the end of an American way of life. Gathered around Parham and Cole at the ranch is a collection of drifters and aging cowboys, each with a history and a story to tell. The book is filled with moving depictions of the routines of cowboy life, adventures high in the hills above the cities spreading out across the plain. McCarthy has a special ear for the horse- and landscape-bound language of cowboys, a way of speaking that has all but disappeared, and he seems intent on salvaging that language and all it represents.

McCarthy's view of the world is austere. As in the previous novels, his characters encounter brutality, as well as the sublime. If he offers any real hope, it lies in the redemptive power of language. McCarthy is perhaps the finest American prose stylist writing today. As poet Robert Hass has written, "McCarthy seems incapable of writing a boring sentence." Cities of the Plain contains passages of rare and hypnotic beauty. It completes a series that will surely become an American literary classic.

Like its brilliant predecessors, All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, Cities of the Plain tells a riveting story that is simple in form but presses outward toward the archetypal and the infinite. The novel can surely be read on its own, but those who have read the earlier novels in the trilogy will find […]
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Summary and compression cannot come close to capturing the moment-by-moment beauty of Marilynne Robinson's third novel, Home. It is a novel that unfolds slowly in hushed, carefully observed scenes whose disquieting emotional import vaults off the page. Its power is as much spiritual as literary. And its cumulative impact has as much to do with the pain of misunderstanding that exists among its three main characters as the love that seeks to bridge those misunderstandings.

Home is a companion to Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead. Set in fictional Gilead, Iowa, in 1956, Gilead was told as a discursive letter written by a 76-year-old Congregational minister named John Ames to the seven-year-old son he has fathered late in life. Late in that novel, Ames is visited by the prodigal son of his lifelong best friend, a Presbyterian minister named Robert Boughton, now on his deathbed. The son, Jack, named after Ames, seeks spiritual counsel, and Ames, a good man, tries to provide it. But ultimately Ames cannot completely understand or forgive Jack for what Ames perceives as his cruelty to his father.

Home offers a deeper, richer, more compassionate view of the sometimes charming and frequently discomfiting Jack Boughton. The new novel is told from the perspective of Glory Boughton, the youngest Boughton child, who at 38 years old returns to Gilead to care for her dying father after her own wounding failures in life and love. When her older brother Jack shows up after a 20-year absence, the two struggle to make peace with their pasts, with each other and with their father. Jack, one of the most unsettling characters in recent fiction, is haunted by a kind of spiritual emptiness. At one point he sadly observes, "I create a kind of displacement around myself when I pass through the world, which can fairly be called trouble." In fact, the trouble this prodigal son creates is palpable, but in Robinson's inspired telling, it also moves us to empathy. This makes Home a more excruciating but no less beautiful or rewarding read than its predecessor.

Alden Mudge writes from California.

Summary and compression cannot come close to capturing the moment-by-moment beauty of Marilynne Robinson's third novel, Home. It is a novel that unfolds slowly in hushed, carefully observed scenes whose disquieting emotional import vaults off the page. Its power is as much spiritual as literary. And its cumulative impact has as much to do with […]
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Geerat Vermeij calls his new book, The Evolutionary World, “a personal, and in many ways unconventional book.” It is that, and it is a marvel.

Vermeij’s basic argument is that evolution has great, perhaps even universal, explanatory power. “Evolution has outgrown its original home in biology and geology,” Vermeij writes in his preface. “It is the foundation of a worldview in which environments, genes, organic architecture, physiology, chance, the economic struggle for life and historical narrative come together to illuminate how we live in the world.” In the 13 succeeding chapters, Vermeij explains and amplifies his arguments, drawing on his extensive observation of nature and the fossil record.

Along the way, Vermeij offers a fascinating explanation of adaptive evolution, whose processes of collaboration and competition are far more intricate—and beautiful, in a way—than those early, simplistic notions of the “survival of the fittest.” He explores why very few insects live in the sea. He examines the short-term harms—measured in thousands or millions of years—caused to life on Earth by man-made climate change and carefully speculates on the possible longer-term benefits of a warmer world, as measured by an increase in the diversity of species (though not necessarily including the human species). Using his framework of adaptive evolution and the economies they impose on life, he also accounts for the rise of consciousness, history and meaning itself. It is a profound and provocative demonstration of scientific reasoning.

Vermeij is distinguished professor of geology at the University of California at Davis and a MacArthur “genius grant” winner. Blind since the age of three, he is nonetheless a brilliant observer of nature; his passion is “all things molluscan”—seashells, in other words—for which there is an astonishing array of collections worldwide, providing evidence of adaptive evolution stretching back hundreds of millions of years. In fact, a secondary pleasure of The Evolutionary World is to see demonstrated this amazing human effort—sometimes collaboratively, sometimes competitively—to document and understand life on Earth.

Vermeij writes personably, and his arguments are detailed but free of jargon, though he explores some byways that seem to be interpretive disagreements with colleagues. But with careful attention, The Evolutionary World is very accessible even to rigorously non-scientific readers like this reviewer. Such attention is richly rewarded.

Geerat Vermeij calls his new book, The Evolutionary World, “a personal, and in many ways unconventional book.” It is that, and it is a marvel. Vermeij’s basic argument is that evolution has great, perhaps even universal, explanatory power. “Evolution has outgrown its original home in biology and geology,” Vermeij writes in his preface. “It is […]
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Cancer, a disease with tens of millions of faces, will require many biographers. But those future biographers and historians of the disease will labor from deep within the long shadow cast by Siddhartha Mukherjee’s remarkable The Emperor of All Maladies.

Starting with the teachings of the Egyptian physician Imhotep (circa 2625 B.C.), Mukherjee’s “biography of cancer” offers a sweeping “attempt to enter the mind of this immortal disease, to understand its behavior.” It is a vivid and profoundly engaging read.

Mukherjee, an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University and a former Rhodes Scholar, is both a cancer physician and a cancer researcher. He is also extraordinarily good at explaining complex medical and scientific issues and controversies. He devotes most of his pages to developments in laboratory research and clinical treatment since the 1950s, as cancer medicine moved from a gruesome regimen of radical surgeries, through the development of radiation treatments, into chemotherapy and combined therapies and, finally, to the present era, in which research and treatment have finally come together and biotechnology has given rise to targeted therapies that attack cancer cells and the genes within those cells.

Science and medicine, like all human endeavors, are driven by the knowledge, intelligence, ambitions and egos of the people involved, and Mukherjee presents lively thumbnail portraits of doctors and researchers and of the battles that engaged them. He writes vividly of the political struggles to fund cancer research and to limit known carcinogens like tobacco. He quotes poets, philosophers and writers, particularly Susan Sontag, and he writes with empathy about the experiences of his own patients. All of this makes The Emperor of All Maladies not just an exceptional work in the history of science but a fine example of literary nonfiction.

Cancer, as Mukherjee writes in his epilogue, is “the scrappy, fecund, invasive, adaptable twin to our own scrappy, fecund, invasive, adaptable cells and genes.” This means that we may never completely defeat this many-headed disease. But, he suggests, with a greater understanding of cancer, we may at least be able to forestall its fatal effects until old age. With The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddartha Mukherjee makes a large contribution to a better general understanding of this dread disease.


Cancer, a disease with tens of millions of faces, will require many biographers. But those future biographers and historians of the disease will labor from deep within the long shadow cast by Siddhartha Mukherjee’s remarkable The Emperor of All Maladies. Starting with the teachings of the Egyptian physician Imhotep (circa 2625 B.C.), Mukherjee’s “biography of […]
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At the center of Ash Davidson’s exceptional debut novel, Damnation Spring, is Rich Gundersen and his family. At 51, Rich is an aging logger in Northern California’s redwood forest. As the novel opens, he seizes the opportunity to buy a stand of redwoods that includes the mythic 24-7 tree, the numbers signifying its monstrous width of 24 feet, 7 inches. Without telling his wife, Colleen, Rich uses all their savings for the down payment.

Colleen is 34, a midwife mourning the death of her newborn, disturbed by the number of infant deaths in their rural community and upset that Rich is unwilling to try for another baby. The couple’s only child, Chub, is about to enter kindergarten. Taught by his father, Chub is already knowledgeable about the creeks and roads in the forest that lead him home.

These are the first filaments of the magical web of story that Davidson weaves. The novel follows the family throughout 1977, a year of significant change. The National Park Service is slowly enlarging its holdings in the forest. The Gundersens’ house becomes part of the government takings for Redwood National Park, but the family will retain possession until Rich dies. Anti-logging activists have begun to harass loggers, and the local timber company is faltering, putting local livelihoods at risk.

There is so much that is right and particular about this novel. Rarely will a reader have such a tactile experience of life in a forest logging community as one receives here. Davidson also sensitively portrays the fraught relationship between the Indigenous tribe of Yuroks and the white members of the logging community. Here, all politics are local: It slowly dawns on Colleen that herbicides, sprayed to help the logging industry, hurt babies; and the unethical owner of the timber company is a flawed and greedy local guy, not a corporate mover on Wall Street.

Davidson was born in Arcata, California, just south of the redwood forest she writes about in Damnation Spring. She's studied the lay of the land, and she expresses the heart and soul of this place and time.

In her exceptional debut novel, Ash Davidson expresses the heart and soul of Northern California’s redwood forest community.
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Clint Smith's gifts as both a poet and a scholar make How the Word Is Passed a richly provocative read about places where the story of American slavery lives on. This vital book originated in poetic meditations on the memorials of the Confederacy after Smith’s hometown of New Orleans removed many of those statues in 2017.

Smith began visiting some of the sites where enslaved people once lived and worked. He took the guided tour at Monticello that focuses on Jefferson’s relationship to slavery. He traveled to New York City to visit the African Burial Ground National Monument. He toured Louisiana’s notorious state prison at Angola, where formerly enslaved people were often held on the flimsiest of charges and forced to labor in its vast agricultural fields as part of the post-Reconstruction effort “to funnel Black people into the convict leasing system.”

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: From a Louisiana native to a D.C. high school teacher to a Harvard Ph.D. candidate to a staff writer for The Atlantic—Clint Smith shares the journey that led to his brilliant nonfiction debut.

At each stop, Smith’s vivid descriptions of the landscape and his response to the site give readers a visceral sense of place. He also reports on his conversations with tour guides, employees and other visitors. At Monticello, one person shares her journey of learning and unlearning history. It’s quite moving.

But at other locations, the guides and visitors are less willing to acknowledge slavery’s continuing impact on our country or the intentional romanticization of the Confederacy. At Angola, there’s almost no acknowledgment that the land was worked by enslaved people as a plantation before it was converted into a state prison for mostly Black prisoners. The reader feels “the prickled heat” Smith experiences as the only Black person attending a Memorial Day event hosted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans at Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia. There, Smith is an open, polite, somewhat nervous listener. Even in print, he doesn’t call out the people he speaks with. But ever the educator and poet, he lets the Confederate states’ own avowals destroy the animating myth of the Lost Cause.

Smith has an appreciation of nuance. He wields few cudgels here. And yet, How the Word Is Passed succeeds in making the essential distinction between history and nostalgia.

Clint Smith's gifts as both a poet and a scholar make How the Word Is Passed a richly provocative read.
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The incident that gives You People its title occurs on a bus in London. Shan, a line cook at an unassuming neighborhood restaurant called Pizzeria Vesuvio, sees a woman and her young son on the bus. Shan has seen them before, and with each sighting, the boy has looked sicker. Shan fled torture in Sri Lanka and entered England without documents, and the boy reminds him of the son he left behind. Shan looks at the pair with deep feeling, but the mother screeches at him, blaming him and “you people” for crowding out her son’s medical treatment.

By this point in the novel, we know quite a bit about the interior lives of Shan and his restaurant co-workers. Many of them are also without documents, and all are misfits. Nia is the daughter of a spirited Welsh woman and a Bengali father whom she’s never met, though Shan considers her a white Brit. Tuli, the restaurant owner, is a mysterious figure who lends his employees money, meets furtively with drug dealers and petty thieves, and travels the city at night on unknown errands. We wonder what price his employees will pay for his generosity.

Born in India and raised in Wales, author Nikita Lalwani moves us through the first parts of her third novel with ravishing, insightful prose. Of Shan’s regretful memories of arguments with the wife he decided to leave behind, Lalwani writes, “He would leave the soiled furnace of their words when it was too overwhelming—and walk around outside for hours.” Or about Nia’s need to rid herself of her lower-class Welsh accent, Lalwani writes, “That was one of the first things she did at Oxford, along with getting rid of her home-bleached locks. She remembered wearing those new vowels like furs, feeling that showy and ridiculous.” This is just a tiny sample of Lalwani’s great skill and empathic heart.

Lalwani’s novel takes the reader under the skin and inside the souls of these characters. Its early pages are a magical read, as we are invited to ponder generosity and human kindness.  But when the story bends toward plot—danger, rescue, relief—a bit of the magic is lost. It remains a very good novel, just not the very great novel we’d hoped for.

Nikita Lalwani's magical novel invites us to ponder generosity and human kindness.
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As Judy Batalian notes toward the end of her scrupulously researched narrative history, The Light of Days, there were plenty of reasons why the stories of young Jewish women who valiantly resisted the Nazis in Europe during World War II were ignored or silenced after the war. Some of those reasons were sexist, but most weren’t so nefarious. Still, the effect until now has been that bits and pieces of this great story have been scattered through bygone personal memoirs and archived survivor testimonies.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Judy Batalion shares the amazing discovery she made while browsing the stacks at the British Library.

The Light of Days is a huge achievement that brings an overarching coherence to this largely unknown story. Batalian focuses on the lives and actions of about a dozen and a half young women and teenage girls who joined the fray in the Polish ghettos in Warsaw and Bedzin. Chief among these was the spirited Renia Kukielka, who became a courier for one of the activist Jewish youth groups at the core of the resistance. Batalion interweaves the personalities and actions of other young women—messengers and warriors—into the arc of Kukielka’s story. The narrative reaches its crescendo in the spring and summer of 1943, during and just after the dramatic but ultimately unsuccessful Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Batalion uses a kind of you-are-there approach that at times feels awkward but dramatically makes its point in the end. 

The Light of Days also offers arresting insights into community life during this perilous time. It is astounding to read about the number and variety of Jewish youth groups that commanded the loyalties of young people. It’s also surreal to learn that mail continued to circulate among Jewish communities even as the Nazi killing machine was roaring down the tracks. 

Batalian interviewed many survivors’ families, and these passages in the book invite us to wonder what it would be like to battle and survive for half a decade, witnessing the loss of friends and family, only to resume a “normal” life after experiencing all that trauma. Kukielka at least seemed to maintain some essential part of herself through it all. Her adult life, Batalion reports, was “happy, passionate, filled with beauty.”

The Light of Days, a scrupulously researched narrative history about young Jewish women who resisted the Nazis in Europe, is a huge achievement.

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