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The Reformatory by Tananarive Due
Robbie, 12, and his 16-year-old sister, Gloria, live in ill-named Gracetown in the deep south. Their mother is dead, and their father has fled to Chicago. He was falsely accused of rape but is also persona non grata because he riled up fellow Black workers to claim their rights. It’s the ‘50s, with rampant racism played out constantly. Robbie kicks Lyle, the son of the most prominent landowner, in the knee to defend Gloria from Lyle’s advances. For this, he gets sentenced (without trial) to six months in the eponymous institution, hell on earth. Kids are subjected to brutal work, corporal punishment, and psychopathic overseers. In addition, ghosts of the many children who died there haunt the place. Robbie can see them, and Haddock, a nightmarish overseer, uses him to hunt them down so he can capture their souls in a bottle. Meanwhile, Gloria and others try desperately to free him. It is very intense and challenging to read (such misery, injustice, and hypocrisy), but it is definitely worth it. Note: based on the infamous Dozier School for Boys in Florida.
Day by Michael Cunningham
Domestic drama around the time of COVID-19 provides lots of juicy material. We tune into the lives of a family at three yearly intervals on the same day. Isabel and Dan are not doing well. In the attic of their Brooklyn house lives her brother Robbie, gay and lost. But it’s time for their kids, Nathan and Violet, to have separate rooms, so Robbie has to go. Next year, in lockdown, tensions have intensified. Robbie has ended up stuck in Iceland, where he continues posting about the adventures of Wolfie, his alter ego. In year three, there’s more shift and loss, with Isobel now retreating to a rundown but cozy country house. Emotional entanglements with Robbie affect each family member profoundly. I especially appreciate the way Cunningham references folktales in his work. Subtle and moving.
Death Valley by Melissa Broder
The setting in this novel can be hallucinatory as this unnamed woman discovers when she flees there to get some distance from her current exigencies, her father is near death, and her husband is chronically ill. Might she gain some solace here? Not bloody likely. Stones start to speak to her, and a cactus invites her inside its round trunk. She ends up terrifyingly lost on a many-branched trail. Rich atmosphere and surprising characters—her husband is very loving despite his ongoing troubles, and two clerks at the Best Western where she’s been staying come through to save her. Odd and intriguing.
Loved and Missed by Susie Boyt
Ruth, a single mother, was very close to her daughter, Eleanor. But now Eleanor is going down the tubes due to drug addiction and mental illness. Ruth is now bringing up Eleanor’s young daughter, Lily, and desperately wants to help Eleanor, but it’s a losing game. Ruth is a teacher and has one very good friend, Jean, a fellow teacher. This proves fortuitous when Ruth needs someone to step in when she gets mortally ill. Intense emotions, which range from despair to joy, provide a workout. Joy, you may wonder? Ruth gets enormous comfort from her intimate connection to Lily. This book reflects what I characterized as the “descending tone,” a quiet thrum of constant sadness, so it was sometimes hard to read—but ultimately rewarding.