Daily Press (Sunday)

2 thrillers: A naive autistic mother, a sardonic theater critic


Fiction that plumbs the layers of parenthood is vast and crowded; rare’s the novel that stands out. Longlisted for the Booker Prize, Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow’s pitch-perfect, astute “All the Little Bird-Hearts” showcases a narrator virtually invisible on the contempora­ry stage — an autistic single mother whose naïveté and candor open her to betrayal. The author knows of what she writes; she is autistic.

Sunday Forrester lives in her family home in England’s Lake District, where she cultivates plants at a greenhouse owned by her former in-laws and maneuvers around the mood swings of her teenage daughter, Dolly. Sunday’s autism manifests as a lack of affect and acute sensitivit­y to bright light. She prefers bland “white” food and “fizzy” champagne.

She relies on an etiquette guide and encycloped­ic knowledge of Sicilian folklore to navigate social interactio­ns. She mimics the accents and inflection­s of others.

In the summer of 1988, her next-door neighbor sublets his house to a couple from London: bon vivant Rollo and his glamorous wife, Vita.

“She flicked away her second cigarette,” Sunday notes of Vita, “holding her hand in position momentaril­y after it had landed on the path. The pose put me in mind of an archer whose elbow remained high above his spent bow while he waited to see if he had hit his target.” Their cupidity entrances everyone they meet.

Vita and Rollo have designs on daughter and mother. Each Friday, they host grand dinners, gradually absorbing the daughter into their orbit while shutting out the mother. Lloyd-Barlow’s pacing is leisurely yet deft; menace builds. Her prose is textured and exacting as she flashes back to the mother’s youth and its riddles.

“My father had taken holidaymak­ers out on his boat early each morning, and he brought the catches back to my mother,”

Sunday recalls. “Our little house had smelled permanentl­y of the lake and the shining fish that shivered in my parents’ hands each day. Ma, self-taught, filleted and skinned as expertly as the local women knitted and sewed; her fingers came to know knives as theirs knew needles. Bones as delicate and white as baby teeth regularly littered our kitchen, as though it were the scene of a recent tragedy.”

The novel is an allegory, as the names — Dolly, King, Dolores — hint. Vita dangles the offer of a new life (“vita nuova”), but only to one woman. Sunday is sanctified and innocent, oblivious to threats and predators masked as friends. A sinister conspiracy looms just beyond her peripheral vision — we recognize it first — yet Lloyd-Barlow surprises us with a final twist.

“Bird-Hearts” is a luminous debut from an author whose voice is already her own; Lloyd-Barlow brings us deep into the interior of autism. As Sunday opines, “It is impossible to know another person’s unspoken wants, and, conversely, to guess at their secret horrors.”— Hamilton Cain, the Star Tribune (Minneapoli­s)

Alexis Soloski isn’t messing with

the “write what you know” dictum: The heroine of the New York theater critic’s mystery/thriller is a New York theater critic.

In “Here In the Dark,” a graduate student is murdered shortly after he interviews critic Vivian Parry. Soon she’s trying to figure out who killed him and who’s leaving her notes warning her to leave it alone — assisted by a friend who’s an actor, a new lover who’s a theater technician and another new lover who’s a cop.

It’s a sturdy premise, with echoes of a movie I won’t name because it would give away too much. Soloski’s plotting is brisk and her writing is hilarious. We hear the sardonic narrative voice of Vivian, who — as readers of theater critics probably suspect is true but Soloski undoubtedl­y knows is not — gets a bang out of eviscerati­ng shows that don’t measure up.

Soloski has a good ear for dialogue, with distinctiv­e voices for most people in Vivian’s orbit. The best is her brash friend Justine, an actor who keeps her supplied with illicit meds.

Those meds are the one major misstep here. Like “The Girl on the Train” and too many other female protagonis­ts of thrillers, Vivian is an unreliable narrator, impaired by booze and pills. As Vivian might write: We’ve been there, done that and been bored by the T-shirt. — Chris Hewitt, the Star Tribune (Minneapoli­s)

 ?? ?? By Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow; Algonquin Books. 304 pp. $18.99.
By Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow; Algonquin Books. 304 pp. $18.99.

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