Good Kings Bad Kings

Susan Nussbaum. Algonquin, $23.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-61620-263-7
Playwright Nussbaum’s debut novel—the 2012 winner of Barbara Kingsolver’s PEN/Bellwether Prize—takes readers behind the scenes at a facility for disabled teens. Woven from short individual chapters in first-person narrative, at first it reads like a series of darkly funny, often frightening character sketches. As the book progresses, however, the darker side of the facility’s management and desire for profit emerges. From Yessenia (transferred from Juvie), to Mia (keeping a horrifying secret), to Ricky and Joanne (devoted and determined to make a positive difference), to Michelle (working for the management company and slowly growing aware of what her job entails), these individuals are complicated, funny, heartbreaking, and inspiring. How they are pushed beyond breaking points and emerge into the wider world is captivating. Nussbaum’s obvious gifts as a playwright make this read more like a performance piece than a novel. Some of the cadence and vernacular choices can distract, as can the use of the present tense, but the book offers insight into the lives of those hidden away from the public, and it will have readers questioning “the system’s” choices and the public’s complacency. This is a stirring debut from a determined writer and activist. (May 28)
Reviewed on: 03/25/2013
Release date: 05/01/2013
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