The New Yorker weighs in on The Book of Esther: “[T]he project of the book—placing a Biblical heroine in a version of the twentieth-century conflict that nearly obliterated Jewish culture—raises complex questions about alternate history and mythology.” You can read the whole review here.
“In this thrillingly inventive novel, Emily Barton has created a whole world worth losing yourself in. She sneaks up on you with a story so original you’ll wonder how she found it, and so vital that it seems amazing no one has ever told it before.”
“A bold reimagining of some of the darkest history of World War II. Barton’s Esther is like a Jewish Joan of Arc, except the calling she feels is entirely her own—and to honor it, she has to turn the ways of the world upside down.”
“Emily Barton has formerly reimagined the history of New York, and now she’s reconceived historic Europe as an entirely different place, replete with Jewish woman warriors on mechanical steeds and multiplying golems. Exhilirating in its freedom and exacting in its thought—a fine book.”
Brookland is most obviously a historical novel, painstaking in its carefully researched and vividly imagined reconstruction of a vanished world, peopled by families with old Brooklyn names like Schermerhorn, Joralemon, and Hicks. But it is also a novel about the fragility of family ties, about ghosts””architectural as well as human””and about the sacrifices that artists are willing to make in order to fulfill their dreams…– Christopher Benfey, the New York Review of Books on Brookland
Brookland is most obviously a historical novel, painstaking in its carefully researched and vividly imagined reconstruction of a vanished world, peopled by families with old Brooklyn names like Schermerhorn, Joralemon, and Hicks. But it is also a novel about the fragility of family ties, about ghosts””architectural as well as human””and about the sacrifices that artists are willing to make in order to fulfill their dreams… Emily Barton has written of her admiration for George Eliot’s novels, especially the “long, discursive chapters” of The Mill on the Floss, in which, as in Brookland, “a difficult protagonist… ultimately loses the fight.” The reader may long to give advice to Maggie Tulliver and Prudence Winship, to warn them to choose a more suitable mate or to settle for less in their chaotic lives. But as I finished reading Brookland, it was Willa Cather who came most insistently to mind””Cather whose first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, is also about a heroic designer with outsized ambitions whose flaws are projected onto his great bridge. In several of her subsequent novels, Cather addresses another of Barton’s themes, the human cost of success for a woman artist. Cather’s The Song of the Lark charts the strange emptying out of the successful artist’s personal life as the imaginative life comes to dominate her existence. “Her artistic life,” as Cather observed, “is the only one in which she is happy, or free, or even very real.” This is Prue’s fate as well, so difficult for her sisters and daughter to fathom.
[A] magnificent epic… Barton’s second novel is a breathtaking, heartbreaking mix of gender-busting innovation and the story of decent people living enormous lives in a close family whose secrets lead to explosive tragedy. Highly recommended.– Library Journal (starred review) on Brookland
. . . everything that stymies the the goal-oriented reader–unhurried essays on antique gin-distilling techniques, verbatim chunks of sermons, phalanxes of peripheral characters–makes Barton’s stately period piece . . . a treat for the rest of us. In her account of an extraordinary woman’s life in Brooklyn circa 1800, Barton has re-created the borough’s brief pastoral moment in such lavish, precise detail that I can’t think of a single recent historical novel that compares… While female detectives may exercise their faculties in contemporary thrillers, mainstream fiction heroines engrossed in challenging jobs–as opposed to challenging cads–are rare. Which makes Brookland that much more of a rare delight. Grade: A-– Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly on Brookland
[A] capitvating tale . . . seamless, period-rich prose.– Vogue Magazine on Brookland
At the narrative center of Brookland, Emily Barton’s second novel, is a drawing””a sketch of the bridge that gin manufacturer Prue Winship dreams of erecting between Manhattan and Brooklyn at the dawn of the 19th century; however, it doesn’t so much depict a would-be architect’s invention as represent the fundamental need to invent in the first place. As it turns out, the willingness of its illustrator, Prue’s mute sister Pearl, to conform to Prue’s detailed specifications is finite; only too late does it become clear that Pearl has her own ideas about the way the world works, and an equally fierce capacity for expressing them. It’s not just that our creative urges define us; Brookland suggests that, even more than love, imagination makes or breaks us””or does both, even in the same moment… Barton’s gift with Brookland, as with [The] Testament [of Yves Gundron], is to immerse you gradually in a part-historical, part-mythical world.– Ruth Tobias, the Weekly Dig on Brookland
The deliberate primness of Barton’s tone – common to both “Yves Gundron” and “Brookland,” which are otherwise completely different books – makes her a strange and rare object among contemporary American writers. In a world of speed and irony and obliqueness, her unhurried gait and formal diction catch the gaze and hold it. She thinks deeply about her subjects; her imagination has unusually wide bounds; the austerity of her voice at once offers and withholds revelation.
. . . a work of such grandeur that it evokes Tolstoy’s genius for scope and story.– Julie Brickman, the San Diego Union-Tribune on Brookland
Some young writers you just need to know about, if you care at all about fiction. Today’s subject: Emily Barton. I’ll wait while you jot that down. In 20 years, when it’s perfectly obvious to everyone that Barton is one of the great ones of her generation, please take that slip out and remember where you read the name… The result is a novel as transporting as Yves Gundron, but all the more remarkably so for being virtually without any tricks of narrative. This time, Barton’s delicately realistic prose soars alone, illuminating the shadows within a heart…You can find out for yourself if Prue’s wish is answered. Mine has been, now that Emily Barton’s second novel has arrived to fulfill the promise of her first.– Marta Salij, the Detroit Free Press on Brookland
In Brookland, Emily Barton has taken an elegant way with questions of thought-provoking substance and has made a very fine and satisfying novel. And, if there is heartbreak at its end, those hearts are broken over things that mattered then ”” and still.– Tim Rutten, the Los Angeles Times on Brookland
Strip the saga from the family saga, and history-as-pageant treatment from the historical novel, and you end up roughly in the literary terrain that Emily Barton occupies in her heartfelt new novel, Brookland . . . For Barton, history is more than costuming and period color.– Art Winslow, the Chicago Tribune on Brookland
Strip the saga from the family saga, and history-as-pageant treatment from the historical novel, and you end up roughly in the literary terrain that Emily Barton occupies in her heartfelt new novel, Brookland… For Barton, history is more than costuming and period color. In the Revolutionary years, for example, the king’s soldiers still linger in Brookland, even after the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown (in fall 1781), and they are more of a presence in the novel than the stately figures of Washington, Jefferson and Franklin, mentioned only fleetingly as a reminder that the historical clock is ticking as Barton’s characters age. History, as Barton uses it, becomes the set of everyday conditions that define the physical and psychological possibilities for her characters. So the fact that the king’s soldiers have denuded Brookland, hacking down most of the trees, is as material as the Revolution itself in its immediate effects on the people we meet: ginmakers, farmers, sawmill operators, ferrymen, tavernkeepers, children. Likewise, while Barton’s tale is multigenerational, the lives of the central characters are not epic in the sweeping, theatric sense. Why is it that historical novels routinely depend on characters “swept up” in the great moments of history? One thing Brookland demonstrates is the lack of necessity for such plotting: Characters can have gripping lives in gripping times, with the public and private events somewhat dissociated from each other, as in life. We should have guessed from Barton’s first novel, The Testament of Yves Gundron, that she would use genres for her own ends… Yet uncertainty—the unknown, even when it is a sibling or a parent or a spouse in question—is the most intoxicating agent in Brookland.
Ms. Barton’s prose voice is as good and supple as anything being written in America today. But in its period tone (if that’s the word), it reaffirms the unswerving adage of the novel reader: Describe a world well enough and I am its member. This is the voice of a great novelist.– David Thomson, the New York Observer on Brookland
We treasure and enjoy some novelists because they offer us a world, and let us feel we can enter it like original inhabitants. It’s a going home, even if we’ve never been there before… I don’t necessarily mean to suggest that Emily Barton is a full-fledged rival to Thomas Hardy””but Ms. Barton is only in her 30’s, the age at which Hardy had written Far from the Madding Crowd and not much else. In fact, I suspect that Ms. Barton already has more voices in her head than Hardy possessed, as well as a sturdier hope for the lives we lead. But what makes Brookland such an enormous achievement, and such a complete world in which to escape, is that this place is not Wessex (now full of antiques and cream-tea nostalgia””a dead end), but that corner of the world where the East River snakes around the edge of Manhattan island, the opportunity that Brooklyners and Americans have to inspect New York and wonder what happens there…This is a long story, and one that unwinds slowly, but with stunning enough effect to satisfy the waiting. The patience to stick with Prudence comes from the steady beauty of Ms. Barton’s writing. There are two strands to the book: letters written by Prudence as a mature woman (letters that capture both the eloquence and the idiosyncrasy of early 19th-century writing by unschooled people), and a more withdrawn narrative that is seldom modern or up-to-date. I take this backwards look””the bulk of the book””to be the largest part of Ms. Barton’s research (evidently extensive) and her talent (seemingly unlimited). And it may be worth stressing that many Hardy novels were set not in the year they were written but in a prior age, lost and enchanted. Ms. Barton’s prose voice is as good and supple as anything being written in America today. But in its “period” tone (if that’s the word), it reaffirms the unswerving adage of the novel reader: Describe a world well enough and I am its member. This is the voice of a great novelist.
Marvelous…So much modern fiction thinks small, feels small. Emily Barton will never be accused of either…Large and complex storytelling…Brookland turns out to be a story not just of risk, daring and ambition, but of the courage to fail–and the courage to live on after failing.– Christopher Corbett, New York Times Book Review on Brookland
Together with the book’s profound treatment of the spiritual ills born of the Enlightenment, this wonderful character is Barton’s main gift to us.– Joan Acocella, New Yorker Magazine on Brookland
But, if the bridge doesn’t succeed in creating the hoped-for unity, the book does. Brookland itself is a kind of bridge, not just in its great span, from 1772 to 1823, and in its lattice of solid little parts””what the Winships eat for dinner (sweet-potato stew), how many dresses Prue has (one, brown)””but in its balance of opposing forces, above all, the forces within Prue’s personality. Brookland is certainly a feminist novel, a child of Little Women and The Song of the Lark, but, unlike the protagonists of those books, Prue is not a “natural.” She isn’t pretty. She’s a worrywart; she’s full of envy and remorse. She loves her family passionately, but she would trade them all for the bridge. The thing she loves best is her own mind, but she doesn’t trust that, either. She is not a “good-models” feminist heroine, nor is she one of the bad-girl heroines of second-stage feminism. She is a thorny, struggling soul. Together with the book’s profound treatment of the spiritual ills born of the Enlightenment, this wonderful character is Barton’s main gift to us.
An engrossing folktale that, in our technology-crazed era, ought to be required reading.– John Freeman, Time Out New York on The Testament of Yves Gundron
Emily Barton’s debut novel is destined to alter the landscape of contemporary literature.– Talk Magazine on The Testament of Yves Gundron
Fully and wittily imagined, written in heightened language that never falters of grows slack… Barton’s language is beautiful and shapely and . . . lovely touches of magic add a wonderful texture… A sly, joyous read.– Booklist on The Testament of Yves Gundron
A commanding and extraordinarily accomplished debut.– Kirkus Reviews (starred review) on The Testament of Yves Gundron
Rare is the author who can reimagine the fall of man and make it neither tragedy nor farce, but something delicately and illuminatingly balanced between. Rare, too, is the perspective Emily Barton takes for the audacious fable that is The Testament of Yves Gundron. She invokes a world that teeters before a likely ruinous progress and asks: What does it mean to be modern? Is it the acquisition of technology? The abandonment of the past? Or the ambivalence of embracing and repelling the future? Her answers might not be what you expect.– Marta Salij, the Chicago Tribune on The Testament of Yves Gundron
Few emerging novelists–or experienced ones–could handle the kinds of challenges Barton deftly accepts in this triumphant debut.– Publishers Weekly (starred review) on The Testament of Yves Gundron
“Few emerging novelists—or experienced ones—could handle the kinds of challenges Barton deftly accepts in this triumphant debut… For all of her storytelling prowess—and this book is exuberant with story—Barton’s real asset is her febrile imagination. Mandragora’s quotidian routines are detailed so convincingly, and so lovingly that the reader starts to resent the encroaching future, with ”˜its hum and its terrible energy,’ as much as Yves himself does. Barton’s intelligent and amusing facility with idioms and speech patterns rooted in Middle English injects a dynamic historical feel into her truly visionary project.”
Blessedly post-ironic, engaging and heartfelt–a story that moves with ease and certainty, deeply respecting the given world even as it shines with the integrity of dream.– Thomas Pynchon on The Testament of Yves Gundron