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Displaying 1 - 30 of 93 reviews
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,272 reviews49 followers
June 14, 2018
This extraordinary book first came to my attention when it won the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize for small presses last year. I finally got round to reading it because it has been chosen for a group read by the 21st Century Literature group which is due to start tomorrow. It is a collection of short stories and novellas, which explore black history (some real, some imagined, all full of impressive period detail). Its scope runs from from the 17th century to the present day, ranging over several continents, and told using a variety of voices and styles, some straightforward, others more experimental.

The book is arranged chronologically, starting with a brief story about the first black settler on Manhattan island. Inevitably the longer pieces made a stronger impression - the longest is the story of Carmel, a slave girl who is sent to a convent school to accompany and serve her French owners' daughter in early 19th century Kentucky. Another tells the story of a man who finds his way into the nascent balloon corps during the American Civil war after absorbing lectures while working as a cook. I found the last few pieces quite hard work - the style gets increasingly chopped up and poetic which makes it a little difficult to follow.

This review just scratches the surface, for a more comprehensive one see Paul's here:
Profile Image for Matthew Ted.
765 reviews659 followers
September 15, 2022
100th book of 2022.

4.5. As the blurb puts better than I could: 'Ranging from the seventeenth century to our current movement, and crossing multiple continents, Counternarratives' stories and novellas draw upon memoirs, newspaper accounts, detective stories, interrogation transcripts, and speculative fiction to create new and strange perspectives on our past and present.'

I bought this a long time ago whilst visiting my old housemate in London. He, at the time, worked for a large bookshop chain and whenever I visited him allowed me to abuse his 50% discount all books. The only reason I bought it then (it also won the Republic of Consciousness Prize in 2017) was because I knew that in one of the stories included ("Rivers"), Jim meets up with Huckleberry Finn again, decades after the events of Mark Twain's American classic. Turns out, though interesting, "Rivers" wasn't even close to what the rest of this collection had to offer. By far the best thing the book has to offer is the novella "Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows", which ranges from post-revolutionary Haiti to a convent in Kentucky, following our strange and artistic slave girl, Carmel, who follows her French owner's daughter. Another brilliant novella is "The Aeronauts", which follows a young black man who ends up working for a scientist and using hot air balloons around the American Civil War. Keene's prose is wildly intelligent, steeped in history, but at all times lively, fresh and surprising. I devoured the first part, "Counternarratives", and the first half of the second, "Encounternarratives". The final part (titled "Counternarratives", again) includes only one story, which again felt weaker than the previous, but I was still too enamored by the rest to care. It's been likened to Borges, Delaney, Calvino, Vollmann and Bolaño. I'm hoping Keene is still writing somewhere, because he's a talent.
Profile Image for Paul Fulcher.
Author 2 books1,302 followers
October 30, 2022
Within the context shaped by a musket barrel, is there any ethical responsibility besides silence, resistance and cunning?

Another book drawn to my attention via the wonderful Republic of Consciousness Prize and another thought provoking and worthwhile book.

Generally speaking I don't like to read too many reviews before I read a book, but this was one where doing so certainly added to my appreciation. Indeed I was struggling to really appreciate the book until I did e.g. I hadn't appreciated that the first story, Mannahatta, was based on the real-life tale of Juan Rodriquez the first documented non-Native American to live on Manhattan Island. The link is to the original version of the Keene's story from TriQuarterly, the literary magazine of Northwestern University.

So for the interested reader of this novel here are some of the reviews I found very helpful (and which will be more illuminating than my review):

Counternarratives is a collection of thematically linked and chronologically ordered stories/novellas, spanning 400 years of history from the early 17th Century. These are rooted in period detail and research but as the title suggests, also offer alternative, even subversive, takes on the conventional telling of American history, particularly focusing on the perspective of black characters whose perspective, indeed their right to have a perspective of their own, is so often absent.

So examples include for aforementioned Mannahatta, where Keene focuses on the reasons why Rodriguez, who was deemed a “black rascal” by them for his actions, chose to abandon the ship of Dutch traders on which he served as a crewmember and translator, thereby providing a different take on the origins of New York.

Similarly, “An Outtake from the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution”, is the story of a slave set in and around Boston. At one point having been captured and on trial not only for his crimes but for his defiance of the social order, he re-escapes captivity and the noose, but the report of the authorities casually mentions:

given the severity of the crimes and the necessity of preserving the ruling order, another Negro, whose particular crimes are not recorded, was hanged in the Worcester Town Square.

Again Keene's retelling implicitly reminds us that, whatever the impositions of the colonial authorities which led to the American revolution, the treatment by them of their slave population, even if the supposedly more enlightened North, was an order of magnitude worse.

The story that will probably resonate most for many readers is Rivers, an update to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, from the perspective of James Alton Rivers, Jim the escaped slave in the original (where he was not even dignified with a surname). Jim, now a tavern owner, has a chance re-encounter with Huck and Tom Sawyer, and the story allows Keene to show us the logic of how the characters lives and personalities might have developed in later adult life, with Tom, in particular, now a full-blown racist:

You’d better watch yourself, Jim, you hear me? Good thing we know you but walking these streets like they belong to you, and they don’t to no nigger, no matter what some of you might think these days, so watch it, cause the time’ll come when even the good people like me and Huck here have had enough.

and the story ends with a twist when Huck and James have a further re-encounter: on the civil war battlefield.

The form of the narratives is also varied and original and adds to the effect. "Gloss on A History of Roman Catholics in the Early American Republic, 1790-1825; Or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows”, is the story of Carmel a highly intelligent young bondswoman, serving Eugenie in an early Catholic convent school in Kentucky. Eugenie is the surviving daughter of the white family Carmel originally served in Haiti, now orphaned after her parents were killed in the The Haitian Revolution.

The story is printed a long footnote to a brief excerpt from the early history of the Catholic Church in America, and interspersed in the narrative we have excerpts from Carmel's diaries written initially in pidgin English, an extract from an official report from the Convent, and periodic interludes on “the role of duty.” And as the narrative progresses, Carmel learns far more from the school lessons than her companion, her English ultimately evolving so that she takes over the narrative in the first person:

Though I still read just before going to sleep and maintained my journal, my entries now tending towards a brevity so extreme that sometimes only a word or two, at most a sentence, resonant for my memory and me alone, would suffice, and I filled whatever space remained with minute line drawings of my fellow bondswoman, of the animals, of the grounds; and with caricatures of the nuns, the white girls, and the glimpses I had gotten of he townspeople and of the convent's visitors
I seldom undertook the more elaborate drawings that had been my regular practice since arriving with Eugenie, through which from time to time I would extract the journals in which I'd drafted them, documents I kept carefully hidden in a storage space underneath he head of my cot, which I had dig out over a period of months and re-covered with a large paving stone, to review them, usually with a bit of bemusement at the queer constellation of imagery and significance that I had developed - what on earth or in the heavens had I been thinking? - and with admiration that, despite all the constraints I had faced, from lack of materials to disapproval to potential punishment, I had produced so much and, I was not ashamed to say, of such a high quality.

One of the interludes on “the role of duty” contains the perhaps the most powerful single line in the book:

Within the context shaped by a musket barrel, is there any ethical responsibility besides silence, resistance and cunning?

I am indebted to the review from The Nation for the observation that this is a version of Stephen Dedalus's line from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.” The contrast between exile and resistance being highly telling - the slave already lives in exile from their homeland: resistance is the only path.

And this is another of the books themes. Keene's characters are far from passive victims, typically seizing the initiative and dominating their nominal masters. Interestingly Keene also choses to give some of the characters the spiritual powers that other often attribute fearfully to them as black magic, so e.g. Carmel often finds herself seized to draw elaborate murals of tumultuous events that are about to happen (usually to the detriment of those who oppress her): indeed she herself isn't clear if her drawings foretell the events or precipitate them.

Two reservations about an otherwise excellent book:

One issue for the (or at least this) British reader is that the book is a little rooted in the specifics of the US historical perspective. As mentioned above, I didn't get the reference to Juan Rodriquez, as someone descended from the losing side I didn't need convincing of the de-merits of the American revolution, and Huckleberry Finn is much less canonical on this side of the pond, meaning debunking it has far less resonance.

Secondly, as my reference to other reviews may suggest, this is a book best enjoyed in terms of the thoughts in provokes and discussing the themes than perhaps the actual reading experience itself.

Nevertheless an important and worthwhile book.
Profile Image for Neil.
1,007 reviews651 followers
February 22, 2017
A review at says: "Throughout Counternarratives, Keene shows History to be woefully lacking in black subjectivities—more mirrors are needed, new mirrors, and this book offers up a panoply of reflections and refractions, a staggering range of voices, places, and styles: seventeenth-century Brazil, revolutionary Haiti, a nunnery in frontier Kentucky, a Civil War hot-air balloon, nineteenth-century Paris, and Depression-era Harlem, the epistle, the gothic, the monologue, the biographical, and the footnote, not to mention the sentences sharp and poetic like a handmade blade. Though unlinked, these thirteen stories have the sweeping tidal movement of a novel. Structured chronologically, from the arrival of the first immigrant to Mannahatta in 1613 to our abstracted now, the book reads as a shadow history of modernity, of its reasons and unreasons."

I can’t really put it any better than that, so I won’t try.

I don’t normally read short story collections and I only picked this up as part of a “project” to read all the nominees for The Republic of Consciousness Prize before the award ceremony on 9 March 2017. There have been some excellent choices (four novels, four short story collections) for this award and it will be fascinating to see which book wins.

This book completely (and I mean completely) won me over. Rarely do I read a book where my first thought on finishing it is that I need to do a lot of research and then come back and read it again. There is so much depth here and I think that I, as a British reader, missed out on much of what was happening. No doubt it will actually be some time before I read this again because I have so many other books to read, but I undoubtedly will re-read it and I will take time before that to understand a bit more of the context.

Loved it. 5 stars. Enough said.
Profile Image for Liviu.
2,283 reviews641 followers
July 22, 2015
saw this in a bookstore and couldn't put it down once I opened it, so i had to get a copy; very well written so far, a multiple strand vignette like narrative set in various places and times (starts in Brazil 1600-1700's and then moves to Puritan America mid 1700's)

read two more "narratives" from the book and it is still very impressive; very different voices, styles and characters and still keeping me turning pages

finished the book and it was very impressive to the end - the last (generally shorter) narratives moved into more surreal space after two quite straight narratives connected with the civil war (one about a 16 year old boy who works as a waiter, server and cook's assistant here and there but has a very lively mind and almost perfect recollection, so he gets a job as errand boy for the army aeronautical corp in Washington 1861, the other continuing the story of Jim from Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn once he obtains his freedom), but the earlier narratives - especially the one about a Haitian slave girl Carmel with unusual parents and powers, and the one about a Catholic mission in the deeps of Brazil - are the pieces of resistance of the book and they are as good as anything I've read this year.

overall - a book opened by chance as the title, cover and blurb sounded cool - became one of my top 10 books of the year and took over my reading until I finished it; highly recommended, blending many styles, times and places but always engrossing
Profile Image for Leo.
4,383 reviews404 followers
September 27, 2021
I've recently started to find short story collections that I've enjoyed even though I've said before I don't enjoy them. And this one was one of them. An interesting way to read about black history in different short stories spanning from 1600 century to modern time.
Profile Image for Kansas.
605 reviews289 followers
July 4, 2022
"¿He vivido, sin embargo, una forma de Infierno, morado en uno, o quizá en varios? Lo más seguro, y quizá esté en uno ahora."
"Quiero la esencia. Mi alma tiene prisa." (Mário de Andrade)"

En Contranarrativas se reúnen unas serie de textos, relatos, novelas cortas, cartas, trece en total, cuyo nexo en común es una reflexión sobre la raza y la esclavitud en el continente americano. Es un tema además que nunca lo había visto reflejado/narrado con la contundencia, la poesía, la carga literaria, con que John Keene nos lo muestra y admito que durante la mayor parte de la lectura de esta Contranarrativas me lo pasé como en una especie de estado de hechizo. Últimamente me he interesado mucho por esta narrativa en que el autor a partir de unos textos históricos construye toda una historia de ficción y de atmósferas tocando la esencia de lo que puede ser el hombre pero cuando llegué a Contranarrativas no tenía ni idea de que volvía a ponerse en mi camino, sin planearlo, un texto narrativa tan subyugante.

"Mientras huía se proclamó libre. Bajo presión, nuestros actos nos parecen soñados."

Los relatos de John Keene fluyen siguiendo un orden cronológico desde la introducción de la trata de esclavos en el siglo XVII hasta más o menos nuestros días. Es muy interesante la perspectiva de los primeros relatos en la que vamos conociendo los diferentes puntos de vista, los conquistadores y colonizadores, pasando por los misioneros que eran quienes tenían la vara de mando y a través de ellos y tomando el punto de partida de un dato histórico determinado, construye toda una historia en el que personaje principal, un esclavo, llámese Zion o Juan Rodrigues o Carmel nos presentan ese esa otra perspectiva que en la mayoría de los casos nos había llegado siempre sesgada por ese punto de vista del hombre colonizador blanco. Es a través de esta construcción de personajes pequeños que reviven gracias a la pluma del autor, cuando sentimos que han existido de verdad, que han sido absolutamente reales.

"Ahora que miraba a Joao Baptista a los ojos, consideró que en realidad nunca le había observado, nunca antes le había visto. El rostro poseía una familiaridad cristalina, pero no por una observación continuada; era como si hubiera atisbado esa cara en otra parte, en un espejo interior, y lo visto durante su estancia en la casa hubiera sido mero perfil, una máscara, una sombra."
"Como mujer u hombre era, consideró D´Azevedo, arrebatador. Los ojos que parecían brotar de las pupilas, estaban fijos en los de D´Azevedo. Éste tuvo que desviar la mirada, hacia sus libros, para poner en orden sus ideas."

En este aspecto, los cuatro primeros relatos de este texto, me han parecido absolutamente maravillosos, en particular “La extraña historia de Nuestra Señora de las Penas” porque aquí el autor se detiene en estos primeros fragores de la esclavitud y construye una atmósfera envolvente a través de una prosa que de alguna forma captura también la narrativa de la época. En "Nuestra Señora de las Peñas", Carmel una esclava huérfana viaja desde una plantación de Haití hasta un monasterio de Kentucky y a través de esta niña, más tarde mujer, Keene construye una especie de relato gótico en el que somos testigos de la búsqueda de identidad de una esclava que tiene un conflicto entre aceptar las reglas de un sistema y en el que ella es Nadie, y su propia evolución como individuo, como mujer, en el que ni el más mínimo deseo o expresión artistica le es permitida. Ya digo que solo por este relato largo, de algo más de cien páginas ya merece la pena leer esta Contranarrativas.

"Carmel se había acostumbrado al aislamiento y la soledad en Valdoré y valoraba cada momento lejos de Eugénie como una oportunidad para aprender y cultivarse. A cualquier coste: a las demás esclavas las ofendía que no durmiera con ellas, les ofendía su altura, que le confería un aire amazónico; su compostura, que interpretaban como arrogancia; les ofendía su afán por los libros, que les parecía pretencioso..."

John Keene tiene un talento especial para controlar el ritmo y para la atmósfera sincronizando esta prosa con la época que nos está contando en cada relato; no le importa experimentar, arriesgarse y hay momentos en que el lector puede visualizar perfectamente esas imágenes, como el del relato "Acrobatique", prácticamente construido con una única frase hipnótica y envolvente en el que se narra el encuentro de una trapecista con el pintor Degas que la acabará inmortalizando en el cuadro “Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando”, y así cada uno de los relatos contendrán algo que los hará enormemente valiosos y se quedarán grabados en la memoria.

"Quieres hablar. Lo estás pidiendo a gritos. Aquí estoy. Hay cosas que nunca se olvidan, no importa cuánto te esfuerces. Echan raíces, se quedan, dijiste tú una vez. No puedes olvidarlas, diría yo."

A partir de estos primeros cuatro relatos, el texto se va reconvirtiendo, deconstruyendo, experimentando tanto narrativa como argumentalmente y en los sucesivos relatos, nuevos personajes irán apareciendo, nuevos atisbos de datos históricos que irán desglosándose en nuevas historias personales, interrumpidas algunas, fugazmente intuídas en otras, pero siempre lo que pretende el autor es que veamos lo inquietante y perturbador que puede resultar que nuestras ideas preconcebidas se vayan al cubo de la basura, porque lo que nos habían contado hasta ahora no era real, lo que de verdad importa son esas pequeñas historias personales, la esencia del ser humano que ha quedado totalmente enterrada por la historia. Un texto que es una joya y durante su lectura lo leí con el Bloom de Beach House de fondo, no tienen nada que ver pero sí...

La traducción es de José Luis Amores.

"Claro que hay Infiernos e infiernos, lo que constituye una afirmación banal donde las haya, pues hay niveles de horror, de horrores, que todos presenciamos y vivimos a veces en propia carne, a menudo indirectamente, y es la inmediatez del horror, su sublimidad y nuestra incapacidad para reflexionar sobre ello, aunque no se nos borre de la memoria, lo que da forma a nuestro sentido de infierno, o Infierno, particular."
March 20, 2021
This was recommended by a friend who knows what I like, but on the back cover there's a blurb from Blake Butler that compares Keene's book to Samuel R. Delany and William Vollmann, and that just sealed the deal. One of those books that when you read it you just have to surrender to the fact it is smarter than you, not because it is hard to understand, but because it just is operating on so many levels of excellence, from the writing, to the structure, to the subtleties and parallels threaded throughout. It reads as a novel, don't let the subtitle fool you, and it deserved all accolades pushing it into the realm of Delany and Vollmann, though it does that and does it differently. Can't wait to read more John Keene.
Profile Image for Paul Dembina.
436 reviews92 followers
July 16, 2021
An intriguing set of stories all offering alternative viewpoints from the perspective of people normally in the background of major events. In this case mainly characters of colour.

Since Paul Fulcher has expressed exactly how I feel about this book I refer you to his review for more details
Profile Image for Justin Evans.
1,553 reviews812 followers
September 15, 2017
I've put off writing a review of this book for months, because I wanted to do justice to it. I can't. It's really good, really intelligent--Keene can write, and despite setting himself up for intellectual failure (the obvious problem with 'counternarratives' being that they create a Manichean world), he doesn't fail. The moral horrors of racism in the Americas are made entirely plain, as are the mechanisms used to keep it in place, but they're never attributed to some evil cabal. They are the social structures that form us. And technically, this is a lesson in combining formal skill and intellectual ambition with emotional heft.
Profile Image for Tuck.
2,224 reviews210 followers
October 14, 2015
short stories and novellas mostly about colonial times in n n s amer, specifically british colonies in new england and Lusitania in the south of the porteguese, and their uses and abuses of blacks and indians. so historical fiction but not too much period lingo, but just enough vocabulary to 'take you back'...well written, cool real characters, not polemic but told straight so reader has no doubt of the hypocrisy of the idea of lesser and greater humans. get your history and entertaining too.
here is a long book review from 'the nation' 10.19.15
Profile Image for Mickey.
99 reviews49 followers
February 10, 2016
Wonderful book. It looks at historical moments in history from pre-Revolutionary War to present history from the viewpoints of people of color. He takes the moments that were just footnotes in a historical document or a small announcement in a newspaper and turns them into beautifully written fully-realized stories.

Click the link below to hear more of my thoughts on this wonderful short story collection.
Profile Image for Erinisfantastic.
258 reviews
September 17, 2015
This book is brilliant. It was downright difficult to read in spots, and yet I still thought it was amazing. I did think there were a COUPLE stinker stories (if I was more fluent in history, I'm sure they would have made more sense), which is the only reason I'm holding back a star. There should be more short form historical fiction in the world, and it all should be written by John Keene.
Profile Image for Marc.
788 reviews110 followers
June 23, 2018
It's not so much that I enjoyed this book as I found it fascinating and rather absorbing. Keene's stories operate on so many different levels as he dramatizes history while giving voice to the marginalized in ways that peel back the false veneer of accepted truths and retold myths, especially as it relates to the Americas and the black experience. The sum is greater than the parts, although many of the parts are exceptional in their own right. The amount of research and deliberation that went into these writings is evident in every single word. I'm still struggling with trying to make sense of this, but it's one of those truly rewarding struggles where one is challenged intellectually and conceptually.
Of course there are Hells and there are hells, which is really a statement of banalities, for there are degrees of horror, of horrors, which we all witness and live through, sometimes directly, often indirectly, and it is the immediacy of horror, its sublimity and our incapacity even to reflect upon it, though we may indelibly remember it, that shapes our sense of what a particular hell, or Hell itself, may be.

lees | conversos | pettiaugers | sertāo | quilombo | mocambo | manumitting | chasuble | balneary | berimbau | lambi | factotums | guimpes | dun scapulars | nisi audiam no te exaudiam | abatises | revetment | fascines | ostinato | nasturtium | passarine | ofay | mephitic
Profile Image for Kate Savage.
667 reviews120 followers
March 6, 2023
These are extraordinary stories, reframing history through the eyes of the enslaved and oppressed. Even in the maw of colonization and white supremacism, nearly each story reveals a wily power -- unexpected escapes, survivals, pleasures, triumphs.

I highly recommended this compilation to anyone interested in history. But also there's really broad appeal in stories like "Rivers," which follows out the story of Jim from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in a really satisfying way (screw you, Tom Sawyer!).

Many of Keene's protagonists have a supernatural access to hidden knowledge. This book feels like Keene's own magic power, to resurrect the dead, revitalize history, connect with the ancestors, and snatch new meaning out of all that awful violence.
Profile Image for Julia.
495 reviews
July 9, 2016
simply better & working harder than probably all contemporary(ish) fiction i've read recently? the sort of book that attunes you to the complacency of most surrounding writing. the complacency of only writing from the present in the present, of writing from what directly concerns you, or rather of thinking that what directly concerns you is simply what you see, what is obviously tangible in the now, the people you walk past in the grocery store whom you try to turn into relatable individuals just by transplanting your own thoughts and concerns and rituals into their bodies. the setting of most fiction is like forgetting that what happened an hour before still matters & i didn't even really realize that until reading this. the sort of fiction that has some issues with the idea or goal or ideal of writing that aspires to universality because so often universality is just conceived as the feelings that can transcend time, isn't it? a conception of universality that isn't sensitive to setting, to history, to the ways circumstance situates and creates feeling. the best stories in counternarratives are the ones that build, the ones that feel full; they conjure up dimensional environments, leafy, full of foliage and shadows and other hedgy spaces to peer into. unabashedly specific, plural universes. and man does john keene know the value of when precisely and rarely and contextually to dip into emotion and abstraction. how to mostly wield prose of reportage. there's such a weird—impressive—balance of restraint and baroqueness to the prose style. going to keep brooding now about the self-centered inadequacies of other writing (keene knows how to write introspection that isn't self-obsessed, how to experiment in ways not tied to and limited by character, introspection, authorship, which is getting tired or at least overdone in the same ways, isn't it?).
Profile Image for Jackie Law.
876 reviews
March 6, 2017
Counternarratives, by John Keene, is a collection of historical fiction pieces imaginatively written in the style of reportage. Most are set in America through the centuries of slavery leading up to the practice’s eventual abolition. The exploration of ingrained and continuing racial prejudice is percipient and depressing.

The ownership of people, the cruelties inflicted and the effect this had on all is presented in a variety of settings. The attitude that troublesome slaves should be broken, that they were property to be used or traded, reminds the reader of the entitlement the paler skinned fully believed was their due. They could think ‘only of their own disappearing universe’, not that of those on whose lives they viciously inflicted their ideas.

These jaundiced views remain recognisable in the world we live in today. There were instances of comeuppance but only the occasional glimmer of positivity:

“we must never let the lies and the tears devour us, we must deliver and savor the years.”

The essence of the subject matter and the breadth and depth of each short story is impressive. However, although the author takes an innovative approach to presenting his themes I found the writing dense and often challenging to read. The stories are substantial with a strong evocation of time and place. What was a struggle was maintaining engagement.

There are many who appreciate strong, literary prose and this may well be a book more suited to them. As a reader who wishes to relax and enjoy a book these tales proved heavy going. Creatively constructed and thought provoking though each piece is, this is not a book that I can personally recommend.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions.
754 reviews
August 9, 2020
I enjoyed the premise of this book, especially the stories in which he takes on a scholarly tone to tell a story left out of history. I loved "Gloss, ot the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows" for literally being a footnote. The title of "An Outtake from the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution" is SO GOOD to be followed by a story of a man bumping up against the law and colonial society repeatedly as he tries to be free. Zion steals and fights and runs and is not an easy character to pin such a title to, but that's what makes it so great--his crimes are his own, his attempt to fight back against a society that wants to control him.

I also loved the span of the Americas, looking at slavery and oppression throughout and finding commonalities everywhere, especially in Brazil, often used as a counterpoint to U.S. History: race mixture and prejudice, casual cruelty many times based on an idea of superiority in the cruel one, resistance and complex inner worlds--I especially liked the way that many of the narrators find those in charge to be unworthy of respect, sharply observing the oppressors' flaws and biding their time for action. Like Burunbana at the mission in Brazil or Carmel in Kentucky. Their contempt, rendered in such beautiful language, is palpable and powerful. The discipline of History has too often treated historical subjects that way for unjustified and unjustifiable reasons: it's nice (although unsettling) to see the tables turned. (I hope it's clear what I mean: History writers and practitioners have judged people and marginalized them and treated the subject of History as the province of the few and turned their contempt on the many for no good reason, other than that they ARE the many, the not-privileged, whereas Keene's narrators have VERY good reasons to be contemptuous of some of these people. The people who don't listen or see or actively try NOT to listen or see, the cruel and mean and self-serving and condescending and those who depend on others but treat them like nonhumans, those who would benefit from the pain or spectacle of others.)

I think it would be really interesting to read "Rivers," about what happened to Jim from Huckleberry Finn years after the end of the story, alongside Huckleberry Finn in a class. To talk about how we talk about that book and Mark Twain and what we think about teaching "race" in high school especially and congratulating ourselves for taking on Tough Subjects from a safe historical distance and yay racism is dead NOW, of course. One white guy protagonist sort of maybe reconsiders his assumptions, and the world is saved! And OF COURSE Tom Sawyer became a vocal white supremacist. And Huck gets no absolution either. And yet Jim has such sympathy for them (although his contempt for them also comes through in his precise sizing-up of them and his refusal to go into his actual life story with them, knowing it means nothing to them and therefore he owes them nothing. Maybe I don't mean contempt? But an acknowledgement of a gap between them and a perception that that gap is the fault of the other side and a pity and sad but also angry-making? Is all of that a word?). I say he can have sympathy for them as well as contempt because HE can see the reasons why they turned out like they did (even acknowledging that Huck has probably seen some hardship in the intervening years) and that their world is crumbling and they're angry and fighting back, but their lack of appreciation for (and their unwillingness or inability even to consider) HIS side of things, going all the way back to that infamous raft trip down the Mississippi, is unacceptable, immoral even.

I thought "The Aeronauts" was boring and long for such an abrupt ending. I could grasp the purpose of "Persons and Places," to tell a story of a not-meeting from two perspectives, but the subtlety of the observations was lost on me. I really liked "Cold" for its portrayal of mental illness and cognitive dissonance coming to a head. I thought "The Lions" merited its own section for its "outside-of-time"ness (which even the characters IN the story reckon with), although it's clearly more contemporary. But the characters are unnamed and more general than the glosses of historical figures, so it felt different? And then I was trying to read it like an allegory and although my idea doesn't really fit the story exactly, it got me thinking about the formation of states in the tradition of colonialism. These two characters are a deposed ruler and his betrayer-successor, the second telling the first he should have expected it (his betrayal, his fall). And I was thinking: this is the rise of a new power telling an old power that everyone's days are numbered within such a system, built on acquiring land, money, power, even if some of the people doing all of that think they're doing it for a good reason. And so the second, new leader also numbers his own days from the time he seizes power, but the system goes on.

I was just thinking about a talk I attend in grad school in which this high-ranking professor from another somewhere had a very careful theory all laid out about the historical march of the center of civilization westward. He started in China, went through Europe, ended in the Americas. (all of this was so weird to me at the time and still is--how can you tell where the "center" of something like "civilization" is? What criteria would you use to show that? Why would someone want to make such weird sweeping claims about history?) And, in the question and answer portion, I asked him about the next step, if his theory would predict the future and the march of civilization back to Asia as "west" became "east" on the globe to keep on marching that direction. He did NOT like that. His theory was meant to show where we are NOW (how very Hegelian: history culminated in ME and thus is now over), not the FUTURE (which was most likely going to be very much like the present, how dare you suggest otherwise). It's interesting to look at counternarratives of that march of civilization westward and to ask about rises and falls (and not assume any group is immune from a fall) and contextualize what's really gained and lost in such a march, and how without such counternarratives we'd keep telling only the nicest parts (for those on top) and ignoring even how exactly many of those "civilizations" were built with the labor of oppressed peoples that get us to where we are today.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,819 reviews1,381 followers
May 12, 2017
Under the circumstances, are there any benefits to dedication, devotion, honor, responsibility? What. in this context, is the responsible action? Is it even possible to invoke a rhetoric of ethics? Only repetition produces tangible benefits, which include the stability of a routine (however precarious) and the forestalling of longer term considerations that might provoke the following emotions: fear, indecision, paralyzing despair. In the absence of a stable context, the question of ethics intrudes. What kinds of responsibility? The maintenance of the established order, that is: labor? What is the non-material or spiritual component? In the private sphere: to the ancestors, their memory, to the elusive community of the self and its desires - constancy or consistency. What is these are in conflict

Other than the above quote I really cannot add anything to the review below

Except to make the observation that the underlying subject matter of this book (showing a counternarrative to the white dominated view of history and culture) is at heart the same as the Booker Prize winning The Sellout. The execution could not be more different.
Profile Image for LindaJ^.
2,168 reviews6 followers
June 21, 2018
These are not your typical short stories. A couple are of novella length. This historical fiction that is not so fictional and involve history that is not so familiar. The primary settings are the countries now known as the United States and Brazil. The primary characters are individuals of color; it is through their eyes that the reader sees the history unfold; much of the history was not familiar to this North American reader. This is history as seen through the eyes of those who did not (and perhaps still do not) often get to tell their story. I will not attempt to distill the stories, as it has been done much better by other reviewers. As others have done, I suggest reading Paul Fulcher's excellent review -- -- for a better understanding of the stories.

The writing is quite amazing. I often found myself re-reading sentences, sometimes because they were so exquisitely written, sometimes because they were so long, I needed to pay closer attention to the punctuation to follow the thought.

This book set on my shelf for a year or longer. It was the moderators' pick for June/July 2018 in the GR Twenty-first Century Literature Group, giving me the kick I needed to take it off the shelf. And it is certainly worth the read.
Profile Image for Kobe Bryant.
1,040 reviews143 followers
September 14, 2016
This book is about the black experience and freedom and a lot of other things and it's surprisingly varied. "The Aeronaut" was my favorite
Profile Image for michal k-c.
558 reviews43 followers
July 13, 2023
rarely encounter a contemporary work that is such a masterclass in multiple styles... Keene plays around with Gothic tropes, epistolary narrative, and a decent share of maritime exploration and trade routes — a veritable grab-bag of archaic lit idioms, all presently holdovers from the height of the West's age of empire. The prose here can oscillate between nigh flat reportage and experimental (especially some of the later stories), where, like say Woolf or Hrabal, Keene gives us propulsive inner monologues, allowing a certain character's thoughts to overflow the possibilities of linguistic articulation.
Very solid book ! will be looking to read more of Keene soon.
Profile Image for Silkec.
6 reviews4 followers
November 12, 2020
Read half of it
Loved some stories very much, some others could not spark my interest
Profile Image for Steve.
Author 1 book12 followers
February 28, 2018
John Keene's Counternarratives, published in 2017, is a literary experiment, an attempt to add nuance and balance to the grand narrative of Western Civilization. Its frequently surreal tales deal with the lives of indigenous peoples, African slaves, and minorities whose lives take place beneath the radar of European colonialism in the Western hemisphere. Other stories involve African-American artists and composers whose work didn't fit into the "whitegeist" of their era.

Keene's fictions are set in a world like ours, where events like wars and economic upheavals form the distant backdrop for the action. Most often, the black characters are agents of chaos and disorder in the workings of white civilization, virtually invisible in societies geared toward privileging white institutions and experience until they transgress conventions meant to limit their agency.

In one story, Keene explicitly appropriates characters from Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer to create a postmodern postscript to the iconic American saga. Here, former runaway slave Jim relates how he meets Tom and Huck later in life, when the two irrepressible boys have grown up to become cynical, racist carpetbaggers.

It's fascinating that the concept of altitude comes up in Keene's stories, as if he's suggesting that physical location in reference to the ground is a function of consciousness or advancement. In one tale, an African-American serving as assistant to a scientist in the Union Army during the Civil War gets trapped in a hot air balloon rising above Washington.

The story that's worth the price of admission alone is the jaw-droppingly brilliant novella "Gloss," in which Keene's full vision is realized. It begins as a dry treatise on a Midwestern church. However, it's interrupted by a footnote worthy of David Foster Wallace that chronicles the trials and tribulations of Carmel, a slave and seer whose masters take her from revolution-torn Haiti to America. Soon she takes over the narration in first person and describes the havoc she wreaks with her artistic powers on a convent school in Kentucky, where she's trapped with her master's peevish daughter. Finally Carmel exacts revenge in a sequence wherein, once again, Keene envisions black consciousness taking literal flight:

Perhaps, I find myself recounting to Phedra, Marinette and others, it will be left to the patience of someone else more devoted to the genre of literature than I to record the noises that filled that hot and moonless night in Kentucky, or the taste that lingered on the tongues of the few survivors after the gunpowder stored beneath the printing press caught fire, or the particular stench of burning brick and plaster and ink fused with flesh and hair, or the feeling of being thrown far, far into the black air with nothing to halt your eventual fall back to the parched, grassless soil ... I personally will never forget how that scene—so distant from where I was then that it required all my powers to concentrate—reminded me of nothing less than a forget-me-not, white with bright scars of crimson and azure, holding fast like a last memory or reliquary of sorrows against the bluffs above a small, almost forgotten provincial island or inland colonial town.
Profile Image for Diana McClure.
37 reviews1 follower
November 27, 2017
John Keene's Counternarratives is a mind blowing read. My synapses were popping and my chi and prana were flowing at epic levels with each turn of the page. As a collection, the short stories crisscross time and culture in an imagintive exploration of unique, obscure and eclectic fictional stories filled with historical references to centuries of Black diasporic life. It may require, at a minimum, an open, expansive, and fluid mind to even begin to taste the literary pleasures found in John Keene's storytelling.
Profile Image for Chelsey.
Author 11 books187 followers
April 24, 2017
The novella "Gloss" is in itself worth the price of admission. From Haitian revolution to Kentucky convent, an astonishing, inventive story about a mute enslaved girl with visionary artistic powers and a knockout ending.
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