Lazaretto: A Novel, by Dianne McKinney-Whetstone, (Harper), 352 pages, release date 12 April, 2016
The key location in Lazaretto is, of course, a lazaretto: a quarantine hospital. In this case, the quarantine hospital is on an island in the harbor beside Philadelphia. Weak and dying immigrants—and Philadelphia residents suspected of carrying easily transmissible diseases—may find themselves isolated on the lazaretto, unsure of when they’ll be able to rejoin the wider world.
The crucial latter part of Lazaretto is set on the lazaretto, but much of the book takes place within the black community of Philadelphia in the years following the assassination of Abraham Lincolm. The book’s characters range widely in color, occupation, and status. Added to the mix are orphaned twin brothers Abraham and Lincoln. While both are technically “white,” culturally they, too, are black: odd men out in a community full of odd men.
Lazaretto offers high-stakes drama: a murder, an attack by white racists leaving central characters balanced on the cusp of life and death, pure and less-than-pure loves, spiritualism, and a possible outbreak of yellow fever. This novel propels readers along, with alternating waves of fear and celebration. The number of characters brought to life between its pages gives readers a panoramic view of a particular moment in U.S. history, when slavery has ended, but freedom is still a long way off.
Read this book for this historical and cultural insights it offers. Read it for its characters, who make excellent companions. And read it for the almost transcendental moments when McKinney-Whetstone offers readers yet one more surprise in a novel full of surprises.
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