Kirkus Review of The Mantle
This novel sees a secluded tribe thrive on forgiveness and a dedication to building emotional bridges.
A meteor struck a valley long ago, creating the crater called Elgiba. The Mahari tribe has made a pilgrimage there for a celebration of the planting season. It has also been seven generations since Hu Mani, or the Great Ruin involving war and environmental despoliation. Heglen is the tribe’s cóntagé, which combines priest, historian, and storyteller. He and his wife, Gerda, have a young son named Matego. Sons are precious to the Mahari, for not even King Josef and Queen Hashti have one yet as heir to the throne. A certain tribesman adopted from the warlike Shimani people, the Principal Hunter known as Stebin, knows this and hopes to corrupt the peaceful Mahari. He lures Matego away from his family during the festival, but fails to kidnap him. Later, tragedy befalls the tribe and Stebin takes to the wilds to recruit warriors for his long-simmering revenge scheme. Despite this danger, King Josef travels to the Word Tree, an ancient oak that’s inscribed with Mahari lineage and wisdom. Will he return hale, hearty, and filled with knowledge to help guide his people, including his latest child, yet to be born? In this generations-spanning saga, Underwood (Growing Lavender and Other Poems, 2007, etc.) illuminates a society stripped down to the essentials of relationships, art, learning, and faith. Stebin’s sly villainy mirrors that of a real-world sociopath, as he frequently subverts the Mahari rule that requires three witnesses to convict someone before the Council. He will never understand that “for every reason to hate, there is a higher reason to love.” Narrative tension rises when Queen Hashti gives birth to Prince Rahabem, who knows only love and is deeply vulnerable. The author also generates mystery with the notion of the Other Side, which harbors great truths for the Mahari. When the tribe’s essence is threatened, the means to carry on comes from the least expected source. Colorful images by debut illustrator Harlukowicz beautify the text.
An engaging and instructive adventure that emphasizes humans’ collective ability to rise above life’s challenges.
The Mantle review by Debra Darvick
August 8, 2019
There is always talk of beach reads, books to lose yourself in while your toes are buried in the sand. They are quickly read, sometimes in succession and are left behind, much like sand brushed from our feet before we head back to our real lives.
But what of winter reads? What of those books savored during the season when nights come early? Books whose sound track is not the din of children’s shouts and lifeguard whistles, but the crackle of a fire and the quiet clink of your tea cup as you set it down to reflect upon a just read chapter.
The Mantle, poet, essayist, and now novelist, Iris Underwood’s work, is just such a book. The complexities and communal strivings of the Mahari — Underwood’s deftly-crafted civilization teeters between destruction and transformation — inspire reflection on the meaning of our days and of our lives.
The Mahari are a remnant people, survivors of Hu Mani, the Great Ruin that forced them to adapt all the while preserving their Maker’s core spiritual teachings. Eight generations later, their sheltered way of life is in question — unseated by seething jealousies from within and challenged by spiritual understandings that have evolved beyond their carefully protected borders.
The complexities of The Mantle are its strength and at times its frustration. Underwood has created an entire world, replete with its own vocabulary, customs and lineage. The glossary is helpful, but until I was more familiar with the many characters, I found it helpful to jot their names as I read.
The poet’s voice resonates throughout. Grafted brother, two hands full of miracles, the seven lamps of the Great Starry Cup (the Mahari’s name for the Big Dipper), are just a few of Underwood’s gems. So too are the observations about our relationships. How many of us struggle against the power of memory when asked to have mercy? How many times have hardships blinded us to kindness? Or to the blessings within those very hardships?
The sun will soon set on summer. Beach reads will recede with the tides. Order your copy of The Mantle now. Winter will be here before too long.
By Debra Darvick, author, This Jewish Life, We Are Jewish Faces, I Love Jewish Faces
"(Iris Lee Underwood) has created quietly heroic men, women and children who struggle and win... to preserve and change the history of their people."
"The detailed culture and characters, plus some mystery and intrigue, keep the reader interested. A celebration of the written word and its power to connect us."
"I strongly suggest you obtain a copy of the Mantle, add a log to the fire and lose yourself in this magical tale."
John D. Zimmerly