In this inventive debut novel, a young woman writes her way out of grief.
As a “strange in-betweener” with two mixed-race parents—a South African mother and an American father—Thandi must navigate the majority-white suburbs of Philadelphia, where she's "often mistaken for Hispanic or Asian, sometimes Jewish." "But you're not, like, a real black person," she's told as a young student, confirming her feeling that she was "never fully accepted by any race." When her mother dies of cancer, Thandi must come to terms with the loss—including her strongest link to family in Johannesburg. Caught between two continents—between American blackness and South Africa's legacy of apartheid—she sets out to discover what makes life worth living after tragedy hits. In the process, she produces an honest, propulsive account of grief, interrogating the relationship among death, sex, motherhood, and culture. Written in compact episodes that collage autofiction with '90s rap lyrics, hand-drawn graphs, blog entries, and photographs, the novel pushes restlessly against its own boundaries—like Thandi herself. Clemmons manages to write with economy without ever making her book feel small, and with humor and frankness, so the novel is not overly steeped in grief. This is a big, brainy drama told by a fearless, funny young woman—part philosophy, part sociology, and part ghost story. “My theory is that loneliness creates the feeling of haunting,” Thandi confesses during a rough patch. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, prepare for Thandi's voice to follow you from room to room long after you put this book away.
A compelling exploration of race, migration, and womanhood in contemporary America.
A Chinese woman who works in a New York nail salon doesn’t come home one day; her young son is raised by well-meaning strangers who cannot heal his broken heart.
We meet Bronx fifth-grader Deming Guo on the day his mother disappears without a trace. From there, the story moves both forward and backward, intercutting between the narrative of his bumpy path to adulthood and his mother’s testimony. Gradually the picture comes together—Deming was conceived in China and born in America because his unmarried mother, Peilan, decided she would rather borrow the $50,000 to be smuggled to America than live out her life in her rural village. After her baby is born she tries to hide him underneath her sewing machine at work, but clearly she cannot care for him and work enough to repay the loan shark. She sends him back to China to be raised by her aging father. When Deming is 6, Yi Ba dies, and the boy rejoins his mother, who now has a boyfriend and lives with him; his sister, Vivian; and her son, Michael. After Peilan disappears, Deming is shuffled into foster care—his new parents are a pair of white academics upstate. Ten years later, it is Michael who tracks down a college dropout with a gambling problem named Daniel Wilkinson and sends a message that, if he is Deming Guo, he has information about his mother. The twists and turns continue, with the answers about Peilan’s disappearance withheld until the final pages. Daniel’s involvement in the alternative music scene is painted in unnecessary detail, but otherwise the specificity of the intertwined stories is the novel’s strength. Ko’s debut is the winner of the 2016 Pen/Bellwether Prize for Fiction for a novel that addresses issues of social justice, chosen by Barbara Kingsolver.
This timely novel depicts the heart- and spirit-breaking difficulties faced by illegal immigrants with meticulous specificity.
Ginny Moon, who has autism, needs to get back to her birth mother by any means necessary. That’s a problem, because that mother, Gloria, abused her.
The narrator of Ludwig’s debut novel, Ginny was taken from Gloria when she was 9 years old. Three adoptive homes later, Ginny is 14, and her Forever Parents, Maura and Brian, are expecting their first biological child. But just when they most need Ginny to be dependably gentle, she begins manifesting increasingly difficult behavior. It all stems from Ginny’s desperate need to take care of her Baby Doll, whom she promised to protect and whom she hid in a suitcase just as the police arrived to rescue her from Gloria five years ago. Using a classmate’s computer and various people’s cellphones, Ginny begins to communicate with Gloria, hoping to reunite with Baby Doll but inadvertently putting herself and the Moon family in danger by revealing her home address. Tensions escalate as Ginny arranges her own kidnapping, forcing the Moons to decide whether to give up and send Ginny to St. Genevieve’s Facility for Girls Who Aren’t Safe or to continue Ginny’s therapy sessions in the hope that she will gain some emotional attachment skills before the baby arrives. Along the way, surprising truths about Baby Doll emerge. In telling the tale from Ginny’s perspective, Ludwig captures the carefully constructed, sometimes-claustrophobic world Ginny inhabits. Ginny protects herself from a confusing world by going down deep into her brain, closing her mouth so no one can see the ideas in her head. While it’s an interesting perspective to inhabit, the staccato rhythm of the sentences can get a little tedious, as Ginny would say.
By turns heartwarming and heartbreaking, Ginny’s quest for a safe home leads her to discover her own strong voice.
A contemporary tale of two brothers, both horse trainers and rivals, and the tragedy that ensues when one kills the other.
Silas and Frank Van Loy have a complicated relationship. They’re both a bit wild, a bit co-dependent, and more than a bit antagonistic toward each other. The novel opens immediately after Silas, the younger brother, has shot and killed Frank. He flees on horseback, for him a natural mode of transportation, over the landscape of Marin County in northern California. At least two issues complicate the psychology, the ethics, and the logistics of this fraternal relationship and murder. First, Frank was married to Lena, who hates Silas. When she finds out what happened, she takes off in pursuit, also on horseback, with the intent to kill him. Second, when we finally see Frank and Silas' final confrontation, toward the end of the book, the shooting turns out to have been less vengeful than it seemed. The narrative moves briskly on a number of levels. While we follow Lena’s pursuit of Silas, we also get generous flashbacks into the brothers’ lives, especially their rivalry in the world of horse training (Silas’ career was thriving while Frank’s was declining) and the almost unaccountable depth of their hatred (earlier Frank had shot Silas, and on the surface, their argument had been about a Stetson hat). Stansel writes well and moves effortlessly from past to present and from the perspectives of Silas and Frank to that of Lena.
A stirring narrative of hostility, pursuit, and the desire for vengeance.
This brilliantly conceived and artfully detailed novel set in the Egyptian immigration bureaucracy is both a comedy and tragedy of errors.
“Welcome to Egypt!...Everything was invented here. Poetry, science, math. The calendar, the plow.” With this greeting, Cairo taxi driver Mustafa ushers Hana, an Iraqi-American who has arrived for a job with the U.N. refugee office, into his cab for the first of many wild rides. (After she accidentally damages his car, they are bonded for life.) One of Hana’s first cases is that of an Iraqi named Dalia, the wife of a man who helped rebuild water mains for the Americans in Baghdad until violent retaliation engulfed them both. Only he was given asylum in the U.S.; she's now trying to join him but is too reserved to confess the details which qualify her for relocation. “A single-file queue almost a million people long appeared in Hana’s mind. Dalia was an invisible dot in the distance, with no chance whatsoever of leaving Egypt.” What Hana doesn’t yet know is that Dalia’s immigration lawyer, an American named Charlie, is in love with his client and is about to cook up a crazy plan to help her outwit the system. The unfolding scheme also drags in Aos, Charlie’s translator and only friend, a young man who joins the nightly protests against the government in Tahrir Square. There are far too many great things about this book to list in this small space: the tension and energy of the plot; the tragic back stories of Charlie and Hana; the vignettes of Dalia’s husband in Boston; the richness and subtlety of detail in the writing. In one scene, Charlie and Aos are sitting in a Lebanese cafe. Aos is bursting to explain to Charlie everything that's wrong with his plan but can't bring himself to speak. Meanwhile, a patron who is smoking demands coals for his shisha, already piled high. “Aos’s heart sank to witness reason’s failing: the headwaiter stacking hot coals on top of hot coals. Only his delicate and ingenious positioning saved the tower from collapse.”
The ironies of bureaucracy and wartime, à la Catch-22, meet the ironies of love and sacrifice, à la The Necklace, profoundly humanizing the global refugee crisis. Bassingthwaighte’s virtuoso debut deserves the widest attention.
Stories about the subtle indignities and wandering imaginations that shape prison life, written by an inmate.
Debut author Dawkins is an MFA graduate serving a life-without-parole term in a Michigan prison for a 2004 murder. Whatever one makes of the circumstances behind his incarceration, he’s unquestionably a keen observer of the psychological tools inmates use to sustain themselves behind bars. “Every emotion is multiplied,” writes the narrator of “Sunshine,” who suspects a cellmate’s girlfriend lied about her cancer diagnosis to dump him. “Your mind becomes a very clear prism, into which every feeling enters.” To cope, some play at mental illness (“Daytime Drama”), some obsess over their dreams (“The Boy Who Dreamed Too Much”), and some—as in the especially supple “Engulfed”—become serial liars to the point that the lying becomes a personality trait. And the narrator discovers there are consequences to challenging that persona: “Once you become a number, all you are is the words you use. If your words aren’t real, then neither are you.” Dawkins isn’t much interested in the clichéd tales of prison violence, overcrowding, sexual assault, and drug abuse, though such themes occasionally surface. Nor does he dwell much on the reasons for his protagonists’ imprisonment—the narrator of “573543” was caught buying large amounts of ketamine, but his chief flaw is ignorance. For Dawkins, the true defining element of prison life is tedium: too much time to watch TV, to call random numbers collect in hopes of a connection, to jury-rig tattoo guns. And time, above all, to indulge in reveries about life on the outside. Or, barring that, turn prison life strange, like the prisoner who seems to have developed the capacity to make himself disappear. Magical realism? Wishful thinking? Dawkins leave the answer purposefully, poignantly vague.
A well-turned and surprising addition to prison literature.
A stark debut novel details a young boy’s flight from danger across a desiccated, dangerous land.
Carrasco’s unnamed protagonist begins his journey cowering in an olive grove while men shout his name. “He had caused an incident” at home, necessitating his escape. He is left entirely alone, and "the black flower of his family’s betrayal still gnawed at his stomach.” Details of this incident are mysterious to the reader, but the boy sets out in haste across a severe and drought-stricken plain. He doesn’t bring adequate provisions for the arduous trip, and soon hunger overtakes him. A world-weary goatherd he encounters offers food and protection, eventually becoming the boy’s mentor. Spare in dialogue but lush in cinematic description, Carrasco’s novel (as translated by Costa) draws on old archetypes of journey and mentorship, depicting beauty in the gaunt, nameless landscape as well as the relationship between the man and the boy. “There was a time when the plain had been an ocean of wheat fields...fragrant green waves waiting for the summer sun,” Carrasco writes. “The same sun that now fermented the clay and ground it down to dust.” The boy and goatherd fight to stay just ahead of danger, but they do so beneath “stars…like jewels encrusted in a transparent sphere.” There is an urgency to the boy’s escape; at night he “dreams he’s being pursued. The usual dream. He’s running away from someone he never sees, but whose hot breath he can feel on his neck.” The goatherd teaches the boy his ascetic ways, and the boy searches for the confidence to outsmart the men who rabidly chase him. In this tale about becoming a man, it is clear that confronting one’s own demons is as important as outwitting the danger that lurks in the dark.
Harshly and elegantly told; a quest that feels both old and new.
A brilliant debut novel about a child grieving the loss of a mother.
Elvis, a 12-year-old girl named for the singer with whom she shares a birthday, lives in Freedom, Alabama, with her father, her sister, Lizzie, and a dog named Boomer. Her mother has recently died, drowned while swimming in her sleep, and Elvis is trying desperately to make sense of how and why. A sympathetic counselor at Elvis’ school tells her it takes 18 months to recover from such a loss. Elvis’ scientific mind finds comfort, then, in creating a grieving chart to track her progress; she crosses off each month as she makes it through while volunteering at the zoo and carrying on her mother's work writing a book about the sleep habits of animals. The remaining members of her family take different approaches: her father wears his late wife’s clothes and makeup around the house and has fallen in love with a parrot who can mimic her voice, and Lizzie, who has inherited the sleepwalking gene, is becoming increasingly dangerous in her sleep. After a series of terrifying incidents in her slumber—lacing her baking with enough gout medication to kill, breaking into all the neighboring chicken coops and eating dozens of raw eggs, attacking family members with knives, plucking all the feathers off her father’s beloved bird—Lizzie is sent to an institution for troubled girls. When she returns, she plans to break a world record by baking 1,000 rabbit cakes using the cake pan her mother used to bring out to celebrate every occasion. This is the moving and often funny story of a family trying to figure out what to do next now that their touchstone is gone. The narrator’s voice is a stunning combination of youthful and astute. In contemplating her grief, she thinks, “Maybe a spirit evaporates like vapor off the bag of frozen peas you steam in the microwave: the droplets go everywhere, settle wherever they land.”
How a whip-smart young girl handles the loss of her mother and the reorientation of her family; charming and beautifully written.
A 14-year-old girl struggles to escape her father’s emotional and physical abuse in this harrowing debut.
Turtle (born Julia) lives with her father, Martin, in the woods near the Mendocino coast. Their home is equipped like a separatist camp, and Martin opines officiously about climate change when he isn’t training Turtle in gun skills or, at night, raping her. Unsurprisingly, Turtle is isolated, self-hating, and cruel to her classmates. She also possesses the kind of strength that suggests she could leave Martin if she had help, but her concerned teacher and grandfather are unsure what to do, and once Martin pulls her out of school and her grandfather dies, the point is moot. Can she get out? Tallent delays the answer to that question, of course, but before the climax he’s written a fearless adventure tale that’s as savvy about internal emotional storms as it is about wrangling with family and nature. Turtle gets a glimpse of a better life through Jacob, a classmate from a well-off family (“she feels brilliantly included within that province of things she wants”), and her efforts to save him in the woods earn his admiration. But when Martin brings another young girl home, Turtle can’t leave for fear of history repeating. Tallent often stretches out visceral, violent scenes—Turtle forced to sustain a pull-up as Martin holds a knife beneath her, homebrew surgery, eating scorpions—to a point that is nearly sadistic. But he plainly means to explore how such moments seem to slow time, imprinting his young characters deeply. And he also takes care with Martin’s character, showing how the autodidact, hard-edged attitude that makes him so monstrous also gives Turtle the means to plot against him. Ultimately, though, this is Turtle’s story, and she is a remarkable teenage hero, heavily damaged but admirably persistent.
A powerful, well-turned story about abuse, its consequences, and what it takes to survive it.
Nigeria serves as a prism refracting the myriad experiences of both former and current inhabitants.
In two different stories in Arimah’s debut collection, characters have the supernatural ability to drain emotions from other people, for good or for ill. In “Who Will Greet You at Home,” a Nigerian woman participates in a tradition of making children out of inanimate materials and having them blessed by older women in hopes that they will become real. But these blessings come at a price—in her case, "Mama" blesses the child in exchange for the protagonist's own joy, “siphoned a bit, just a dab…a little bit of her life for her child’s life.” In the title story, figures known as Mathematicians are able to use precise algorithms and equations to relieve negative emotions from customers who can afford it. This power over feelings is as good a metaphor as any for storytelling. And Arimah has skill in abundance: the stories here are solid and impeccably crafted and strike at the heart of the most complicated of human relationships. Against a backdrop of grief for dead parents or angst over a lover, Arimah uses Nigeria as her muse. The characters exist in relation to a Nigeria of the past—the ghost of the Nigerian civil war, especially, looms over many of the stories—as well as present-day Nigeria, either as citizens or expats. Arimah even imagines a future Nigeria in which it has become the “Biafra-Britannia Alliance” in a massive geopolitical shift resulting from devastating climate change. This speculative turn joins everything from fabulism to folk tale as Arimah confidently tests out all the tools in her kit while also managing to create a wholly cohesive and original collection.