An ambitious scientific experiment wreaks horrendous toll in the Booker-winning British author’s disturbingly eloquent sixth novel (after When We Were Orphans, 2000).
Ishiguro’s narrator, identified only as Kath(y) H., speaks to us as a 31-year-old social worker of sorts, who’s completing her tenure as a “carer,” prior to becoming herself one of the “donors” whom she visits at various “recovery centers.” The setting is “England, late 1990s”—more than two decades after Kath was raised at a rural private school (Hailsham) whose students, all children of unspecified parentage, were sheltered, encouraged to develop their intellectual and especially artistic capabilities, and groomed to become donors. Visions of Brave New World and 1984 arise as Kath recalls in gradually and increasingly harrowing detail her friendships with fellow students Ruth and Tommy (the latter a sweet, though distractible boy prone to irrational temper tantrums), their “graduation” from Hailsham and years of comparative independence at a remote halfway house (the Cottages), the painful outcome of Ruth’s breakup with Tommy (whom Kath also loves), and the discovery the adult Kath and Tommy make when (while seeking a “deferral” from carer or donor status) they seek out Hailsham’s chastened “guardians” and receive confirmation of the limits long since placed on them. With perfect pacing and infinite subtlety, Ishiguro reveals exactly as much as we need to know about how efforts to regulate the future through genetic engineering create, control, then emotionlessly destroy very real, very human lives—without ever showing us the faces of the culpable, who have “tried to convince themselves. . . . That you were less than human, so it didn’t matter.” That this stunningly brilliant fiction echoes Caryl Churchill’s superb play A Number and Margaret Atwood’s celebrated dystopian novels in no way diminishes its originality and power.
A masterpiece of craftsmanship that offers an unparalleled emotional experience. Send a copy to the Swedish Academy.
The wait since 1981 and Housekeeping is over. Robinson returns with a second novel that, however quiet in tone and however delicate of step, will do no less than tell the story of America—and break your heart.
A reverend in tiny Gilead, Iowa, John Ames is 74, and his life is at its best—and at its end. Half a century ago, Ames’s first wife died in childbirth, followed by her new baby daughter, and Ames, seemingly destined to live alone, devoted himself to his town, church, and people—until the Pentecost Sunday when a young stranger named Lila walked into the church out of the rain and, from in back, listened to Ames’s sermon, then returned each Sunday after. The two married—Ames was 67—had a son, and life began all over again. But not for long. In the novel’s present (mid-1950s), Ames is suffering from the heart trouble that will soon bring his death. And so he embarks upon the writing of a long diary, or daily letter—the pages of Gilead—addressed to his seven-year-old son so he can read it when he’s grown and know not only about his absent father but his own history, family, and heritage. And what a letter it is! Not only is John Ames the most kind, observant, sensitive, and companionable of men to spend time with, but his story reaches back to his patriarchal Civil War great-grandfather, fiery preacher and abolitionist; comes up to his grandfather, also a reverend and in the War; to his father; and to his own life, spent in his father’s church. This long story of daily life in deep Middle America—addressed to an unknown and doubting future—is never in the slightest way parochial or small, but instead it evokes on the pulse the richest imaginable identifying truths of what America was.
Robinson has composed, with its cascading perfections of symbols, a novel as big as a nation, as quiet as thought, and moving as prayer. Matchless and towering.
“Time’s a goon,” as the action moves from the late 1970s to the early 2020s while the characters wonder what happened to their youthful selves and ideals.
Egan (The Keep, 2006, etc.) takes the music business as a case in point for society’s monumental shift from the analog to the digital age. Record-company executive Bennie Salazar and his former bandmates from the Flaming Dildos form one locus of action; another is Bennie’s former assistant Sasha, a compulsive thief club-hopping in Manhattan when we meet her as the novel opens, a mother of two living out West in the desert as it closes a decade and a half later with an update on the man she picked up and robbed in the first chapter. It can be alienating when a narrative bounces from character to character, emphasizing interconnections rather than developing a continuous story line, but Egan conveys personality so swiftly and with such empathy that we remain engaged. By the time the novel arrives at the year “202-” in a bold section narrated by Sasha’s 12-year-old daughter Alison, readers are ready to see the poetry and pathos in the small nuggets of information Alison arranges like a PowerPoint presentation. In the closing chapter, Bennie hires young dad Alex to find 50 “parrots” (paid touts masquerading as fans) to create “authentic” word of mouth for a concert. This new kind of viral marketing is aimed at “pointers,” toddlers now able to shop for themselves thanks to “kiddie handsets”; the preference of young adults for texting over talking is another creepily plausible element of Egan’s near-future. Yet she is not a conventional dystopian novelist; distinctions between the virtual and the real may be breaking down in this world, but her characters have recognizable emotions and convictions, which is why their compromises and uncertainties continue to move us.
Another ambitious change of pace from talented and visionary Egan, who reinvents the novel for the 21st century while affirming its historic values.
After accidentally shooting his friend and neighbor’s young son, a man on a Native American reservation subscribes to “an old form of justice” by giving his own son, LaRose, to the parents of his victim.
Erdrich, whose last novel, The Round House, won the National Book Award in 2012, sets this meditative, profoundly humane story in the time just before the U.S. invades Iraq but wanders in and out of that moment, even back to origin tales about the beginning of time. On tribal lands in rural North Dakota, the shooter, Landreaux Iron, and his wife, Emmaline, trudge toward their neighbors’ house to say, “Our son will be your son now.” As both families amble through the emotional thickets produced by this act (the wives are half sisters, to boot), Erdrich depicts a tribal culture that is indelible and vibrant: Romeo, a drug-addled grifter still smarting from a years-ago abandonment by his friend Landreaux (and whose hurt makes this novel a revenge story); war vet Father Travis, holy but in love with Emmaline; and LaRose, his father’s “little man, his favorite child,” the fifth generation of LaRoses in his family, who confers with his departed ancestors and summons a deep, preternatural courage to right an injustice done to his new sister. Erdrich’s style is discursive; a long digression about the first LaRose and her darkness haunts this novel. Just when she needs to, though, Erdrich races toward an ending that reads like a thriller as doubts emerge about Landreaux’s intentions the day he went hunting.
Electric, nimble, and perceptive, this novel is about “the phosphorous of grief” but also, more essentially, about the emotions men need, but rarely get, from one another.
A politically charged alternate history in which Aryan supremacist hero Charles Lindbergh unseats FDR in 1940—with catastrophic consequences for America’s Jews.
Roth’s latest (and one of his most audacious) is narrated by a fictional character named Philip Roth, who describes the impact of Lindbergh’s presidency (linked ominously to “Lindy’s” cordial relationship with fellow statesman Adolf Hitler) on Newark insurance salesman Herman Roth, his stoical wife Bess, and their sons Philip and Sanford (“Sandy”). Novelist Roth skillfully constructs a thickly detailed panorama of urban Jewish life, featuring such vividly developed characters as Philip’s truculent cousin Alvin (wounded in a “Jewish” European war, and permanently damaged), his suggestible maternal aunt Evelyn (who adores Lindbergh), and Evelyn’s influential fiancé, silver-tongued conservative apologist Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf. The latter two pay dearly for their naively placed allegiances. But so do the passionately skeptical Roths: first, when Sandy’s summer on a Kentucky farm imbues him with “American” (in fact anti-Semitic) values; and later, following the 1942 Homestead Act, purportedly conceived to relocate eastern seaboard Jews throughout Middle America, actually an ominous harbinger of how Lindbergh plans to solve “the Jewish problem.” The tight focus on the Roths itself shifts when Lindbergh-hating columnist Walter Winchell announces his presidential candidacy, violence escalates alarmingly, martial law is imposed, war with Canada (whence many Jewish families flee) is anticipated, and a savagely ironic turn of events returns FDR to the national spotlight—but doesn’t assuage Herman Roth’s all-too-justifiable fears. The story gathers breakneck velocity and intensity, ending perhaps too abruptly (and, perhaps, pointing the way to a sequel). But hilarious and terrifying by turns, it’s a sumptuous interweaving of narrative, characterization, speculation, and argument that joins The Ghost Writer (1979) and Operation Shylock (1993) at the summit of Roth’s achievement.
An almost unbelievably rich book, and another likely major prizewinner.
What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?
For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.
Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.
An evocative novel of a family torn apart by grief, hardship, misunderstanding and, soon, the biggest storm any of them has ever seen.
Set over a dozen days while awaiting the arrival of Hurricane Katrina, and then dealing with its consequences, Ward’s (Where the Line Bleeds, 2008) tale is superficially a simple one: Young Esch, barely a teenager, is pregnant. She is so young, in fact, that her brothers can scare her with a Hansel and Gretel story set in the Mississippi bayou where she lives, yet old enough to understand that the puppies that are gushing forth from the family dog are more than a metaphor. Esch’s task is simple, too: She has to disguise the pregnancy from her widowed father, a task that is easier than it might sound, since her father is constantly self-medicated (“Outside the window, Daddy jabbed at the belly of the house with his can of beer”) and, much of the time, seems unaware that his children ought to be depending on him. But they don’t; Esch and her three brothers are marvels of self-sufficiency, and as the vast storm looms on the horizon, building from tropical depression to category 5 monster, they occupy themselves figuring out what kind of canned meats they need to lay in and how many jugs of water have to be hauled from the store. The bayou has its share of terrors of other kinds, and so do the matters of life and death that children ought to be spared; suffice it to say that there’s plenty of blood, and no small amount of vomit, whether owing to morning sickness or alcohol poisoning. (When Esch admonishes her father for drinking while taking antibiotics, he replies, “Beer ain’t nothing...Just like a cold drink.”) Naturally, in a situation where the children are the adults and vice versa, something has to give—and it does, straight in the maw of Katrina. Yet the fury of the storm yields a kind of redemption, a scenario that could dissolve into mawkishness, but that Ward pulls off without a false note.
A superbly realized work of fiction that, while Southern to the bone, transcends its region to become universal.
A long-awaited, elegant meditation on love, memory and the haunting power of art.
Tartt (The Little Friend, 2002, etc.) takes a long time, a decade or more, between novels. This one, her third, tells the story of a young man named Theodore Decker who is forced to grapple with the world alone after his mother—brilliant, beautiful and a delight to be around—is felled in what would seem to be an accident, if an explosion inside a museum can be accidental. The terrible wreckage of the building, a talismanic painting half buried in plaster and dust, “the stink of burned clothes, and an occasional soft something pressing in on me that I didn’t want to think about”—young Theo will carry these things forever. Tartt’s narrative is in essence an extended footnote to that horror, with his mother becoming ever more alive in memory even as the time recedes: not sainted, just alive, the kind of person Theo misses because he can’t tell her goofy things (his father taking his mistress to a Bon Jovi concert in Las Vegas, for instance: “It seemed terrible that she would never know this hilarious fact”) as much as for any other reason. The symbolic echoes Tartt employs are occasionally heavy-handed, and it’s a little too neat that Theo discovers the work of the sublime Dutch master Carel Fabritius, killed in a powder blast, just before the fateful event that will carry his mother away. Yet it all works. “All the rest of it is lost—everything he ever did,” his mother quietly laments of the little-known artist, and it is Theo’s mission as he moves through life to see that nothing in his own goes missing. Bookending Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, this is an altogether lovely addition to what might be called the literature of disaster and redemption. The novel is slow to build but eloquent and assured, with memorable characters, not least a Russian cracker-barrel philosopher who delivers a reading of God that Mordecai Richler might applaud.
The provocative author of The White Boy Shuffle (1996) and Slumberland (2008) is back with his most penetratingly satirical novel yet.
Beatty has never been afraid to stir the pot when it comes to racial and socioeconomic issues, and his latest is no different. In fact, this novel is his most incendiary, and readers unprepared for streams of racial slurs (and hilarious vignettes about nearly every black stereotype imaginable) in the service of satire should take a pass. The protagonist lives in Dickens, “a ghetto community” in Los Angeles, and works the land in an area called “The Farms,” where he grows vegetables, raises small livestock and smokes a ton of “good weed.” After being raised by a controversial sociologist father who subjected him to all manner of psychological and social experiments, the narrator is both intellectually gifted and extremely street-wise. When Dickens is removed from the map of California, he goes on a quest to have it reinstated with the help of Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal, who hangs around the neighborhood regaling everyone with tales of the ridiculously racist skits he used to perform with the rest of the gang. It’s clear that Hominy has more than a few screws loose, and he volunteers to serve as the narrator’s slave—yes, slave—on his journey. Another part of the narrator’s plan involves segregating the local school so that it allows only black, Latino and other nonwhite students. Eventually, he faces criminal charges and appears in front of the Supreme Court in what becomes “the latest in a long line of landmark race-related cases.” Readers turned off by excessive use of the N-word or those who are easily offended by stereotypes may find the book tough going, but fans of satire and blatantly honest—and often laugh-out-loud funny—discussions of race and class will be rewarded on each page. Beatty never backs down, and readers are the beneficiaries.
Another daring, razor-sharp novel from a writer with talent to burn.
A closely written novel of after-the-war Vietnam, when all that was solid melted into air.
As Graham Greene and Robert Stone have taught us, on the streets of Saigon, nothing is as it seems. The racist suppositions of the empires of old helped shape a culture of subterfuge; not for nothing does the hero of Nguyen’s (English and American Studies/Univ. of Southern Calif.) debut give a small disquisition on the meaning of being Eurasian or Amerasian (“a small nation could be founded from the tropical offspring of the American GI”), and not for nothing does a book meaningfully called Asian Communism and the Oriental Mode of Destruction play a part in the proceedings. Nguyen’s protagonist tells us from the very first, in a call-me-Ishmael moment, that he’s a mole: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” Two faces, two races, neither wholly trusted. Our hero is attached to the command of a no-nonsense South Vietnamese general who’s airlifted out at the fall of Saigon in 1975, protected by dewy Americans “with not a hint of a needle track in the crooks of their arms or a whiff of marijuana in their pressed, jungle-free fatigues”; whisked stateside, where the protagonist once spent time absorbing Americanness, the general is at the center of a potent community of exiles whom the protagonist is charged with spying on—though it turns out he’s as much observed as observer. Think Alan Furst meets Elmore Leonard, and you’ll capture Nguyen at his most surreal, our hero attempting to impress upon a Hollywood hopeful that American and Vietnamese screams sound different: “I was on my first assignment as a lieutenant,” he recalls, “and could not figure out a way to save the man from my captain wrapping a strand of rusted barbed wire around his throat, the necklace tight enough so that each time he swallowed, the wire tickled his Adam’s apple.”
Both chilling and funny, and a worthy addition to the library of first-rate novels about the Vietnam War.
Powers’ (Orfeo, 2014, etc.) 12th novel is a masterpiece of operatic proportions, involving nine central characters and more than half a century of American life.
In this work, Powers takes on the subject of nature, or our relationship to nature, as filtered through the lens of environmental activism, although at its heart the book is after more existential concerns. As is the case with much of Powers’ fiction, it takes shape slowly—first in a pastiche of narratives establishing the characters (a psychologist, an undergraduate who died briefly but was revived, a paraplegic computer game designer, a homeless vet), and then in the kaleidoscopic ways these individuals come together and break apart. “We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men,” Powers writes, quoting the naturalist John Muir. “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” The idea is important because what Powers means to explore is a sense of how we become who we are, individually and collectively, and our responsibility to the planet and to ourselves. Nick, for instance, continues a project begun by his grandfather to take repeated photographs of a single chestnut tree, “one a month for seventy-six years.” Pat, a visionary botanist, discovers how trees communicate with one another only to be discredited and then, a generation later, reaffirmed. What links the characters is survival—the survival of both trees and human beings. The bulk of the action unfolds during the timber wars of the late 1990s, as the characters coalesce on the Pacific coast to save old-growth sequoia from logging concerns. For Powers, however, political or environmental activism becomes a filter through which to consider the connectedness of all things—not only the human lives he portrays in often painfully intricate dimensions, but also the biosphere, both virtual and natural. “The world starts here,” Powers insists. “This is the merest beginning. Life can do anything. You have no idea.”
A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.
Talented, versatile Donoghue (The Sealed Letter, 2008, etc.) relates a searing tale of survival and recovery, in the voice of a five-year-old boy.
Jack has never known a life beyond Room. His Ma gave birth to him on Rug; the stains are still there. At night, he has to stay in Wardrobe when Old Nick comes to visit. Still, he and Ma have a comfortable routine, with daily activities like Phys Ed and Laundry. Jack knows how to read and do math, but has no idea the images he sees on the television represent a real world. We gradually learn that Ma (we never know her name) was abducted and imprisoned in a backyard shed when she was 19; her captor brings them food and other necessities, but he’s capricious. An ugly incident after Jack attracts Old Nick’s unwelcome attention renews Ma’s determination to liberate herself and her son; the book’s first half climaxes with a nail-biting escape. Donoghue brilliantly shows mother and son grappling with very different issues as they adjust to freedom. “In Room I was safe and Outside is the scary,” Jack thinks, unnerved by new things like showers, grass and window shades. He clings to the familiar objects rescued from Room (their abuser has been found), while Ma flinches at these physical reminders of her captivity. Desperate to return to normalcy, she has to grapple with a son who has never known normalcy and isn’t sure he likes it. In the story’s most heartbreaking moments, it seems that Ma may be unable to live with the choices she made to protect Jack. But his narration reveals that she’s nurtured a smart, perceptive and willful boy—odd, for sure, but resilient, and surely Ma can find that resilience in herself. A haunting final scene doesn’t promise quick cures, but shows Jack and Ma putting the past behind them.
Wrenching, as befits the grim subject matter, but also tender, touching and at times unexpectedly funny.