A novel of sharply drawn character studies immersed in more than 250 hard, transformative years in the African-American diaspora.
Gyasi’s debut novel opens in the mid-1700s in what is now Ghana, as tribal rivalries are exploited by British and Dutch colonists and slave traders. The daughter of one tribal leader marries a British man for financial expediency, then learns that the “castle” he governs is a holding dungeon for slaves. (When she asks what’s held there, she’s told “cargo.”) The narrative soon alternates chapters between the Ghanans and their American descendants up through the present day. On either side of the Atlantic, the tale is often one of racism, degradation, and loss: a slave on an Alabama plantation is whipped “until the blood on the ground is high enough to bathe a baby”; a freedman in Baltimore fears being sent back South with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act; a Ghanan woman is driven mad from the abuse of a missionary and her husband’s injury in a tribal war; a woman in Harlem is increasingly distanced from (and then humiliated by) her husband, who passes as white. Gyasi is a deeply empathetic writer, and each of the novel’s 14 chapters is a savvy character portrait that reveals the impact of racism from multiple perspectives. It lacks the sweep that its premise implies, though: while the characters share a bloodline, and a gold-flecked stone appears throughout the book as a symbolic connector, the novel is more a well-made linked story collection than a complex epic. Yet Gyasi plainly has the talent to pull that off: “I will be my own nation,” one woman tells a British suitor early on, and the author understands both the necessity of that defiance and how hard it is to follow through on it.
A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.
A dystopian fantasy novel set sometime in 19th-century England.
“We thank the Smoke” is a mantralike phrase that’s used by characters throughout this exciting, fearful fantasy novel by Vyleta (The Crooked Maid, 2013, etc.). His previous novels explored social paranoia, distrust, and fear, and he’s now bringing these same topics to a scary imagined world. Meet two young, upper-class best friends, Thomas Argyle and Charlie Copper, at what appears to be a classic English public school—except it isn’t. This is a world where children are born in sin, where Smoke emanates from their bodies when they lie or think a bad thought, and the purpose of this school is to cleanse them of the Smoke. Bleak House had its fog; in this world Smoke surrounds people, staining their clothes (only lye or urine will get it out). As children grow older, “Good begins to ripen.” Why? Can it be changed? Over Christmas holidays, Thomas and Charlie meet a girl named Livia, a prefect at another school, the attractive daughter of Baron and Lady Naylor. Following up on something shocking Lady Naylor tells Thomas changes the novel's trajectory into one familiar to Philip Pullman and C.S. Lewis readers—the quest. Thomas, Charlie, and Livia are off to London and its old, abandoned halls of Parliament, where they’ll seek answers about Smoke and the maleficence behind it. We root for these appealing characters as they face one dreadful obstacle after another. Although the novel is primarily told in the third person, many chapters are in the first person, narrated by a wide variety of characters, which helps the reader become more deeply invested in their adventures. Even though it’s somewhat derivative of other books in this vein and loses its way at times, the novel's sumptuous, irresistible narrative—filled with plenty of twists and turns and imagination—will satisfy any reader.
A terrific, suspenseful tale that could definitely cross over to the teen audience. Sequel, anyone?
“How sick can a person get?” So, rightly, wonders a character toward the end of Sweden’s newest entry in the race to claim Stieg Larsson’s throne.
This pseudonymous mystery, the first in a trilogy newly translated into English but published in Swedish in 2010, has been a hit across continental Europe. It’s easy to see why: full of chills and spills, it incorporates numerous hot-button themes, including non-European immigration, extreme-right-wing politics, and slavery, elements of an already dark tale that encompasses incest, genocide, and murder. Add to that a heady brew of shifting identities: a girl flees a dark memory of the Holocaust, abandoning every vestige of the past to become someone new and not altogether wholesome; a psychiatric patient takes on numerous personalities, one of whom is startled to realize, “I’m just a means of survival, a way of being normal, like everyone else.” But everyone else in this story is far from normal: someone is murdering young immigrants from such faraway places as Kazakhstan, former child soldiers from Africa are wandering mad in the streets of Stockholm, and it becomes ever plainer why someone would want to escape the daily grind in the birch and pine woods of the far north by changing masks and dispatching neighbors in spectacular ways. Larsson, of course, covered much of this territory, and even Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö got to some of the unpleasantries in their mysteries of old. Sund updates their scenarios with a well-realized romance between two professional women, a probing look at post-traumatic stress delivered in part by a police inspector who has immigrated north from Bosnia, and many other matters taken straight from the headlines. The story is well-told, though the dramatis personae is daunting thanks in part to all those multiple personalities. It loses momentum about two-thirds of its long way in, too, but it revives as the plot snakes its way into some strange territory indeed.
A smart, rewarding psychological thriller, with an emphasis on both of those genre terms.
In his sophomore novel, Bosnian-born writer Stanišic (How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, 2008) meditates on history, real and counterfactual.
Fürstenfelde is a sleepy little burg somewhere down along the German-Polish border, territory whose cultural conflicts have proved such fertile ground for Günter Grass. Not much happens there; the wolves stir and the woodpeckers peck, while a diligent vixen sniffs her way through one henhouse after another to feed her kits. Not much happens, that is, until the ferryman goes missing right before the Feast of Saint Anne, a high point on the local calendar. “Big hairy terrorist-type beard, fingernails and all that,” mutters the narrator, who marvels all the same at the way the ferry provides a little light at night. Readers with a sense of classical mythology will be alert to the possibilities when death, or at least the oarsman across the River Styx, takes a holiday. When time stands still, history becomes a jumble; one of the townspeople finds her nicely done hairdo squashed by a Pickelhaube, or spiked helmet, of a century past, while another, bound up in the doings of the old East German police state, is given to saying portentous things such as (this time concerning the vixen) “if a chicken is fearless, that doesn’t make it brave.” Another principal is introduced with a near-Homeric epithet each time he appears: “Herr Schramm, former Lieutenant-Colonel in the National People’s Army, then a forester, now a pensioner.” In the face of a neo-Nazi rally in town, first-generation Nazis are still in view, and when the town archive is broken into, stories from other times and voices come tumbling out. Stanišic’s yarn is a sprawling mess at first glance, but as it unfolds, it’s clear that he has given great thought to structure, to repeated and echoed motifs and themes, and in the end each element in the storyline ties up more or less neatly, if sometimes with a little confusion in getting there.
A lively, deeply moving cacophony of Russian voices for whom the Soviet era was as essential as their nature.
Nobel Prize–winning (2015) Russian writer Alexievich (Voices from Chernobyl, 2005, etc.) presents a rich kaleidoscope of voices from all regions of the former Soviet Union who reveal through long tortuous monologues what living under communism really was like. For a new generation of Russians born after World War II, the era of Mikhail Gorbachev, perestroika and glasnost, the attempted putsch of the government, collapse of the Soviet Union, and subsequent economic crises of the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin heralded a sense of freedom and new possibility, yet many Russians were left disillusioned and angry. What was socialism now supposed to mean for the former Homo sovieticus, now derogatively called a sovok ("dustbin")? Indeed, how to reconcile 70-plus years of official lies, murder, misery, and oppression? In segments she calls "Snatches of Street Noise and Kitchen Conversations," Alexievich transcribes these (apparently) recorded monologues and conversations in sinuous stream-of-consciousness prose. People of all ages delineate events with bewilderment and fury—e.g., those who had taken to the barricades during the putsch of 1991 hoping for another utopia ("They buried Sovietdom to the music of Tchaikovsky") and ending up with a scary new world where capitalism was suddenly good and "money became synonymous with freedom." The older generation had lived through the era of Stalin, the KGB and arbitrary arrests, betrayal by neighbors and friends, imprisonment, torture, and the gulag, and these remembrances are particularly haunting to read. One horrifying example is an older neighbor and friend of a man who burned himself alive in his vegetable patch because he had nothing left to live for. The suicides Alexievich emphasizes are heart-wrenching, as is the reiterated sense of the people's "naivete" in the face of ceaseless official deception, the endurance of anti-Semitism, war in the former Soviet republics, famine, and the most appalling living conditions. The author captures these voices in a priceless time capsule.
Proust meets magical realism in this searching, lyrical memoir by the Mexican poet and conservationist.
“I am still alive in a fresh wound,” wrote fellow poet Octavio Paz. Aridjis (An Angel Speaks: Selected Poems, 2015, etc.) counts his own birth as a poet in a wound suffered when he was 10 years old, when a shotgun he was aiming at passing birds misfired: “Invaded by ammunition, engulfed in the smell of gunpowder, my blood hot and my right hand bleeding," he writes, "I wasn’t aware of my state until I tried to take a step and a feeling of being torn apart kept me from moving.” In this soft-spoken account, the accident transforms Aridjis from boisterous lad to a bookish solitary who turns to poetry. It would not be a modernist Latin American literary work without at least a moment reminiscent of García Márquez, and there are many here, as when a suitor rejected by his aunt takes up the habit of sitting in the town square holding a protective umbrella, “though the sky was clear.” Aridjis’ mother is central to the story, from the moment of birth through his traumatized childhood, and she could not have asked for a more affectionate portrait: “To remember her was to have her always in my own past, in the memory of my being, united, inseparably, to my self.” We also see the growing importance of the natural world in the author’s life and work: the sight of a drop of water sliding off a leaf is enough to distinguish the wounded boy from ordinary people. “I was moved by things that did not interest them,” he recalls. Readers wish only that Aridjis revealed more of his process of writing, for the passages of poetry among the prose are lovely incantations: “I / made my poem / and I recited it trembling.”
A fine introduction to a writer who deserves to be better known to English-language readers.
Atmospheric, lyrical novel from Nobel Prize–winning writer Müller (Traveling on One Leg, 1998, etc.) of life in Romania during the closing days of the Ceausescu dictatorship.
Considered Müller’s most difficult, this novel first appeared in 1992. The German original permits the rendering of the title as, “back then, the fox was the hunter.” Now the fox is definitely the quarry. It takes a while to come to that point, however, for the first 100 or so pages of Müller’s book are given over to densely rendered, poetic descriptions of people and places in a town along the Danube that sometimes have only peripherally to do with the main action; in that inventory, flies, ants, dogs, and poplars figure prominently. Adina, the central character, is a teacher, her boyfriend, Paul, a musician. They are not exactly activists, not exactly hard-core intellectuals, but even so, they’re suspect enough that a fox fur that Adina has had since girlhood is steadily being whittled away, taunting evidence that while they’re at work, the Securitate is visiting their apartment. Someone is always watching. Even Pavel, the paramour of Adina’s friend Clara, isn’t immune from being spied on as the two make love in an apparently deserted cornfield—and he’s one of the spies: “Aren’t you a lawyer,” Clara asks him. “Yes, he says, but not at the courthouse.” In this world, a mild joke about the dictator takes on the most serious contours. Adina’s friendship with Clara frays over her choice of lovers, but even so, Clara warns Adina that the noose is tightening, giving her time to escape, as Müller herself did, to the West—though Adina worries that in trying to flee they’ll wind up gunned down in a cornfield: “And every now and then, she said, a hair will get stuck in your teeth while you’re eating, and it won’t be one of the baker’s that just happened to land in the dough.”
An essential work of post–Iron Curtain literature and a harrowing portrait of life under suspicion.
The point of view of a mentally simple man provides a poignant perspective on day-to-day events in this novel from Norway.
Vesaas (1897-1970; The Ice Palace, 1963) originally published this novel in 1957, but it has a freshness that can only be due to its timeless subject matter. Mattis, 37, lives with his sister Hege, 40, in a cottage in the woods. Gently mocked by villagers (who call him Simple Simon), Mattis clings to what sense he can make of things, often attributing miraculous significance to small events such as the flight of a woodcock over his house. He eagerly tells anyone who will listen, most often Hege, about the small moments that have filled him with overwhelming feeling. Life is full of drama for him, but we see through his eyes (and clever, subtle narration) that his sister is miserable, feeling trapped in drudgery. She knits sweaters for a living and soon asks Mattis to go look for some work. Thus begin several adventures for Mattis, which include becoming an impromptu ferryman for two attractive girls who are unexpectedly gentle with him, allowing him to carry them to shore in town so he can impress the villagers. Each turn of events prompts an elaborate sense of wonder and optimism in Mattis. The tension between him and the unhappy Hege works well as a form of suspense, as Mattis fears she will get fed up and leave him, and the reader wonders the same thing. But just as their duo seems stalled in unhappy stasis, Mattis happens to ferry home a lumberjack, Jørgen, who becomes Hege's love interest. Some of the novel's exquisite control slackens in the last section, as Jørgen's actions are surprisingly predictable (however contradictory that seems), and Hege's rescue from loneliness has a “too good to be true” feeling. Nothing is truly smooth, however, which is a sadness built into every page of a story about a character like Mattis. And despite lulls, the novel is compelling enough to pull you along to the very end.
From the first page, this novel grips us with an acutely sensitive rendition of a mentally handicapped man's inner world.
A terrorist bombing in Delhi powers this exploration of radicalization, politics, and religion.
The second novel by Mahajan (Family Planning, 2008) turns on two families transformed by a 1996 explosion in an open-air market. The Khuranas, who are Hindu, lost two young sons in the blast, while the neighboring Ahmeds, who are Muslim, nearly lost their son, Mansoor. Though Mansoor was not religious growing up, he still absorbs the prejudices of Indians and, later, the Americans he meets as a college student in the United States. He survived the bombing but suffered wrist injuries that make it all but impossible for him to pursue a career as a programmer. From such frustrations, Mahajan suggests, are the seeds of terrorism sown. (Sexual repression and unrequited love play no small roles, too.) Though Mansoor is the focus, Mahajan ably shifts the point of view to the killed boys’ father, Vikas, who tries to channel his mourning into a documentary; Shockie, the bomb maker worn down by his job; and Ayub, a Muslim activist whose nonviolent sympathies slowly erode. Mahajan’s effort to make a thriller out of the story, climaxing in another bombing attempt, can feel pat—he oversells the point that radicalism makes for unlikely bedfellows. But he’s strong at exploring the very long shockwaves of small-scale violence: though the market bombings in India don’t kill as many as 9/11, Mahajan argues that they have a more devastating cruelty for upending lives to no useful political purpose. Small bombs “concentrate the pain on the lives of a few,” one radical says. “Better to kill generously.” The wrong conclusion, of course, but the novel shows how some arrive at such callous postures.
An engaging if plot-thick novel that’s alert to the intersection of the emotional and political.