A half-dozen sometimes Carver-esque yarns that find more-or-less ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges and somehow holding up.
Tragedy is always close to the surface in Johnson’s work—with tragicomic layerings, sometimes, but it’s tragedy all the same. So it is with the opening story of the six here, “Nirvana,” which takes its title from the Kurt Cobain–led rock band but shares a spirit with near-future films like Her and Gattaca. A software engineer, desperate to do right by his paralyzed wife, reanimates people from the past: “After the doctor left,” the narrator says matter-of-factly, “I went into the garage and started making the president.” It’s science fiction of a kind but with an extra element of disspiritment: people exist, but we long for simulacra instead of them, “like she’s forgotten that her arms don’t work and there’s no him to embrace.” With more than a nod to his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son (2012), Johnson calls on two North Korean defectors who, now in the South, haven’t quite got their new world sussed out but are starting to get an inkling of how things work: “Christian talk, when said in a non-Christian way, scares these Southerners to death.” Their lessons in fitting in include essentials such as “handling money, hygiene, being pleasant, avoiding crime,” but it’s clear that no amount of instruction will make them feel at home. Safe houses, hospices, hospitals: these are the theaters where many of the stories take place, all enshrouded in a certain incomprehension—but, to Johnson’s great credit, seldom in hopelessness, for his characters are inclined to endure against the odds: “You turn the ignition and drop the van in gear, and you know this is no ordinary event.”
Bittersweet, elegant, full of hard-won wisdom: this is no ordinary book, either.
In a novel that's part love story, part urban thriller, Phillips (And Yet They Were Happy, 2011, etc.) captures the way an isolating job and an indifferent city can stealthily steal our lives and erode our souls—and the protective, nourishing power of love.
A nameless, genderless, nearly faceless boss with rank breath; a tiny office in a vast windowless building, its “pinkish ill-colored” walls fluorescently lit, marked with “scratches, smears, shadowy fingerprints, the echoes of hands” of bureaucrats past, and impervious to efforts at beautification; the incessant, maddening drone of typing; the red-eyed co-workers of uncertain trustworthiness; the computer database into which numbers on pages in piles of files must be entered and double-checked and processed just so—these are the things Josephine Anne Newbury encounters in the administrative job she accepts, asking few questions and getting fewer answers, for a mysterious organization. Having up and moved to the city from the “hinterland” looking for new opportunities, Josephine and her beloved husband, Joseph, endure mindless work following a long period of unemployment and the added alienation of living in unwelcoming apartments, surrounded by other people’s belongings. They find solace, joy, and vitality in each other, in the linguistic playfulness that has become their own language, in the warm glow of simple meals enjoyed together by candlelight, and in their shared dream of starting a family. But the city to which they have moved “in hope of hope” sweeps them into its sinister clutches and brings them face to face with pressing existential questions to which the answers may be as inevitable and unpleasant as they are unclear. Phillips takes situations and sentiments that will be all too familiar to many readers—a soul-crushingly dull job that callously steals our youth and beauty, the desperate yearning to be free of it, the restoring power of love and food and intimacy and of shared language and laughter—and uses them to explore bigger universal themes of life and death and the choices and compromises they demand.
Intense and enigmatic, tense and tender, this novel offers no easy answers—its deeper meanings may mystify—but it grabs you up, propels you along, and leaves you gasping, grasping, and ready to read it again.
Under the right circumstances, even a dilapidated Brooklyn brownstone can save a collection of wounded souls.
Ensemble novels often strain to stay true to all their voices, especially when those voices range across genders, ages, ethnicities, and mental capacities. In her quietly wonderful second book, Alcott (The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, 2012) displays a deft hand with every one of her odd and startlingly real characters. The story centers on a trio of relationships: between Adeleine, a lovely recluse, and Thomas, a damaged artist; between Paulie, a charming 30-something with a mind stuck in youth, and his anxious sister; and between Edith, their ailing landlady, and all the tenants whose daily lives she nurtures before dementia and an estranged son intervene. Alcott’s debut novel was skillful but tempered by a thick layer of surrealism. Here, she allows only glimpses of that dreamscape, and it works to much greater effect. The residents of Edith’s building are united first by geography, then by evident personal flaws, and ultimately by a powerful desire to save their compromised caretaker—and the only place these out-of-sorts people feel they belong. As their lives weave together more tightly, we feel more drawn to them individually and as a family of sorts. Their situation may not be enviable, but Alcott’s handling of it is. The voices in this book speak volumes.
A luminous second novel from a first-class storyteller.
A ghost wife, a stolen child, wandering eyes, hidden ledgers—and more—bind the 19th-century Jewish community on a paradisiacal island in the West Indies.
To this marvelous mise-en-scène, Hoffman (The Museum of Extraordinary Things, 2014, etc.) adds a historical character: Rachel Manzana Pomié, the Creole mother of impressionist painter Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro. Descended from Spanish and Portuguese Jews who “knew when to depart even when it meant leaving worldly goods behind,” Hoffman’s Rachel nurses a grudge as bitter as the fruit of the apple tree her grandparents toted to the Antilles when they fled France: that her mother, Mme. Pomié, favors the nephew she adopted as a baby over her own child. “Girls were not worth very much in her eyes, especially a disobedient girl.” With her friend Jestine—the mixed-blood child of the family cook—Rachel keeps a lookout for turtle girls (mermaids with shells) and, aping the French fabulist Charles Perrault, chats up the market women for “small miracles common only in our country” to tell when she finally gets to Paris. “My mother didn’t like this sort of talk; people of our faith didn’t believe in past lives or spirits.” Faith leaves Rachel as well when her father arranges a match to a business associate twice her age, who dies, trapping her on the island with seven children; she’s shunned by her synagogue when she falls into bed with a young relative of her late husband who arrives from Paris to settle the books: “The good man and the enchantress. Some people said I was made of molasses; one bite and you couldn’t get enough.” Wearing “haint blue” to chase ghosts won’t bring back the luck she gave away to her old friend Jestine when she needed it. But her youngest, Jacobo, whose sketches and open manner charm even tight-lipped members of the synagogue’s sisterhood, just might.
Lilting prose, beautifully meted out folklore and historical references, and Hoffman’s deep conviction in her characters (especially those “willing to do anything for love”) make reading this “contes du temps passé” a total pleasure.
This newly translated German bestseller is a warmhearted, occasionally sentimental account of letting go of the old loves to make room for new.
Parisian bookseller Jean Perdu has lived in a time capsule of his own grief. Twenty-one years ago, his lover, Manon, left, leaving behind only a letter to explain herself—which Jean never opened. Ever since, Jean has devoted his life to his floating bookstore, the Literary Apothecary, a barge docked on the Seine. He can diagnose a shopper's ills (ennui, disappointment, a range of fears) and select the correct literary remedy. When heartbroken Catherine moves into his building, Jean brings her an old table and a stack of books to cure her crying. In the table Catherine finds Manon's unopened letter and demands Jean read it, or she will. The two fall into kissing, and Jean, buoyed by Catherine, finally reads Manon's letter, but the truth is heartbreaking. Manon returned to her home in Provence (and her husband—it was complicated) to succumb to the cancer she had been hiding. Her last request was for Jean to visit before she died. Jean, overwhelmed by news of her death, his tragic error, his wasted life pining for a dead woman, lifts the Literary Apothecary's anchorto finally make the journey to Manon. Stowed away is his neighbor Max, a young novelist running away from his fame. The two navigate the canals of France selling books for food, engaging in adventures small and large, all against the backdrop of quaint villages and bittersweet memories. They take on some passengers: a roguish Italian who has been searching the waterways for his long-lost sweetheart; and a renowned novelist. As Jean makes his way to Manon's home (all the while writing love letters to Catherine), he prepares to ask for forgiveness—from the memory of Manon, from her husband, and from himself.
A charming novel that believes in the healing properties of fiction, romance, and a summer in the south of France.
As the only survivor of a serial killer, Tessa Cartwright has spent the last 20 years trying to forget her past, but when the killer's execution date looms, she begins questioning everything she once believed.
The media dubbed 16-year-old Tessa and the other Texas victims "Black-Eyed Susans" because of the flowers that covered the ground where they were found. Heaberlin (Playing Dead, 2012, etc.) wisely metes out the gory details of the 15 hours between when Tessa went missing and when she was discovered in a grave along with the freshly rotting corpse of one still-unidentified "Susan" and the bones of two others slowly over the course of the narrative, which shifts back and forth between past and present. Tessa's childhood best friend, Lydia, stands by her side throughout the trial until an alleged betrayal tears the friendship apart. Now the mother of a 14-year-old girl, Charlie, Tessa is convinced by a crusading anti–death penalty lawyer and an eminent forensic scientist to help secure a new trial for Terrell Darcy Goodwin, the man on death row for kidnapping her and murdering the other girls. Shaky eyewitness testimony and junk science convicted Goodwin back in 1994—Tessa had no memory of her attacker—and she's wracked by guilt that her testimony may have sent an innocent man to prison.
Heaberlin takes what could have been the ingredients for just another episode of CSI and turns them into a truly compelling tale of the fragility of memory and elusive redemption.
The life of Harriet Wolf, beloved (though reclusive) author of a series of fanciful novels, is clouded in mystery, and the rumored existence of the manuscript for a final volume provides grist for the mills of academics, fans, and family members alike.
Baggott has written an often whimsical account of long-term damages set in motion by good intentions. Told in four unique, alternating voices—that of Harriet, her daughter, Eleanor, and her two granddaughters, Ruth and Tilton—Baggott’s (Burn,2014) gradual revelation of the meandering course of the enigmatic author’s life is part fairy tale, part psychological autopsy. Overcoming an early and erroneous banishment to the Maryland School for Feeble Minded Children, Harriet’s tenacity in creating a charmed and charming life for herself, on paper if not in the flesh, is recounted in a series of episodes that span the 20th century. Her descendants’ stories range from the bleak to the bizarre, but all take place on the stage Harriet created, and it's her legacy of secrecy and fierce familial loyalty that curses and blesses them all. What’s hidden in Harriet’s saga is as important as what’s visible, and Baggott’s tale is sprinkled with promises, secrets, pacts, and more than one case of agoraphobia. When a medical crisis reunites Eleanor, Ruth, and Tilton, the weight of Harriet’s prescience is felt while it falls to her family to puzzle out how to continue to live and love in a real world that is not as enchanting as that of her novels.
Moments of heartbreak balance moments of hilarity in Baggott’s ambitious portrait of a family created from equal parts secrecy and love.
A letter from a mysterious stalker upends the life of a Beijing taxi driver in Barker’s (The Orientalist and the Ghost, 2009, etc.) stunning epic, which spans a thousand years of Chinese history and six lifetimes of betrayal.
Wang Jun, husband of Yida, father of Echo, is driving down Workers Stadium Road when the first note falls from the visor of his cab. “I watch you most days,” it reads. It is taunting in its anonymity: “Who are you? you must be wondering. I am your soulmate, your old friend, and I have come back to this city of sixteen million in search of you.” And so begins Wang’s unraveling. In the present, it’s 2008. The city is preparing for the impending Olympics, and Wang—distanced from his troubled family, mostly recovered from the nervous breakdown of his college years—has carved out something like contentment for himself: a beautiful wife, a beloved child, a job, if not the one he once seemed destined for. But this is not Wang’s first or only life, the letters explain. There have been other incarnations. He and the “soulmate” have, in fact, been intimately connected for more than a thousand years, from the Tang Dynasty to the Opium War to the Cultural Revolution. They have been father and illegitimate daughter, the product of incest and fellow courtesans to the sadistic Emperor Jiajing; schoolmates at the Anti-Capitalist School for Revolutionary Girls and Jurchen boys, enslaved by the Mongols. Moving between Wang’s many pasts, all of them thrilling, gruesome, and tragic, and his increasingly desperate present, Barker’s historical tour de force is simultaneously sweeping and precise. It would be easy for the novel to teeter into overwrought melodrama; instead, Barker’s psychologically nuanced characters and sharp wit turn the bleakness and the gore into something seriously moving.
Effortlessly blends the past with the present, dark humor with profound sadness. A deeply human masterpiece.
A full-throttle dive into the psyche and romantic attachments of Beryl Markham—whose 1936 solo flight across the Atlantic in a two-seater prop plane (carrying emergency fuel in the extra seat) transfixed the world.
As conceived in this second historical by novelist McLain (The Paris Wife, 2011, etc.), Markham—nee Beryl Clutterbuck—is the neglected daughter of an impecunious racehorse trainer who fails to make a go at farming in British East Africa and a feckless, squeamish mother who bolts back to England with their older son. Set on her own two feet early, she is barely schooled but precociously brave and wired for physical challenges—a trait honed by her childhood companion Kibii (a lifelong friend and son of a local chief). In the Mau forest—“before Kenya was Kenya”—she finds a “heaven fitted exactly to me.” Keeping poised around large mammals (a leopard and a lion also figure significantly) is in her blood and later gains her credibility at the racecourse in Nairobi, where she becomes the youngest trainer ever licensed. Statuesque, blonde, and carrying an air of self-sufficiency—she marries, disastrously, at 16 but is granted a separation to train Lord Delamere’s bloodstock—Beryl turns heads among the cheerfully doped and dissolute Muthaiga Club set (“I don’t know what it is about Africa, but champagne is absolutely compulsory here”), charms not one but two heirs to the British crown at Baroness Karen Blixen’s soiree, and sets her cap on Blixen’s lover, Denys Fitch Hatton. She’ll have him, too, and much enjoyment derives from guessing how that script, and other intrigues, will play out in McLain’s retelling. Fittingly, McLain has Markham tell her story from an altitude of 1,800 feet: “I’m meant to do this,” she begins, “stitch my name on the sky.” Popularly regarded as “a kind of Circe” (to quote Isak Dinesen biographer Judith Thurman), the young woman McLain explores owns her mistakes (at least privately) and is more boxed in by class, gender assumptions, and self-doubt than her reputation as aviatrix, big game hunter, and femme fatale suggests.
Ernest Hemingway, who met Markham on safari two years before her Atlantic crossing, tagged her as “a high-grade bitch” but proclaimed her 1942 memoir West with the Night “bloody wonderful.” Readers might even say the same of McLain’s sparkling prose and sympathetic reimagining.