Mind-meld James Michener, Charles Dickens, and Stephen King and you'll approach the territory the endlessly inventive Moore stakes out in his most magnum of magna opera.
Moore, the influential conjurer of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and other dark graphic masterpieces, seeks here to capture the gritty, sweaty demimonde of Northampton, England, between covers. It’s the Northampton of the wrong side of the tracks, a place where it’s necessary to ration the coins in one’s pocket carefully, staying in of an evening so as not to have to “go through the humiliating pantomime of taking charity” from someone with not much more in the way of cash to spare. Alma Warren, her name the first words in the book, is just 5 years old when we meet her, thrust into a bewildering world among people who speak a language doomed in the face of globalism: “’E ain’t gunner urcha,” says her mother of a fellow cowled and masked like a “phantom burglar” (shades of V), “un 'e dun’t see people very orften. Goo on in un say 'ello or else 'e’ll think we’re rude.” In this gloomy milieu of wet cobblestone streets and decaying buildings, Alma and her kin and acquaintances serve as focal points and guides. Moore constructs a world seen from many different points of view, from wizened old masked men to reticent, fearful children and not much more confident adults in search of some measure of happiness, or at least a little sex (“He has more sperm in him than he knows what to do with and the planet circling about his axis seems to share the same promiscuous excitement”). Many storylines dance through Moore’s pages as he walks through those humid streets, ranging among voices and moods, turning here to Joycean stream-of-consciousness and there to Eliot-ian poetry (“Their gait resembling the Lambeth Walk/While in the upper corners of the room/Are gruff, gesticulating little men”), but in the end forging a style unlike any other.
Magisterial: an epic that outdoes Danielewski, Vollmann, Stephenson, and other worldbuilders in vision and depth.
“Nothing but harm and misfortune result when killers and skalds come together.” True enough, as Nobel Prize–winning author Laxness’ long-forgotten 1952 novel elaborates.
As Norse kings go, Olaf the Stout merits his name. The “sworn brothers” Þorgeir Hávarsson and Þormóður Bessason are another matter. The former had watched impassively, after all, as his father was slaughtered in epically gruesome fashion: “Jöður Klængsson dismounted, and, like a true Norseman, hewed frantically at the man with his ax where he lay fallen, spattering blood and brains everywhere.” Yet, having seen blood and gore firsthand, Þorgeir likes the possibilities for renown that follow, and so he sets out to carve out a hero’s name for himself, shunning farm work—he objects to it by saying that since his mother never ordered him to feed the pigs, it was his privilege to “slay with a sword.” A hero needs a bard, and there’s where sworn brother Þormóður comes in. Alas, the two are less than successful as a Quixote/Panza team; they’re a little dim at times, a little luckless at others, and the people they meet—especially the women—are better grounded in the world as it is and see right through them. Laxness’ novel follows the better-known Independent People by a couple of decades, and while it can be read with much pleasure without context, a couple of things from modern real life play into its medieval setting, one being Laxness’ Catholic worldview and the other his mistrust of alliances of the kind that the Cold War was forcing on Iceland, as well as of politics generally; as a minor character notes, “We have had plenty of kings in Norway, but the only ones that proved of any use to us were those that we sacrificed for good harvests and peace.” The result is a cynical, tongue-in-cheek reimagination of the Old Norse sagas on which the novel is firmly based, its heroes men with plenty of foibles.
A welcome, major contribution to modern Nordic literature in translation and a pleasure to read.
While one man struggles with his origins, a ragged group of wanderers walks across the steppe.
A small band of refugees is walking across the Eurasian steppe. They’d signed up to be ferried, illegally, across the border to a better life. They’d been tricked. Now, they must walk. They are starving to death. One by one, their members drop. Meanwhile, in a small, provincial town far away, a police commissioner named Pontus Beg is growing old. As he goes about clearing up the minor transgressions of his community—a man has run over another man’s sheep—he struggles to make sense of his position in the wider world. What puzzles him is the memory of a song his mother sang to him when he was a child. It’s a Yiddish song; but why would his mother sing a Yiddish song? As Beg uncovers a secret his mother kept from him, a secret that changes the way he understands his own identity, that ever shrinking band of refugees keeps creeping through the steppe. They’re not unlike the Israelites who wandered for 40 years in the wilderness. Gradually, Beg’s story begins to merge with the lonely band’s, a band that includes a tall man, a young boy, an addict, a poacher, an Ethiopian, and a woman. This latest novel from Libris Prize winner Wieringa (Little Caesar, 2012, etc.) is a quiet masterpiece. Wieringa combines the primal, raw, archetypal vision of José Saramago with the apocalyptic sweep of Cormac McCarthy. The result is entirely his own. In Garrett’s elegant translation, Wieringa’s prose is lucid as cut glass, his images stark, his landscape desolate and otherworldly at the same time that it is contemporary. His unalloyed depiction of emigration will reverberate keenly in a Europe facing ever growing numbers of exiles, evacuees, escapees of war. It will reverberate, as well, in a United States muddled by its own border policies. To open the doors or shut them? As it turns out, that’s only one of the questions.
A magnum opus from a leading young writer takes on the meaning of exile, identity, faith, and the limits of endurance.
A tense and intense novel that culminates in outlandish violence.
The narrative unfolds almost cinematically—think Quentin Tarantino with a dash of Key Largo and Touch of Evil. Visiting from Spain, Joanes, a talented engineer who never quite made it big professionally, is attending the second wedding of his overbearing father-in-law, along with his wife and daughter, at a Mexican resort, and a hurricane is about to break. Delayed by an unusual road accident, he sends his family to an evacuation hotel in Valladolid to be safe. Joanes is a bit nervous—not because of the impending storm but rather because he’s awaiting an important phone call that might help rescue his ailing air conditioning contracting business. While driving to Valladolid to catch up with his wife and daughter, he meets his old professor as well as the professor’s infirm wife along the side of the road. They had been put out of a bus that was moving away from the hurricane, and as usual with the professor, the story of how he got in this sorry state of affairs is both murky and ominous. The professor is domineering, contemptuous, and a bit sinister, and it turns out Joanes has long had a grudge against him, for he holds the professor responsible for his not having gotten a job with a prestigious company upon his graduation from university. Then begins a terrific ride, both literally and metaphorically, as the three seek shelter from the hurricane. Joanes, the professor, and the professor’s wife eventually try to settle into a run-down workman’s shed for the night, though they’re interrupted by a machete-wielding Mexican with a chimpanzee who is also seeking shelter. Suffice it to say that the machete, the chimpanzee, and a satellite phone with a dying battery serve as artifacts that play a significant role in the edgy uncertainty that threatens to explode—as eventually, and inevitably, it does.
The lives of a mentally ill savant, a young artist, and a serial killer converge in a powerful novel that shuttles across the U.S.–Mexico border.
The wide-ranging Bolivia-born Paz Soldán (Latin American literature/Cornell; Turing’s Delirium, 2006, etc.) delivers a small cross-section of very different lives of Latinos in the United States, better to counter casual generalizations about them. But its key strength is its well-formed individual characterizations. In 2008, Michelle is a Bolivia-born college student and budding graphic novelist in Texas who risks being pulled astray by hard-partying friends and a professor she’s sleeping with. In 1931, Martín is a schizophrenic Mexican immigrant who becomes a celebrated outsider artist after his institutionalization in California. (Michelle will be invited to write about Martín’s work decades later.) And in northern Mexico in 1984, Jesús has begun his career as a serial killer, hopping trains across the border to hunt likely victims in Texas. Jesús, modeled after the real-life “Railroad Killer” Ángel Maturino Reséndiz, hogs the novel’s stage, largely thanks to Paz Soldán’s visceral descriptions of his killings, which rival Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho for their stomach-churning impact. But Paz Soldán effectively inhabits the interior lives of each of his three characters, and Miles’ translation captures their distinct emotional flavors. Martín is purposefully abstract: “His brain: a desert landscape with an occasional prickly pear or acacia bush.” Michelle, the sole first-person narrator, is a spirited straight-talker. And Jesús is a terrifying vision of unchecked madness, as when he targets “gringas who couldn’t stand the fact that he was alive.” A detective is on Jesús’ tail, but the novel’s drama isn’t so much in the killer’s fate but in the thoughtful way Paz Soldán interweaves these three characters’ lives, at once showing how they intersect while spotlighting what makes them distinctive.
The lives of three generations of women in Jamaica intersect as they try to build better lives.
Margot, a 30-year-old desk clerk at a hotel in Jamaica, has fallen into a side business of sex with the white men who visit the island looking for poor women to exploit. This, of course, is not the life Margot wants. She only does it to support her younger sister, Thandi, a 15-year-old schoolgirl who's destined to be successful and “make everything better” for the family. Thandi, however, is more interested in being thought beautiful and the type of success that goes along with that, spending her extra money on skin-lightening creams to turn her dark skin whiter. Thandi's and Margot’s tales intertwine with the story of their abusive mother, Delores, and the rest of their poverty-stricken community, set against the backdrop of wealthy white tourists. Margot finds a temporary refuge from the constant barrage of work and men in her romantic relationship with a local woman named Verdene, but she can't escape the fear of violence that same-sex couples in their society face. And, as past secrets come to a head, the poor black and wealthy white worlds of Jamaica collide. This debut novel from Dennis-Benn is an astute social commentary on the intricacies of race, gender, wealth inequality, colorism, and tourism. But these themes rise organically from the narrative rather than overwhelming it. Here are visceral, profound writing and invigorating characters. Here, too, is the deep and specific sensation of experience. Consider teenage Thandi’s first awareness of being watched by the boy she likes: “a pulse stirs between her legs and she hurries down the path, holding it in like pee."
Haunting and superbly crafted, this is a magical book from a writer of immense talent and intelligence.
Renowned author Proulx (Bird Cloud: A Memoir, 2011, etc.) moves into Michener territory with a vast multigenerational story of the North Woods.
“How big is this forest?” So asks the overawed immigrant Charles Duquet, who, with his companion René Sel, has nowhere in the world to go but up—and up by way of New France, a land of dark forests and clannish Mi’kmaq people, most of whom would just as soon be left alone. The answer: the forest is endless. Finding work as indentured “barkskins,” or woodcutters, they wrestle a livelihood from the trees while divining that the woods might provide real wealth, kidnapping a missionary priest to teach Duquet how to read so that he might keep the books for a dreamed-of fortune. René founds a powerful local dynasty: “Here on the Gatineau,” Proulx writes, “the Sels were a different kind of people, neither Mi’kmaq nor the other, and certainly not both.” She drives quickly to two large themes, both centering on violence, the one the kind that people do to the land and to each other, the other the kind that the land itself can exact. In the end, over hundreds of pages, the land eventually loses, as Sels and their neighbors in the St. Lawrence River country fell the forests, sending timber to every continent; if they do not die in the bargain, her characters contribute to dynasties of their own: “He wanted next to find Josime on Manitoulin Island and count up more nieces and nephews. He had come out of the year of trial by fire wanting children.” As they move into our own time, though, those children come to see that other wealth can be drawn from the forest without the need for bloodshed or spilled sap. Part ecological fable à la Ursula K. Le Guin, part foundational saga along the lines of Brian Moore’s Black Robe and, yes, James Michener’s Centennial, Proulx’s story builds in depth and complication without becoming unduly tangled and is always told with the most beautiful language.
Another tremendous book from Proulx, sure to find and enthrall many readers.
Kinship, gender, Medusas—this rich new novel from a highly regarded British writer dazzles and teases with its many connections while exposing the double-edged sword of mother-daughter love.
Levy’s (Things I Didn’t Want to Know, 2014, etc.) latest work may read lightly but is in fact a closely woven fabric of allusions, verbal riffs, and cross-references reflecting the experiences and dilemmas of its narrator, Sofia Papastergiadis, born in Britain to an English mother, Rose, and a Greek father she hasn’t seen in 11 years. Now 25, with a degree in anthropology, Sofia is living an empty, frustrated life since she abandoned her doctoral thesis to take care of Rose, whose many ailments include strange pains and mysteriously paralyzed lower limbs. The story opens in Almeria, Spain, where, at considerable expense, mother and daughter have gone to visit the Gómez Clinic in hopes of a cure for Rose. But is Rose really ill or a hypochondriac? Is Gómez a quack or a brilliant healer? Is Sofia a monster, as she and others refer to her, or a sexual powerhouse—as she begins to seem after acting on Dr. Gómez’s recommendation that she become bolder by taking two lovers, one male and one female. Levy’s wit and fluency render her quicksilver, sometimes surreal narrative simultaneously farcical and fascinating. The new, bolder Sofia may act more decisively—freeing an abused dog, stealing a fish, visiting her father and his new family in Athens—but underneath she’s lost and lonely, afraid of “failing and falling and feeling.” Yet her need for a “bigger life” cannot be suppressed, leading to one final act of boldness that disrupts—though doesn’t necessarily sever—those tendrillike bonds holding her captive.
In her scintillating, provocative new book, Levy combines intellect and empathy to impressively modern effect.