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.
A literary prodigy allows her husband to convince her to reverse their decision not to have children.
Can you be a mother and also be an artist—or, by extension, pursue any serious ambition at all? This is the question taken up with urgency and all due complexity in lawyer and film producer Wolas' debut novel. The book opens with a hugely laudatory magazine profile of a fictional writer named Joan Ashby, revealing that at age 13 Ashby articulated nine rules for herself. No. 7 was “Do not entertain any offer of marriage,” and No. 8 was “Never ever have children.” Then, the article explains, after having taken the world by storm with two story collections, Ashby got married and became pregnant at 25—and that was the last she was heard from for nearly three decades. After revealing this much, and providing reprints of two of Ashby’s famous stories, the article cuts off with this line: “Continued after the break.” The “break” is a 500-plus–page narrative exploring Ashby’s struggles during these decades. It’s a tribute to Wolas’ plot that most of it cannot be decently revealed. And heaven knows, a book this big needs its plot. Wolas provides not only the main story, but several more excerpts from Ashby’s work. Maybe she goes a little too far with these digressions, but even in a scene where Ashby is teaching a writing class and the first lines of a dozen student stories are included—they're all great first lines! Like John Irving’s The World According to Garp, this is a look at the life of a writer that will entertain many nonwriters. Like Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, it's a sharp-eyed portrait of the artist as spouse and householder.
From the start, one wonders how Wolas is possibly going to pay off the idea that her heroine is such a genius. Verdict: few could do better.
Guest workers of the United Arab Emirates embody multiple worlds and identities and long for home in a fantastical debut work of fiction, winner of the inaugural Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.
In 28 engrossing linked stories, Unnikrishnan blends Malayalam, Arabic, and English slang as well as South Asian and Persian Gulf cultures to capture the disjunction and dissociation of temporary foreign workers who live in the Arabian Peninsula but will never receive citizenship. In “Gulf Return,” a laborer swallows his passport and turns into a passport, and his roommate swallows a suitcase and turns into a suitcase so that their third friend can dash away with them both to the airport. In “Birds,” Anna Varghese tapes construction workers who fall from tall buildings back together. “Anna had a superb track record for finding fallen men….She found everything, including teeth, bits of skin.” The tongue of an English-speaking teen escapes from his mouth, shedding words with every step in the agile “Glossary.” “Verbs, adjectives, and adverbs died at the scene but the surviving nouns, tadpole-sized, see-through, fell like hail.” A lonely renegade cockroach called The General mimics humanlike qualities in the ingenious “Blatella Germanica.” “It was when he started picking up the language of the building’s tenants, bits of Arabic from the Palestinians and the Sudanese, Tagalog from the Filipinos, modern variations of Dravidian languages, that he began crafting a custom-made patois from the many tongues he heard, then practicing it at night in the kitchen, as he foraged walking on two legs and in costume, that he startled the other Germanicas in his community, and they ostracized him.” The author’s crisp, imaginative prose packs a punch, and his whimsical depiction of characters who oscillate between two lands on either side of the Arabian Sea unspools the kind of immigrant narratives that are rarely told.
An enchanting, unparalleled anthem of displacement and repatriation.
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.
A New Orleans family is shattered and scattered by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
“Grief was infinite, though, wasn’t it,” thinks one of the characters midway through this powerful, important novel, “something like love that, divided, did not diminish.” Babst’s debut tracks the experiences of five family members from the pre-Katrina evacuation of the city through late November 2005, 93 days after landfall. Dr. Tess Eshleman is a psychiatrist, an Uptown blue blood married to Joe Boisdoré, a Creole sculptor descended from freed slaves whose work has made it as far as the Guggenheim; the couple raised their two mixed-race daughters in a historic house on the Esplanade. By the time the hurricane drops a magnolia tree through the roof of that home, Tess and Joe have evacuated to Houston, taking with them Joe’s father, who suffers from advanced Lewy body dementia and was in an institution until it shut down for the storm. Their daughter Cora, who struggles with mental illness and depression, refused to leave with the family, then cannot be found when they return. By the time their other daughter, Del, arrives from New York City in October, the pressures of the storm have driven Tess and Joe to separate—and though Cora has been found, drinking tea with an elderly friend of the family in the ruins of her garden, she is catatonic. Much of the plot is devoted to unpacking exactly what happened to her during the storm and the flood. This novel is New Orleans to the bone, an authentic, detailed picture of the physical and emotional geography of the city, before, during, and after the tragedy, its social strata, its racial complications, the zillion cultural details that define its character: the parrots in the palm trees, the pork in the green beans, the vein in the shrimp, “the goddamned tacky way he flew his Rex flag out of season.”
Deeply felt and beautifully written; a major addition to the literature of Katrina.
In her debut novel, the author of the charming short story collection Single, Carefree, Mellow (2015) matures into new (equally beguiling) terrain, exploring marriage, fidelity, friendship, and parenting.
It’s easy to see why Graham, one-half of the New York City couple at the center of Heiny’s first novel, is enthralled by his wife of 12 years, Audra. While Graham, a medical-venture specialist at a venture capitalist firm, is steady, stable, and fond of “routine and order,” Audra, a freelance graphic designer 15 years his junior, is an unrestrained force of good nature. Audra’s vivacity offers a stark contrast to Graham’s emotionally cool first wife, Elspeth, with whom the couple reconnects. Audra draws all manner of friends and random strangers into her orbit with her chatty sociability and almost unwavering cheer. She cannot make it through a trip to the grocery store without running into a million people she knows (Graham says it’s like shopping with “a visiting dignity”) and bonding big-time with the checkout guy, is constantly inviting people (a woman she barely knows from her book group whose husband has been unfaithful; their building’s afternoon doorman, for a reason Graham cannot recall) to move into their den or eat at their table. Audra is forever on the phone, helping out with PTA activities at the school attended by their 10-year-old son, Matthew, who has Asperger’s and is some kind of origami prodigy, or chatting with her best friend, Lorelei. Like Graham, the reader may be deeply enchanted with, if also somewhat mystified by, Audra. She’s a wonderful character, as are many of those assembled around her, and the series of minor challenges she and Graham face (potential infidelities, possible pregnancy, challenging play dates, and other parental concerns)—she pluckily; he sheepishly—make for reading as delicious as the meals Graham is forever called into service to cook for whomever Audra happens to have invited by that night. To quibble, the episodic, somewhat attenuated plot lacks a degree of urgency and loses a bit of steam midway through, but it regains its footing by the end. And to spend 300-plus pages with Heiny’s wry voice and colorful cast of characters is to love them, truly.
An amusingly engaging take on long-term marriage with a lovably loopy character at its center.
Sensitive and smart and arrestingly beautiful, debut novelist Buntin’s tale of the friendship between two girls in the woods of Northern Michigan makes coming-of-age stories feel both urgent and new.
Fifteen-year-old Cat catches her first glimpse of Marlena as they’re unloading the U-Haul; Cat’s parents have just gotten divorced, the most obvious consequence of which is that her mother has moved the remainder of the family from the suburbs of Detroit to Silver Lake, a rural town in Northern Michigan, 20 minutes from the nearest grocery store stocking vegetables. It is a meeting both unremarkable and life-changing. “The details of her in my memory are so big and clear they almost can’t quite be true,” Cat says, looking back. “Her arms were slicked with snowmelt and pimpled from the cold; her hair gave off a burnt-wood smell when she shook it out of her face, the way she often did before she spoke.” Over the course of the coming weeks, they become friends, and then best friends, their lives wholly and intensely intertwined. Magnetic and kind and very, very troubled, Marlena introduces the once-studious Cat to a new world of drinking and pills and sex and also friendship, the depth of which neither girl has experienced before. And still, there are parts of Marlena’s life Cat cannot reach and doesn’t understand: Cat knows someday she’ll be leaving Silver Lake; Marlena knows she won’t. She’s right. With time, Marlena slips further away, swallowed up by drugs and desperation, and by the end of the year she is dead, having drowned alone in a shallow, freezing river in the unforgiving woods. It could so easily be clichéd or sentimental. It is neither. Jumping between their teenage friendship in Michigan and Cat’s adult life in New York City, Buntin creates a world so subtle and nuanced and alive that it imprints like a memory.
An ambitious debut about power and family in South Korea with rich character portraits and a strong political heartbeat.
In her first novel, Wuertz traces the ambitions of four loosely connected students attending Seoul National University in 1978. There’s Jisun, a revolutionary at heart fighting for autonomy from her wealthy and influential father; Namin, a poor scholarship student struggling to bury her family’s past and lift them out of poverty; Sunam, a striver caught between the different futures these young women offer him; and Juno, an ingratiating social climber only interested in his own advancement. It’s no accident that the book opens—and closes—amid the clamor of protest, from striking textile workers roughed into police vans to a smoke bomb planted during a college graduation ceremony. Wuertz investigates a national crisis surrounding worker exploitation and upward mobility, the complicity of the rich, and the stifling indecision of the middle class. With deep sympathy and psychological insight, she demonstrates how a corrupt political regime bankrupts—literally and figuratively—the choices of her characters, pushing them to moral extremes. Namin is forced to choose between caretaking for her beloved disabled brother and raising her sister’s illegitimate son, while Sunam struggles with a bribe of unimaginable magnitude. Even spirited Jisun must negotiate for her freedom. To outsmart her controlling father, she chooses to give away her fortune to the legal funds of protesters. At the bank, she’s left with “an eerie feeling like stealing from a ghost, a fictional character with her name and identification number.” Jisun isn’t the only ghost walking in the pages of this book, which collects and mourns the forgotten, downtrodden souls these four must rescue or leap over in their race to the top. Wuertz’s book blooms in unexpected ways, eschewing a straightforward plot for more meandering paths. While the framework of the novel isn’t always tidy, the book is no less a significant representation of the politics of postwar hope and despair.
Engrossing. Wuertz is an important new voice in American fiction.
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 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.
Hubbard shrewdly molds the pop-culture mythology of the comic-book superhero team into a magical-realist metaphor for African-American struggles since the real-life heroic battle against segregation in the middle of the 20th century.
You’ve heard of the Justice League? Meet the Justice Committee, an extended family of black crusaders who became legendary for using their extraordinary powers to protect leaders, activists, and their brothers and sisters during the 1960s civil rights movement. When this crafty and wistful debut novel opens in present-day Florida, the committee’s surviving members are scattered about, and one in particular, 72-year-old Johnny Ribkins, seems lost and at loose ends. Which is ironic since Johnny’s special gift is being able to draw precise maps of places he’s never been. (It came in handy when black drivers tried to make their ways safely through the racially segregated South.) But after the committee members drifted apart, Johnny and his brother, Franklin, whose natural wall-climbing skills rivaled those of Spider-Man, merged their talents for high-scale larceny. After Franklin’s untimely death, Johnny jump-starts his cartography gifts to track down buried loot from all their varied heists so he can pay off his debt to a shady real estate mogul. Accompanying Johnny in an antique Thunderbird she characterizes as “junky” is his moody teenage niece, Eloise, who’s been showing off some of her own inherited uncanniness by being able to catch any object thrown at her. With a pair of thugs shadowing them, Johnny and Eloise stop at various points in the Sunshine State, where they meet, among other relatives, Cousin Bertrand, nicknamed “Captain Dynamite” because he could “spit firecrackers”; another speedy, magnetic cousin known (of course) as “Flash”; and yet another nicknamed “The Hammer” because while her left hand looks normal, her right hand…you can probably guess the rest. With each rueful confrontation with people and places of his past, Johnny comes to grips with lost resolutions, squandered opportunities, and the complex history of a family that began with a patriarch whose superb sense of smell made him “The Rib King.” Hubbard weaves this narrative with prodigious skill and compelling warmth. You anticipate a movie while wondering if any movie could do this fascinating family...well, justice.
To describe this novel, as someone inevitably will, as Song of Solomon reimagined as a Marvel Comics franchise is to shortchange its cleverness and audacity.
This sparkling first novel sends a young man through a gantlet of troubles and amusements in 18th-century Manhattan.
Within minutes of deboarding from the brig Henrietta in New York harbor, anno Domini 1746, Richard Smith seems to attract trouble. First the 24-year-old Londoner presents a local merchant named Lovell with a bill demanding 1,000 pounds sterling. It’s a huge sum for the time, and Smith’s sharp tongue does little to smooth the transaction. Next day, his purse is stolen, and that night, invited to dine with the merchant, Smith is rude to his hosts and nettles the merchant’s daughter Tabitha. Among other things, he abets her sister’s taste in novels (“pabulum for the easily pleased”). Before the week is out he is mistaken for a papist and pursued by a drunken mob in a marvelous chase scene through Manhattan’s much fewer mean streets. His rescuer that night, Septimus Oakeshott, secretary to the governor, will unwittingly embroil Smith in the city’s chief political dispute. Spufford (Unapologetic, 2013, etc.), who writes in the Fielding-esque style of the period and displays a sure hand thereto, packs so many surprises into this sprightly picaresque that an extended precis would be full of spoiling answers to such queries as: why does Tabitha limp? Why do Smith and Septimus duel? Is it because of their dark secrets? Why is Smith really in New York? And who is the narrative’s “true” author? Spufford suggests in an afterword that he was aiming for "a colonial counterpart to Joseph Andrews,” but there’s a touch here also of the Ian Fleming books that he warmly recalls in his autobiographical The Child That Books Built (2002).
A first-rate entertainment with a rich historical feel and some delightful twists.