This story about a white woman who adopts her black nanny's son burrows deep into issues of race, class, and the nature of family.
Rebecca Stone is the attractive wife of a British diplomat, a talented poet, an admirer of Princess Diana (the book is set in the late 1980s and '90s), the sort of person who is equally adept at both attending and hosting parties. She lives in a tastefully decorated house in Washington, D.C.; wears designer clothes; drives a Volvo; cooks delicious, complex meals in her well-appointed kitchen. In short, she is, among other attributes, rich and pretty—which happens to be the title of Alam’s well-received 2016 debut novel. With this, his second book, Alam further demonstrates his ability to write remarkably convincingly from a woman’s perspective, credibly capturing even the particulars of childbirth and breast-feeding, not to mention the emotional challenges of balancing motherhood and fulfilling work. When we first meet Rebecca, she is about to give birth to a son, Jacob, an event that leads to a connection with a hospital breast-feeding consultant named Priscilla Johnson, who will become Jacob’s nanny. Rebecca is white; Priscilla is black. But their relationship is far more nuanced than those bare facts may lead you to expect, and their story plays out in unpredictable ways. When Priscilla dies unexpectedly in childbirth, Rebecca instinctively moves to adopt her newborn son, a decision that will change Rebecca's life, her family, and her view of the world. Here Alam proves he is a writer brave and empathetic enough not only to look at life from the perspective of another gender and era, but also to boldly dive in and explore controversial topics, posing questions about the way we treat one another and the challenges of overcoming preconceptions. Digging through to uncomfortable truths, he emerges squarely on the side of hope.
With his second novel, Alam cements his status as that kind of writer: insightful, intrepid, and truly impressive.
The quiet part of Eastern Long Island is invaded by the glitterati and the Twitterati—will they ruin it entirely?
"Let the billionaires have the Hamptons on the South Fork, with the shops and restaurants and parties that re-created what made them so exquisitely comfy in Manhattan. The North Fork was two ferry rides away, and it showed….It was pies and parades and stony beaches that hurt your feet, banging screen doors and peaches eaten over the sink." Blundell's (A City Tossed and Broken, 2013, etc.) latest is her first novel for adults, and she brings to it much more than just believable teen characters. As this accomplished, engrossing domestic drama begins, North Fork resident Ruthie is losing it all. An ultrarich widow is taking over both her house and her ex-husband; she's being betrayed by her staff and ousted from her job as director of a small museum; her lovely 15-year-old daughter is involved in dangerous relationships she knows nothing about. Blundell has more balls in the air than most writers could smoothly handle—a Patek Philippe watch, lost then stolen; a forged painting; a character with a deeply buried, sordid past; lots of art-world specifics—but the story never feels overstuffed, and she steers confidently toward a satisfying blend of happy and imperfect endings. A dim view of what it means to be a middle-aged woman crops up here and there, creating an interesting curmudgeonly undercurrent. Of an overweight teenage girl: "At forty-five, the iron gate of indifference would clang down...and she would know she was stuck back exactly where she was in high school as if all that sex and attention had happened to someone else." After a betrayal: "A man might feel anger right now. As a woman, she felt only shame."
Luscious but not too sweet, astute but not too serious, Blundell's novel is a treat you don't have to feel guilty about and a sign of good things to come.
A novel about the indignities, frustrations, and joy found in a Toronto public housing complex.
The Park is a sprawling complex home to thousands of residents struggling to find work, take care of each other, and get through another day. Like so many of the Park’s residents, Michael and Francis are the children of an immigrant single mother. Ruth came from Trinidad with dreams of becoming a nurse; instead, she’s working multiple jobs, riding buses for hours, and coming home too exhausted to even sleep. Michael and Francis are learning how to survive in the Park as young men. They know how to posture, which guys to avoid, and how to act when the police roll through. Chariandy’s second novel (Soucouyant, 2007) is a slender volume with the heart of a family epic. Alternating between Michael and Francis’ teenage years and a present time in which everything is darker, sadder, and Francis is nowhere to be found, Chariandy reveals a world of violence, frustrated hopes, and the delicate family bonds necessary for survival. The prose is beautiful and unflinching without giving way to sentimentality: “I know now that by the age of fourteen, you feel it. You spot the threat that is not only about young men with weapons, about ‘gangs’ and ‘predators,’ but also the threat that is slow and somehow very old. A mother lecturing you about arrival and opportunity while her breath stinks of the tooth she can’t just for the moment afford the time or money to fix.” When violence and an increased police presence enter the Park, the creeping sense of doom inches closer and readers can feel the oncoming tragedy in their guts. In the other storyline, set in the present, Michael and his mother stumble toward healing and a brighter day. Their journey, like the novel itself, isn’t always easy but it is absolutely necessary.
An important, riveting novel about dreams, families, and the systems holding them back.
Christensen (How to Cook a Moose, 2015, etc.) chronicles the intersecting human tragicomedies above- and belowdeck during a luxury liner’s farewell Hawaiian cruise.
Commissioned back in 1953, the Queen Isabella has had a long sea life. But now the corporate owners have arranged her farewell adults-only cruise with a glamorous mid-20th-century retro theme. In fact, the Queen Isabella is a little too retro, with drab '70s-era staterooms and a pool considered tiny by today’s standards. Christensen writes with tenderness but no sentimentality about the old ship and about aging human characters, too. Having played together for more than 40 years, the elderly members of the Sabra String Quartet—Miriam; Isaac, her co-founder and ex-husband; Jakov; and Sasha, “the one she’d always had a crush on”—know they are nearing the end of their run. Based in Israel, the quartet is aboard to debut a work called “The Six Day War” composed by fellow passenger Rivka Weiss, whose wealthy husband owns a share in the ship. Crotchety and kind, sometimes both at once, Miriam is the novel’s strongest character, expressing the quicksilver nature of human emotions: Even as her passion for Sasha re-erupts into a full-blown septuagenarian love affair, she finds herself distracted by her scratchy yet deep familial love for Isaac. Miriam befriends 36-year-old Christine, a hardworking Maine farmer’s wife whose successful journalist friend Valerie is on a working vacation. Luxuriating in food, drink, and warm weather, Christine re-examines her life choices while Valerie, who’s paying for their room, tries gathering information on the ship’s uncooperative crew for her “book about workers.” Belowdeck, executive sous chef Mick is caught between his sense of professional duty and a multicultural staff in revolt against horrible working conditions. Then the ship’s engines fail, along with its electricity and plumbing. While Miriam dryly jokes about icebergs, what’s begun as an idyll at sea, at least for the passengers, becomes a crisis. Soon divisions between decks blur and relationships reconfigure.
An entertaining mashup of Ship of Fools and Titanic.
The paths of two people—an American woman who studies the habits of urban foxes and a Ghanaian man specializing in refugee trauma—cross in London, creating a fork in the road for both.
Shot through with history, biology, and psychiatry, Forna’s (The Hired Man, 2013, etc.) fourth novel is an unusual work that characteristically integrates multiple layers with fluidity. Its central characters are divorced wildlife biologist Jean Turane, in London working for a local council, and noted psychiatrist Attila Asare, a widower, who's arrived to give the keynote speech at a conference. Both have devoted their working lives to interpreting behavior and response, whether human or animal. Jean’s context is the American history of settlement, wolf-hunting, and survival; Attila’s the international geography of war. One accidental encounter on Waterloo Bridge, when Jean runs into Attila while chasing a fox, leads to more time spent together; meanwhile, Attila is searching for two missing family members and trying to help an old lover now afflicted by early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and Jean is drawn into a metropolitan fox-culling controversy. These far-from-sensational events, spanning some 10 days, are interrupted by more dramatic interludes set in Bosnia, New England, Iraq, and elsewhere, offering glimpses of Jean's and Attila’s pasts: work done, risks taken, pain experienced. Forna’s sensitive novel is nonostentatious yet compelling, and whether writing of Attila’s victims of conflict and terror or Jean’s birds and mammals, she offers wisdom and perspective, which is further extended to the possibility of romance between two questing strangers.
Low-key yet piercingly empathetic, Forna's latest explores instinct, resilience, and the complexity of human coexistence, reaffirming her reputation for exceptional ability and perspective.
Geni’s (The Lightkeepers, 2016) fascination with the borders between human and animal drives this distinctive sophomore novel.
Darlene, Tucker, Jane, Cora: Already motherless, they are transformed in seconds into modern orphans when a massive tornado sweeps their small piece of the Oklahoma plains, disappearing their childhood home, their barn animals, and their father. More transformations await. Darlene, now a legal guardian, scrapes together a subsistence for the siblings instead of going to college. Their new life is sufficient for Jane and for Cora (whose memories extend no further back than the tornado) but is untenable for Tucker. He runs away to nurse a streak of wildness, becoming a dangerously zealous animal rights activist, returning to bomb a cosmetics factory close to home and releasing the bewildered test animals. And while the tornado is catalytic, catastrophe occurs when Tucker kidnaps 9-year-old Cora. He needs someone to tend his gruesome wounds from the bombing but seemingly desires a spiritual accomplice as well. Cora joins her big brother lovingly and willingly. On the lam, she sees more and more to make her uneasy; bombing is but one of the destructive crimes Tucker is willing to commit in the name of the animals. But Cora is enthralled by the fairy tale Tucker spins around their adventure and confused by the new identity Tucker has given her as a boy named Corey. Back home, Darlene’s devastation is palpable, as are her anger, desperation, and strength of will. She and Jane find an ally in a local police officer, but their hope of finding Cora wanes along with the summer. Cora’s experience, narrated in first-person chapters, is tender and terrifying. Tucker is almost exclusively viewed through her eyes, but readers can see the abhorrence of his actions clearly. At the same time, Geni uses him to limn the intelligence and order of the animal world and to raise valid, troubling questions about humans’ treatment of their fellow beasts. Darlene, an impressive example of grit, provides a counterpoint. The question of the novel is what Cora will become—what any of us could become—when placed in the eyes of that storm.
Geni continues to create works of art with perfect voices that are simultaneously thrillers and meditations on nature. It is an incredible trick.
Headley, a writer of juvenile fiction (Aerie, 2016, etc.) and fantasy, steps into the adult world with this spot-on reimagining of a classic of Old English literature.
Think “mere” as sea, as in the Old English, and not just as some dismissive term. Think of the world as the author of Beowulf did, where sea caves shelter monsters and great mead halls harbor mighty warriors who melt away when the monsters make their way inland. Headley recasts the geography of a place that’s most contemporary, a suburb of cul-de-sacs and playgrounds, meant to be a community but full of people who live their own isolated lives, while up on the bordering mountain of which the brochures boast, strange things are afoot. Willa has her doubts about the planned community of Herot Hall —“I always thought it might be a mistake to leave the back of the houses unfenced,” she frets—and for good reason, for within a cave on the mountain live Dana, a PTSD–scarred returned soldier, and her son, Gren, who are definitive outsiders. Unsocialized, wild, brown-skinned Gren has learned from Dana that Herot Hall is a place of monsters that “tear people from limb to limb,” but Gren is infatuated with Willa’s son, Dylan, who dares play outside and shows no fear. The fraught friendship of the two throws the carefully constructed worlds of Willa, who keeps weekly menus taped to her refrigerator, and Dana, who is never far away from military-grade weapons, into a spin; Herot Hall may be a “toddler empire,” but it is now a place of amber alerts and armed patrols, all courtesy of a combat-ready cop named Ben Woolf. Things do not end well in Herot Hall or on the mountain either: “There are sirens,” writes Headley with lyrical assuredness, “and then more sirens, like God has come down from heaven and called out for every church to lay tribute.”
There’s not a false note in this retelling, which does the Beowulf poet and his spear-Danes proud.
A man’s inability to be honest about his sexuality has scandalous, and brutally public, consequences for several generations.
At the outset of this novel, in 1940, all the gay men and at least one straight woman in a literary club at Oxford are infatuated with beautiful David Sparsholt, a first-year engineering student who initially seems oblivious to the attention. One student, Evert Dax, the son of famous, inexplicably bestselling novelist A.V. Dax, is determined to bed Sparsholt. (Ostensibly straight Freddie Green, whose memoir about his years at Oxford makes up the first section of the novel, claims Sparsholt has a “dull square face.”) Sparsholt’s straight bona fides (he has a girlfriend) soon come into thrilling question. The students watch warily at night for German bombs in the World War II–era opening of the novel, which soon transitions to 1966, when Sparsholt’s 14-year-old son, Johnny, lusts after Bastien, a French exchange student who's living with his family. Johnny is the heart of the story, and in the ensuing sections taking place over many decades he gives Hollinghurst the opportunity to track the vast, transformative changes in gay life since David Sparsholt attended Oxford. Johnny is a fascinating character: a painter who is sensitive, proudly bohemian, sometimes rejected in love, and still eager for love at an advanced age, but always calmly aware of who he is and the dangers of trying to be someone else. It’s a lesson he learned from his father’s arrogant belief that he could skirt the restrictive, heterosexual mores of pre–sexual liberation England. If this plot sounds like it couldn't possibly have been the work of a Man Booker Prize–winning author, part of Hollinghurt’s (The Stranger's Child, 2011, etc.) bold talent in this novel, as in his previous work, is to make it evident that lust, sex, and who does what with whom in the bedroom (and even how) are fitting, and insightful, subjects of literary fiction.
A novel full of life and perception; you end the book not minding that the actual Sparsholt affair gets just the barest of outlines.
A retelling of Oedipus Rex set in the insular community of the boat people who live along the canals of Oxford.
Gretel was raised in the sole company of her mother, Sarah, on an engineless houseboat moored in a quiet part of the River Thames. Their relationship is intensely iconoclastic and isolated: They haul their own water, fish for much of their food, speak a language peppered with made-up words, school each other with entries from Sarah's encyclopedia. One winter, dogs, cats, and even children begin to go missing from the communities that live on the river. Sarah and 13-year-old Gretel believe it is the work of an uncanny creature they call the Bonak, and, with the help of a wandering boy named Marcus, they determine to trap and kill it. Now Gretel is an adult working as a lexicographer, and Sarah—who abandoned her into foster care 16 years earlier—has come back into her life in an even wilder and more unpredictable form. Sarah's phone call making contact sends Gretel on a quest into her own past: First to find Sarah, then to find Marcus, and finally to confront the Bonak, a creature made flesh by her and her mother's own fears. The book is structured in interwoven sections which alternate among Gretel's first-person perspective and the close-third-person narration of Sarah and Marcus, whose timelines take place in the past. As the truth about Marcus' identity becomes clearer, the haze that surrounds Sarah—a reimagining of Jocasta—deepens. However, where the original tale focuses on the torment of Oedipus himself, here the mother's rage, her despair, and her progressive disassociation from the known world are the centerpieces of the story. Sarah's past leaves lurid scars across her daughter's psyche as the book delves into what it means to live in a world that binds us so cruelly to our fate. Johnson's (Fen, 2017) debut novel explores the determinism of its characters’ choices even as it asserts the fluidity of their genders and their relationships with each other, in prose that harmonizes with the haunting wasteland of its setting—a place where what is discarded takes on new identity if not new life.
A tense, startling book of true beauty and insight. Proof that the oldest of stories contain within them the seeds of our future selves.
Five diverse lives in India are traced and linked, exposing the aching gulfs in experience and opportunity that exist in a complex nation.
Particle physicists, Maoist terrorists, punitive employers, servants, and émigrés all have roles in Mukherjee’s (The Lives of Others, 2014, etc.) third novel, which is composed of interwoven short fictions moving between seething cities and rural life at its most impoverished. Themes of money, work, politics, survival, and women’s roles connect the characters. In Bombay, an elderly couple with a new cook welcomes home their liberal son, now living overseas, on his annual visit. His keen interest in food and research for a cookbook lead to awkward efforts to befriend the cook, resulting in a visit to her family’s home, a trip seamed with shame, pity, and wonder. Elsewhere, a poor villager, crushed under the burden of trying to provide not only for his own family, but his brother’s, too—the brother has gone to find work on construction sites in the cities—is relieved, perhaps, by the discovery of a bear cub. Having trained the bear to “dance”—an unbearably cruel process—man and animal begin a life together on the road and a kind of parallel existence, begging for food and money, debased and suffering. The fate of the absent brother is glimpsed in the sinister, haunting opening of the book and confirmed in its final section. The London-based Mukherjee surprises once again with the form of his storytelling while confirming anew the depth of his empathy. His characters’ life journeys are often painful while his descriptions of their circumstances are unsentimental, vivid, unsparing. Above all there is compassion here, alongside a focus that depicts gross inequities with a grim tenderness.
A calm, compelling, unshrinking portrait of humanity in transition; both disturbing and dazzling.
Quietly brilliant and darkly funny, Nunez's (Sempre Susan, 2011, etc.) latest novel finds her on familiar turf with an aggressively unsentimental interrogation of grief, writing, and the human-canine bond.
After her best friend and mentor's suicide, an unnamed middle-aged writing professor is bequeathed his well-behaved beast of a dog. Apollo is a majestic, if aging, Great Dane, whom her friend—like all the human characters, unnamed—found abandoned in Brooklyn and kept, against the rather reasonable protests of his third and final wife. And so, in the midst of her overwhelming grief for the man whose life has anchored hers, the woman agrees to take in the animal, despite the exceedingly clear terms of her rent-stabilized lease. Apollo, too, is grieving, in his doggy way—after his master’s death, he waited by the door round the clock (“you can’t explain death to a dog,” says Wife Three); now, in the woman’s care, he throws himself listlessly on the bed, all 180 pounds of him. And though she is a self-professed cat person—not because she prefers them, but because they are less indiscriminately devoted (“Give me a pet that can get along without me”)—the two become unlikely companions in mourning, eventually forming the kind of bond Rilke once described as love: “two solitudes that protect and border and greet each other." In contemplating her current situation—the loss, the dog—the woman is oriented by art: not just Rilke but Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, the relentlessly grim Swedish film Lilya 4-Ever, Joy Williams, Milan Kundera, the British writer J.R. Ackerley in love with his dog. It is a lonely novel: rigorous and stark, so elegant—so dismissive of conventional notions of plot—it hardly feels like fiction.
Breathtaking both in pain and in beauty; a singular book.
Christmas 2016 is a time of memory and confrontation for two estranged sisters in this second installment of the British author’s Seasonal Quartet.
When Arthur arrives from London at his mother’s Cornwall mansion on Christmas Eve, he's with Lux, a lesbian from Croatia he's paying to pretend to be the girlfriend he told Mom he would be bringing. He's recently broken up with his actual paramour, who's posting embarrassing tweets about his blog, Art in Nature (one of these tweets will culminate in a busload of bird-watchers arriving at the mansion on Boxing Day). His mother, Sophia, has almost no food in her house, but Arthur calls her sister, Iris, who arrives with provisions, rather too easily ending almost three decades of silence between the siblings. Over the course of three days, the older women will revisit the sources of their antipathy—personalities, political leanings, lifestyle choices—and rediscover the affection that still waits beneath unforgotten grievances. The writing seems deceptively informal, with a few glimpses of stunning prose. The narrative can be challenging, as it veers in many directions the way memory serves up fragments unbidden, often funny, sometimes wistful, suggesting a garrulous old friend riffing on a gripe or sharing an anecdote. Smith (Autumn, 2016, etc.) knits together the present-time narrative and many flashbacks to reveal secrets, ironies, old loves, and the unfolding lives enriched by them. She embarked in 2016 on a sequence of four novels, each named after a season. Though the first two can be read separately, Smith has also forged intriguing links between them from history and current events, including fences and protests, female visual artists, and the fallout from Brexit.
A sprightly, digressive, intriguing fandango on life and time.
A family saga that asks what it means to be American.
Urrea (The Water Museum, 2015, etc.) tells the story of Miguel Angel de la Cruz, or Big Angel, who must bury his mother as he himself is dying. Before his death, though, he means to celebrate one last birthday. “He wanted a birthday, pues. A last birthday,” Angel’s sister explains, and from that simple statement, the entire book unfolds. Urrea is an accomplished writer of fiction and nonfiction; his novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter was inspired by his great-aunt, the Mexican mystic Teresita Urrea, and The Devils’ Highway: A True Story, which recounts a catastrophic border crossing, was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. Here, he returns to his family as source, modeling Big Angel, or at least his circumstance, on his oldest brother, who died a month after their mother’s funeral. The result is a novel that is knowing and intimate, funny and tragic at once. The de la Cruzes are a big clan, messy and complex. The members have competing agendas, secrets, but at the same time, all share a commitment to family. “All we do, mija,” Big Angel tells his daughter, “is love. Love is the answer. Nothing stops it. Not borders. Not death.” It’s impossible to read that line (or, for that matter, this novel) without reflecting on the current American moment, in which Mexican-American families such as the de la Cruzes are often vilified. But if Urrea’s novel is anything, it is an American tale. It is a celebration, although Urrea is no sentimentalist; he knows the territory in which his narrative unfolds. There is tragedy here and danger; these are real people, living in the real world. Still, even when that world intrudes, it only heightens the strength, the resilience, of the family. “He thought he was still alive to make his amends,” Urrea writes of Big Angel. “He thought he was alive to try one last hour to unite his family. But now he knew…he was alive to save his boy’s life. His youngest son.”
Even in death, Urrea shows, we never lose our connection to one another, which is the point of this deft and moving book.