Rachman follows his best-selling debut (The Imperfectionists, 2010) with the haunting tale of a young woman reassessing her turbulent past.
In 2011, Tooly has washed up after a lifetime of wandering in a small Welsh village, where she uses the last of her money to buy a used bookstore. Twelve years earlier, in 1999, she’s a vagabond 20-year-old on the streets of New York City who talks her way into law student Duncan’s apartment by pretending it was her childhood home. Actually, her childhood was spent traveling around Asia with her father, Paul, until, in 1988, she’s scooped up in Bangkok by her feckless mother, Sarah, and falls in with a band of peripatetic misfits led by Venn, a coolly manipulative con man. The three storylines proceed along their separate time tracks to collectively explore how Tooly came to be the remote, hard-drinking young woman who seems to be marking time in Wales. We see that she’s been indelibly scarred by Venn: He imprinted her with his philosophy of relating to people only on the basis of how useful they can be to you; let her believe they had a special friendship as she followed him from country to country and scam to scam; then vanished just after she turned 21 in New York. The revelation of why he let her hang around for a decade forms the novel’s brutal climax, articulated by Venn with matter-of-fact cruelty after Tooly tracks him down. She does have gentler, more nurturing father figures: not just Paul, with whom she reconnects in a tender scene, but Humphrey, the elderly Russian émigré who tried to shelter her from Venn’s influence and softened her fall after he left—though she doesn’t realize this until years later. Still, the overwhelming emotions here are loss and regret, as Tooly realizes how she was alienated from her own best instincts by a charismatic sociopath.
Brilliantly structured, beautifully written and profoundly sad.
A domestic drama is a prism illuminating the often conflicting cultural and social temperaments of contemporary Africa.
Set primarily in Nairobi, this 12th novel by Somali-born Farah (Crossbones, 2011, etc.) sifts through the personal and emotional fallout of a terrorist attack in Mogadishu that kills a U.N. official who emigrated from his native Somalia decades before. His grief-stricken sister Bella, a model-turned–professional photographer, decides to leave behind her own expatriate life in Europe and resettle in Kenya, where she will honor her brother’s wishes by caring for his teenage son, Salif, and daughter, Dahaba. Saying the least, this arrangement does not please their brash, self-centered mother, Valerie, who arrives in Nairobi with her lesbian lover, Padmini, to stake her claim upon the children, who prefer their more worldly and levelheaded aunt as a legal guardian. With delicacy and compassion, Farah, whose own sister was killed earlier this year in a terrorist bombing while working for UNICEF, fashions a domestic chamber piece where motives, yearnings and regrets intersect among these complex, volatile personalities against a wider backdrop of religious and cultural conflict, social and political upheaval, and even “family values” in post-millennial Africa. Even the most offhand conversations Bella and the other major characters have with Nairobi citizens of varied ages and genders throw unexpected and necessary light upon aspects of a society that the rest of the world knows, or cares, relatively little about. (It’s a solid bet that most readers outside Africa aren’t aware of Kenyans’ bigotry toward the Somalis choosing to live in their country.) Throughout this novel’s big and small incidents, Farah maintains a narrative composure that shuns typecasting, reserves judgment and keeps his readers alert to whatever hidden graces emerge from even the most difficult characters.
An unassuming triumph of straightforward, topical storytelling that both adds to and augments a body of work worthy of a Nobel Prize.
A subtle, pitch-perfect sonata of a novel in which an Irish widow faces her empty life and, incrementally, fills the hole left by the recent death of her husband.
Tóibín's latest serves as a companion piece to his masterful Brooklyn (2009), which detailed a young Irish woman’s emigration in the 1950s. Set a decade later, this novel concerns a woman who stayed behind, the opportunities that went unexplored and the comforts that support her through tragedy. Left with two young sons (as well as daughters on the verge of adulthood) by the death of her husband, a beloved teacher, Nora exists in a “world filled with absences.” Not that she's been abandoned. To the contrary, people won't leave her alone, and their clichéd advice and condolences are the banes of her existence. And there’s simply no escape in a village where everybody knows everything about everybody else. What she craves are people who “could talk to her sensibly not about what she had lost or how sorry they were, but about the children, money, part-time work, how to live now.” Yet she had lived so much through her husband—even before his unexpected illness and death—that she hadn’t really connected with other people, including her young sons, who now need more from her than perhaps she has to give. Without any forced drama, Nora works her way back into the world, with new priorities and even pleasures. There's a spiritual undercurrent here, in the nun who watches over Nora, in the community that provides what she needs (even as she resists) and especially in the music that fills her soul. Explains a woman she would never have encountered, left to her own devices: “There is no better way to heal yourself than singing in a choir. That is why God made music.”
A novel of mourning, healing and awakening; its plainspoken eloquence never succumbs to the sentimentality its heroine would reject.
In the late summer of 2012, a British judge faces a complex case while dealing with her husband’s infidelity in this thoughtful, well-wrought novel.
Fiona Maye, at 59, has just learned of an awful crack in her marriage when she must rule on the opposing medical and religious interests surrounding a 17-year-old boy who will likely die without blood transfusions. The cancer patient, weeks shy of the age when he could speak for himself, has embraced his parents’ deep faith as Jehovah’s Witnesses and their abhorrence of letting what the Bible deems a pollutant enter his body. The scenes before the bench and at the boy's hospital bedside are taut and intelligent, like the best courtroom dramas. The ruling produces two intriguing twists that, among other things, suggest a telling allusion to James Joyce’s 17-year-old Michael Furey in “The Dead.” Meanwhile, McEwan (Sweet Tooth, 2012, etc.), in a rich character study that begs for a James Ivory film, shows Fiona reckoning with the doubt, depression and temporary triumphs of the betrayed—like an almost Elizabethan digression on changing the locks of their flat—not to mention guilt at stressing over her career and forgoing children. As Fiona thinks of a case: “All this sorrow had common themes, there was a human sameness to it, but it continued to fascinate her.” Also running through the book is a musical theme, literal and verbal, in which Fiona escapes the legal world and “the subdued drama of her half-life with Jack” to play solo and in duets.
McEwan, always a smart, engaging writer, here takes more than one familiar situation and creates at every turn something new and emotionally rewarding in a way he hasn’t done so well since On Chesil Beach (2007).
A plainspoken, even reticent narrative illuminates the complex loyalties of a Chinese-American spy, who considers himself a patriot of both countries.
As a novel of espionage, the latest from the prizewinning author (Waiting, 1999, etc.) satisfies like the best of John le Carré, similarly demystifying and deglamorizing the process of gathering information and the ambiguous morality that operates in shades of gray. But it’s plain that this novel is about more than the plight of one spy, who must forsake his Chinese family in order to embed himself as a master translator for the CIA, becoming “China’s ear to the heartbeat of the United States.” In the process, he starts a second family, which knows nothing about the first, raising a daughter with his Irish-American wife. He also has a mistress, a Chinese-American woman to whom he relates and responds in the way he can’t with his American wife and to whom he entrusts his diaries. Thus, the issues of love and loyalty that permeate the novel aren’t merely political, but deeply personal. Narrating the novel is Lilian Shang, a scholar and the adult daughter of the late Gary Shang, convicted of treason in America, abandoned by his Chinese handlers, who receives the diaries from his lifelong mistress. Chapters in which Lilian learns about her father’s first family in China and attempts to connect with them and bridge their related pasts alternate with chapters from Gary’s perspective, in which he leaves his homeland and his family and earns (and betrays?) the trust of his adopted country, one in which the freedom of jazz and the mournful tone of Hank Williams speak to him deeply. “The two countries are like parents to me,” he insists at his trial. “They are like mother and father, so as a son I can’t separate the two and I love them both.” Lilian ultimately discovers that such conflicting loyalties run deep in the bloodlines of her extended family.
Subtle, masterful and bittersweet storytelling that operates on a number of different levels.
An audaciously ambitious novel that teeters along a tightrope but never falls off.
Following her well-received debut (Sons and Other Flammable Objects, 2007), this Iranian-American novelist returns with what on the surface is a coming-of-age story about a boy who was raised as a bird, based on a myth from the Persian Book of Kings (which finds its way into the story within this story) about an Icarus who becomes a great warrior and hero. The protagonist of this novel is neither. His name is Zal (it rhymes with “fall,” which is what happens to those who cannot fly), and he was born in Iran, very pale and blond in a country of darker skins, to a mother who considered him a mistake and a “White Demon.” His birth sparked his “mother’s disintegration into a crazy bird lady,” and she raised him in a menagerie, as a bird. The tone then shifts, or slides, from once-upon-a-time fable into something closer to American realism, as the setting shifts to New York City around the turn of the millennium. Zal has been adopted by a behavioral analyst who wants to help him develop the human side of his adolescent personality and guide him into adulthood. Zal learns to “keep the bird in him, any bird in him, so deep within himself that it resurfaced only rarely”—though he does retain an appetite for insects and develops a crush on a particularly comely canary (“tiny but still voluptuous, round in all the right places”). In a coincidence that strains credulity, he happens to meet an artist who works with dead birds, who becomes his first love and is something of a strange bird herself. She suffers from anorexia, panic attacks and premonitions, the last of which proves crucial and tragic. And he encounters an illusionist who sparks the novel’s title, planning to make New York disappear: “Not New York, exactly, but the New Yorkness of New York.”
Plot summary fails to convey the spirit of this creative flight of fancy; farce meets disaster in a novel that illuminates what it means to be human, normal and in love.
King (Father of the Rain, 2010, etc.) changes the names (and the outcome) in this atmospheric romantic fiction set in New Guinea and clearly based on anthropologist Margaret Mead’s relationship with her second and third husbands, R.F. Fortune and Gregory Bateson—neither a slouch in his own right.
In the early 1930s, Nell and Fen are married anthropologists in New Guinea. American Nell has already published a controversial best-seller about Samoan child-rearing while Australian Fen has published only a monograph on Dobu island sorcery. Their marriage is in trouble: Nell holds Fen responsible for her recent miscarriage; he resents her fame and financial success. Shortly after leaving the Mumbanyo tribe they have been studying (and which Nell has grown to abhor), they run into British anthropologist Bankson, who is researching another tribal village, the Nengai, along the Sepik River. Deeply depressed—he's recently attempted suicide—Bankson is haunted by the deaths of his older brothers and his scientist father’s disappointment in him for practicing what is considered a soft science. Also deeply lonely, Bankson offers to find Nell and Fen an interesting tribe to study to keep them nearby. Soon the couple is happily ensconced with the Tam, whose women surprise Nell with their assertiveness. While the attraction, both physical and intellectual, between Bankson and Nell is obvious, Fen also offers Bankson tender care, which threatens to go beyond friendship, when Bankson falls ill. At first, the three-way connection is uniting and stimulating. But as Nell’s and Bankson’s feelings for each other develop, sexual tensions grow. So do the differences between Fen’s and Nell’s views on the anthropologist’s role. While Bankson increasingly shares Nell’s empathetic approach, Fen plots to retrieve an artifact from the Mumbanyo to cement his career. King does not shy from showing the uncomfortable relationship among all three anthropologists and those they study. Particularly upsetting is the portrait of a Tam who returns “civilized” after working in a copper mine.
Assured, lyrical imagining of the life of one of the first African slaves in the New World—a native, like Lalami (Secret Son, 2009, etc.), of Morocco and, like her, a gifted storyteller.
The Spanish called him Estebanico, a name bestowed on him after he was purchased from Portuguese traders. That datum comes several pages after he proudly announces his true name, “Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori,” and after he allows that some of the stories he is about to tell may or may not be quite true owing to the vagaries of memory and—well, the unlikelihood of the events he describes. The overarching event of this kind is, of course, the shipwreck that leaves him, with a body of Spanish explorers whose number will eventually be whittled down to three, to walk across much of what is now the American Southwest. Led by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, “my rival storyteller,” the quartet encounters wondrous things and people: cities of mud brick, maidens draped with turquoise, abundant “skins, amulets, feathers, copper bells,” and always the promise of gold just beyond the horizon. They provide wonders in return: Estebanico is a source of exotic entertainment (“It was harmless fun to them, but to me it quickly grew tiresome”), while his fellow traveler Andrés Dorantes de Carranza sets broken bones and heals the sick. Lalami extends the stories delivered by Cabeza de Vaca himself in his Naufragios, which has been rendered in several English-language editions (e.g., We Came Naked and Barefoot; Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America; Castaways), but hers is certainly the most extensive telling of the tale from “the Moor’s” point of view. As elusive as gold, she tells us, is the promise of freedom for Estebanico, who provides the very definition of long-suffering. She has great fun, too, with the possibilities of a great historical mystery—namely, whatever became of him?
Adding a new spin to a familiar story, Lalami offers an utterly believable, entertainingly told alternative to the historical record. A delight.
Inoue’s first book, published in Japan in 1949, recounts a tragic love triangle from the different perspectives of those affected.
The book begins with a framing device that feels old-fashioned yet contemporary in its self-consciousness. The “author” explains that he recently received a mysterious letter from a man named Misugi Josuke, who claims to be the subject of a poem published by the “author.” Josuke thinks the poem captured the “desolate dried-up riverbed” within him. He encloses three letters that came to him, asking that the “author” read and then destroy them. The first, addressed to Uncle Josuke, comes from a woman named Shoko, whose mother, Saiko, has recently died. Saiko divorced Shoko’s father for adultery when Shoko was 5. Josuke and his wife, Midori, have been close family friends for as long as Shoko can remember, and Shoko has always felt a special closeness to gentle Midori. The day before Saiko’s death, Shoko was supposed to burn her mother’s diary, but she read it and was shocked to learn that Saiko and Josuke have been having an affair for 13 years and that Saiko has been wracked with guilt. While thanking Josuke for his support, Shoko tells him she never wants to see him or Midori again. She also sends along a letter Saiko left for him. But the second letter is from Midori, who writes that she wants to end their marriage, which has been a sham all along. While appearing to involve herself with other men, she's always pined for Josuke, who's remained coolly aloof. She knows he thought he was protecting her from knowledge of his affair, but she discloses her own secret: She has always known. Saiko’s letter is a farewell. About to die, she tells Josuke her own guilty, passionate secret, one that Josuke has never suspected. Nor will the reader, although it makes complete sense.
This slight but elegant and moving novella is a lovely introduction to a prolific Japanese writer (1907-1991) largely unknown in the West.
Unexpected celebrity and long-absent family members distract a heroically cantankerous 1960s-era activist in the summer of 2009 as she reluctantly confronts the challenges of age.
Morton (Breakable You, 2006, etc.) returns to the world of writers with Florence Gordon, a feisty literary lioness of the U.S. feminist movement. At 75, she has a just-published book that’s languishing, and despite years away from the limelight, she's embarked on a memoir only to learn that her longtime editor is retiring. No matter: She treasures her solitude and “having fun trying to make the sentences come right.” Yet fame befalls her in the form of a top critic’s review of her book in the New York Times. Family matters also intrude. Her ex-husband, a vicious burned-out writer, demands that she use her contacts to get him a job. Her son and his wife are back in New York after years in Seattle. Their daughter, Emily, helps Florence with research and almost warms up the “gloriously difficult woman.” Then the matriarch’s health begins to nag her with strange symptoms. While Florence dominates the book, “each person is the center of a world,” as Emily thinks, and Morton brings each member of the small Gordon clan to life at a time when there is suddenly much to discover about their world. He’s also strewn the novel with references to books and writers and the craft itself, which is appropriate for the somewhat rarefied setting—Manhattan’s historically liberal, bookish Upper West Side, where Morton’s characters often dwell—and a treat for anyone keen on literary fiction.
Always a pleasure to read for his well-drawn characters, quiet insight and dialogue that crackles with wit, Morton here raises his own bar in all three areas. He also joins a sadly small club of male writers who have created memorable heroines.
A moving novel about knowledge, self-awareness and the power of words, set in the purgatory of prison. This young man's life demands our attention and refuses to let go.
Simon Austen is serving life imprisonment for the murder of his girlfriend in a fit of uncontrollable rage. It's Margaret Thatcher's 1980s England, but he is lost in time, attending sessions with institutional psychiatrists who might be able to help him gain parole. He learns to read with the aid of a prison volunteer and writes letters for his fellow inmates to lawyers, mothers and lovers, considering it his job. He also writes his version of his life story, tattooing his body with the words others have called him in spite and hate: “ARROGANT,” “WEIRDO,” “BASTARD,” “COLD,” “MURDERER.” Then “COURAGEOUS,” inspired by Bernadette "Bernie" Nightingale, a counselor he fantasizes about and works with to enter an experimental program that may move his parole forward. Page writes fiercely, drawing a fine portrait of a man who lives daily, routinely, fragilely in an environment that can erupt in violence at any time. It does, in a powerful scene where Simon is gang-beaten, has bleach poured down his throat, and is sent to a hospital, where all we've learned about him is dramatically, but tenderly, unsettled. Vic is his roommate in the prison hospital and an unforgettable character as he transforms into Charlotte, disrupting Simon’s view of life's predictability and moving him to a greater understanding. Charlotte is freed, figuratively and literally, but writes letters and visits Simon, giving him strength and a vision of life outside the cement and steel of incarceration and the confinement of his own history. The words that are inked over Simon’s body are simply prologue to the next chapter of his life.
Page doesn't sentimentalize the cruelty of life in a prison system but manages to transcend it through Simon, who writes his own story in tattoo ink and letters. This powerful novel is simply an epiphany.
A 72-year-old Beiruti woman considers her life through literature in an intimate, melancholy and superb tour de force.
Alameddine has a predilection for highly literary conceits in his novels: I, the Divine(2001) is constructed out of the discarded first chapters of its heroine’s memoir, while his 2008 breakthrough, The Hakawati, nests stories within stories lush with Arab lore. This book has a similarly artificial-seeming setup: Aaliya is an aging woman who for decades has begun the year translating one of her favorite books into Arabic. (Her tastes run toward the intellectual titans of 20th-century international literature, including W.G. Sebald, Roberto Bolano, Joseph Roth, Vladimir Nabokov and Fernando Pessoa.) Though, until its climax, there’s little action in the course of the day in which the novel is set, Aaliya is an engagingly headstrong protagonist, and the book is rich with her memories and observations. She’s suffered through war, a bad marriage and the death of a close friend, but most exasperating for her are her pestering mother and half brothers, who’ve been lusting after Aaliya’s apartment. As she walks through the city, she considers these fractures in her life, bolstering her fatalism against quotes from writers and the tragic histories of her beloved composers. Her relatively static existence is enlivened by her no-nonsense attitude, particularly when it comes to contemporary literature. (“Most of the books published these days consist of a series of whines followed by an epiphany.”) And though Aaliya’s skeptical of redemption narratives, Alameddine finds a way to give the novel a climax without feeling contrived. Aaliya is an intense critic of the human condition, but she never feels embittered, and Alameddine’s storytelling is rich with a bookish humor that’s accessible without being condescending.
A gemlike and surprisingly lively study of an interior life.
Frank chronicles the difficult adjustments of a gay family formed by tragedy in her compelling follow-up to Crybaby Butch (2004).
As the novel opens, Matthew Greene, a self-described “normal, young, shallow queen,” is on a plane to Tel Aviv with his devastated partner, Daniel Rosen, whose twin brother, Joel, and sister-in-law, Ilana, have just been killed by a suicide bomber. It’s been four years since Matt fled the New York City whirl of drugs and casual sex to move in with the older, more sober Daniel in Northampton, Massachusetts, and both men are still slightly stunned by their opposites-attract relationship. The news that Joel and Ilana named Daniel guardian of 5-year-old Gal and baby Noam appalls her parents, devout Holocaust survivors, nor are the secular, American elder Rosens very happy about their grandchildren being raised by Matt, whom they don’t really like. But the real problems, once Gal and Noam are settled in Northampton, stem from the overwhelming grief that makes Daniel a virtual specter in his new family. He’s emotionally distant and critical of Matt’s more relaxed parenting style; their conflicts are exacerbated by the volatile Gal, understandably given to acting out in the wake of hideous loss and traumatic relocation to a new nation, culture and language. It seems quite possible the men’s relationship will not survive these stresses, which Frank explores in depth and without reassuring sentimentality. She also excels at the social backdrops for her characters’ drama, from the fraught political climate in Israel (Daniel and Matt are both left-wing proponents of the peace process) to the cozy, gossipy world of gay and lesbian life in Northampton. Daniel isn’t always very likable, but his disabling sorrow and controlling ways are believable impediments to his love for Matt and make it all the more moving to watch them work through to reconciliation.
Strong storytelling driven by emotionally complex characters: first-rate commercial fiction.