Fresh from the excellent Life After Life (2013), Atkinson takes another sidelong look at the natures of time and reality in this imaginative novel, her ninth.
Transpose Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” to the skies over Europe in World War II, and you’ll have some idea of the territory in which Atkinson is working. Ursula Todd, the protagonist of Life After Life, returns, appearing from time to time at just the right moments, in the manner of a chorus. The lead in this story, though, is her brother Teddy, who, having survived both childhood and the air war, is now disillusioned—“The whole edifice of civilization turned out to be constructed from an unstable mix of quicksand and imagination”—and suffering from more than a little guilt that he lives while so many others do not. If Bierce might be a silent presence in the proceedings, so too might be The Best Years of Our Lives, which treats just that issue—save that we know how things turned out for the players in William Wyler’s 1946 film, whereas Atkinson constantly keeps us guessing, the story looping over itself in time (“This was when people still believed in the dependable nature of time—a past, a present, a future—the tenses that Western civilization was constructed on”) and presenting numerous possibilities for how Teddy’s life might unfold depending on the choices he makes, to say nothing of things well beyond his control. Atkinson’s narrative is without some of the showy pyrotechnics of its predecessor. Instead, it quietly, sometimes dolefully looks in on the players as, shell-shocked by a war that has dislocated whole generations and nations, they go about trying to refashion their lives and, of course, regretting things done, not done, and undone as they do.
But do we really have just one life, as Ursula insists? It’s a point worth pondering. A grown-up, elegant fairy tale, at least of a kind, with a humane vision of people in all their complicated splendor.
An understated and devastating novel of the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi occupation, as seen through the eyes of a street-wise boy.
Shepard has recently earned more renown for his short stories (You Think That’s Bad,2011, etc.), but here he presents an exhaustively researched, pitch-perfect novel exploring the moral ambiguities of survival through a narrator who's just 9 years old when the tale begins. He's a Jewish boy living in the Polish countryside with his family and an odd sense of his place in the world. “It was terrible to have to be the person I was,” he despairs, matter-of-factly describing himself as basically friendless, a poor student, and an enigma to his loving mother: “She said that too often my tongue worked but not my head, or my head worked but not my heart.” Yet Aron proves to be engaging company as he describes the selfishness that will help him survive as the world becomes increasingly hellish. The horrors are so incremental that Aron—and the reader—might be compared to the lobster dropped into the pot as the temperature keeps rising past the boiling point. Aron’s perspective is necessarily limited, and he often seems to have little understanding of what’s happening around him or why. His family is pushed into the city, and in the ghetto's chaos, he's separated from them. Serving as a moral counterweight to the boy's instinctive pragmatism is Dr. James Korczak, a real-life Polish Jew whose ambition to “become the Karl Marx of children” inspired him to keep a couple hundred alive through his orphanage, which he supports by begging for funds from the better-off ghetto inhabitants. Aron becomes the doctor’s ward and accomplice, though he has also been serving as an occasional informer for the Gestapo through an intermediary in the Jewish police. He tries to use his position to help save the doctor from being sent to a concentration camp, but the doctor is only interested if he can save all the other children as well. “How do we know if we love enough?” asks the doctor. “How do we learn to love more?”
Ordinary people reveal dimensions that are extraordinarily cruel or kind.
The Pinch—for many years in the early 20th century a predominantly Jewish section of Memphis—has found its Whitman and its Faulkner in Stern, who's written a stylistically effusive, verbally extravagant novel.
In the late 1960s, Lenny Sklarew is living…well, not much of a life. He works in Avrom Slutsky’s bookstore, The Book Asylum, deals drugs on the side, and spends time listening to his favorite band, Velveeta and the Psychopimps. But then two things happen that change his life: he meets Rachel Ostrofsky in a bar and finds a book by Muni Pinsker called The Pinch: A History in Avrom’s bookstore. Rachel is a folklorist who came to Memphis "to research the roots of the Southern Jewish community," and she’s of course fascinated by the Pinch. And in a metafictional trope, Lenny finds out that he’s a character in Pinsker’s book. From here, Stern’s narrative gets really complex, as he bounces back and forth between the events in Lenny’s life, the early history of the Pinch, and supposed excerpts from Pinsker’s history. One of the main strands of Stern’s multilayered narrative involves Pinsker’s arrival in Memphis from Siberia in 1911, a journey financed by his uncle Pinchas Pin (nee Pinsker), a shopkeeper in the Pinch, and his wife, Katie. Shortly after his arrival, Pinsker meets and falls in love with Jenny Bashrig (aka “La Funambula,” a tightrope walker), and they consummate their relationship in the branches of an iconic oak tree. The action unfolds against visits by the Ku Klux Klan and, by the end of the novel, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Irish-born McCrea’s stellar debut imagines the lives of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, not men usually associated with romance, through the eyes of Engels' illiterate common-law wife, Lizzie Burns.
Lizzie’s voice—earthy, affectionate, and street-smart but also sly, unabashedly mercenary, and sometimes-scheming—grabs the reader from the first sentence and doesn’t let go. As the novel opens in 1870, Lizzie is moving with Frederick to London as his live-in lover. He wants to be closer to Marx, whom he has long supported financially. Lizzie is excited to move into a grand house but has mixed feelings about Karl’s wife, Jenny, herself a fascinating combination of bourgeois sensibilities, love of family, and survival instincts. In the past, Jenny was not kind to Lizzie’s older sister, Mary, the first Burns sister with whom Frederick was involved. Growing up in Manchester, the Burns girls worked at Ermen & Engels, the mill that German-born Frederick came to manage for his family in 1842. Mary quickly fell into a serious love affair with Frederick. Although he left Manchester for eight years, “writing his books and chasing the great revolutions around Europe,” Mary eventually quit the mill and lived openly with him. When Lizzie’s own romantic involvement with Moss, an alcoholic Fenian, soured, she moved in with Mary to keep house. She witnessed Mary’s relationship with Frederick turn turbulent after he apparently fathered an illegitimate baby with the Marxes’ maid, Nim. Shortly after Mary’s death, Lizzie’s own sexual liaison with Frederick began. By 1870 their relationship has endured—even thrived—for years, providing for Lizzie attraction, affection, and practical financial security. Forget Marx and Engels as authors of The Communist Manifesto. For Lizzie (and McCrea), social mores trump politics, while individual loyalties and needs are what ultimately matter.
Who knew reading about communists could be so much fun?
A closely written novel of after-the-war Vietnam, when all that was solid melted into air.
As Graham Greene and Robert Stone have taught us, on the streets of Saigon, nothing is as it seems. The racist suppositions of the empires of old helped shape a culture of subterfuge; not for nothing does the hero of Nguyen’s (English and American Studies/Univ. of Southern Calif.) debut give a small disquisition on the meaning of being Eurasian or Amerasian (“a small nation could be founded from the tropical offspring of the American GI”), and not for nothing does a book meaningfully called Asian Communism and the Oriental Mode of Destruction play a part in the proceedings. Nguyen’s protagonist tells us from the very first, in a call-me-Ishmael moment, that he’s a mole: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” Two faces, two races, neither wholly trusted. Our hero is attached to the command of a no-nonsense South Vietnamese general who’s airlifted out at the fall of Saigon in 1975, protected by dewy Americans “with not a hint of a needle track in the crooks of their arms or a whiff of marijuana in their pressed, jungle-free fatigues”; whisked stateside, where the protagonist once spent time absorbing Americanness, the general is at the center of a potent community of exiles whom the protagonist is charged with spying on—though it turns out he’s as much observed as observer. Think Alan Furst meets Elmore Leonard, and you’ll capture Nguyen at his most surreal, our hero attempting to impress upon a Hollywood hopeful that American and Vietnamese screams sound different: “I was on my first assignment as a lieutenant,” he recalls, “and could not figure out a way to save the man from my captain wrapping a strand of rusted barbed wire around his throat, the necklace tight enough so that each time he swallowed, the wire tickled his Adam’s apple.”
Both chilling and funny, and a worthy addition to the library of first-rate novels about the Vietnam War.
Riley is a child when her brother leaves Montana for Vietnam. She’s still a child when her parents receive a letter explaining that Mick is missing and presumed dead. That Riley never recovers from this loss goes without saying, but her grief becomes a kind of loss of self. This is ironic in that Riley is a powerful narrator—funny, self-deprecating, fully aware of the feelings she refuses to be aware of. Her story is often heartbreaking, but she never asks for pity, and she most certainly never pities herself. Palaia covers a 25-year period spanning the 1970s, '80s, and early '90s, following Riley from the farm to San Francisco to Saigon and back home again. Alternating chapters present the viewpoints of other characters—Riley’s mother, her lover, strangers who help and befriend her—each of whom gives readers a fuller perspective on the protagonist while also being engaging in his or her own right. All of these disparate voices come together beautifully, as does the narrative as a whole. Palaia demonstrates a magnificent command of craft for a first-time novelist, but it’s her emotional honesty that makes this story so rich and affecting. The novel ends on a more hopeful note than the reader might expect, but it rings true nevertheless—largely because Riley doesn’t expect it, either. She knows that the chance she’s given is a gift. Like grace, it can’t be earned, only accepted with gratitude and awe.
An immensely rewarding read and a remarkable debut.
Set mostly in 1880s London, Pulley’s debut novel twists typical steampunk elements—telegraphs, gaslight, clockwork automata—into a fresh and surprising philosophical adventure.
Nathaniel Steepleton is a telegraph clerk at the Home Office in London. Grace Carrow is studying physics at one of Oxford’s new women’s colleges. Her friend Akira Matsumoto is the emperor of Japan’s second cousin. What connects them, although they don’t yet know it, is the eponymous watchmaker, one Baron Mori, a brilliant and mysterious figure who appears able to predict the future. Mori made Grace’s watch, whose filigree rearranges itself into a swallow when the lid is lifted: “Clever tracks of clockwork let it fly and swoop along the inside of the lid, silver wings clinking.” He also made the pocket watch whose ear-piercing alarm startles Thaniel out of the path of a terrorist time bomb. But did Mori make the bomb’s clockwork control as well? As the characters’ stories mesh and spin, they rearrange themselves like that filigree into intricate and surprising patterns. But this is more than just a well-paced, atmospheric mystery with elements of fantasy. Pulley is concerned with deeper questions of fate, chance, and trust. How dangerous is a man who knows in advance the likelihood of every possible event? When does probability crystallize into inevitability, and how could the future affect the present? The story thwarts expectations; whenever an outcome looks as predetermined as clockwork, it might well go another way.
Clever and engaging, this impressive first novel will reward both casual readers looking for a fun period adventure and those fascinated by the tension between free will and fate.
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.
Rough-edged mid-1970s New York provides the backdrop for an epic panorama of musicians, writers, and power brokers and the surprising ways they connect.
New Year’s Eve 1976: Sam, a fanzine author and hanger-on in the Manhattan punk scene, abandons her plan to attend a concert and instead heads to Central Park, where she’s later discovered shot and clinging to life. Why’d she head uptown? Who shot her? Thereby hangs a remarkably assured, multivalent tale that strives to explore multiple strata of Manhattan life with photographic realism. Most prominent in this busy milieu are William, the scion of a banking family who’s abandoned money for the sake of music, art, and drugs; Nicky, the coke-fueled head of an East Village squat who delivers motor-mouthed pronunciamentos on post-humanism and is curiously in the know about arson in the Bronx; Richard, a magazine journalist whose profile of Sam’s father, the head of a fireworks firm, leads to suspicion that there’s a bigger story to be told. With more than 900 pages at his disposal, Hallberg (A Field Guide to the North American Family, 2007) gives his characters plenty of breathing room, but the story never feels overwritten, and the plotlines interlace without feeling pat. One theme of the novel is the power that stories, true or false, have over our lives, so it’s hard to miss other writers’ influences here. At times the novel feels like a metafictional tribute to America’s finest doorstop manufacturers, circa 1970 to the present: Price (street-wise cops), Wolfe (top-tier wealth), Franzen (busted families), Wallace (the seductions of drugs and pop culture), and DeLillo (the unseen forces behind everything). That's not to say he's written a pastiche, but as his various plotlines braid tighter during the July 1977 blackout, his novel becomes an ambitious showpiece for just how much the novel can contain without busting apart.
A sweeping novel of life in the Cold War Soviet Union, with plenty between the lines about life in Putin’s Russia today.
With only a dozen or so major characters, Ulitskaya’s (Sonechka, 2005, etc.) latest doesn’t threaten to rival War and Peace or The Possessed on the dramatis personae front. Still, it obviously harbors epic intentions and ambitions, spanning years and lifetimes and treating the largest possible themes. The latter include some of the most classic questions of all: the nature of love, the value of friendship, and, inevitably, the sorrow of betrayal. The early part of the story is set in the tumultuous years following the death of Josef Stalin (which, Ulitskaya notes with quiet satisfaction, occurred on Purim), when three schoolboys bond in friendship. Nerdy and bookish, they are playground victims, despised as outcasts and outsiders precisely “due to their complete disinclination to fight or be cruel.” As the three grow into manhood, they struggle against the odds to remain more or less pure of heart even as Soviet society enters into a new era of anti-Semitism and oppression—for though Stalin is dead, his machinery of terror lives on. Still outsiders, Ilya, Sanya, and Mikha are artists, intellectuals, dissidents. If Mikha begins with the most promise, not only blessed with an endlessly curious mind, but also “possessed of an inchoate creative fire,” the others are brilliant, too. Among many other things, Ulitskaya’s novel is also about the power of books, writing, and music to shape lives worth living. But more, it is about what happens to people inside a prison society: denunciations, hardship, and punishment ensue as surely as night follows day. The novel is impressively vast in scope and commodious in shape; still, reading of, say, Ilya’s love for the resonant Olga, “with her slightly chapped lips, her pale freckles sprinkled over her white skin, the center of his life,” one wants more.
Indeed, the greatest tragedy of Ulitskaya’s story is that it comes to an end. Worthy of shelving alongside Doctor Zhivago: memorable and moving.
The indefatigable, seemingly inexhaustible Vollmann (Last Stories and Other Stories, 2014, etc.) returns with another impossibly long—and peerless—book, this one an epic study of the Nez Percé War of 1877.
That war is largely forgotten today, and though Chief Joseph is among the iconic Native American leaders of the 19th century, not many people could tell you why, notwithstanding Robert Penn Warren’s elegant narrative poem about him. Vollmann restores that history with an onrushing immediacy that takes on all the contours of a good Greek tragedy, complete with hubris born of supposed military superiority and an avenging angel taking wings in the form of the flight of an arrow. Vollmann’s central character, though not always at the center of events, is the American general Oliver Otis Howard, who pursues his prey, Chief Joseph, with the studied strategy of a game of chess (“Is Staunton’s chess chronicle still of use to you?” “Sure is, sir. It’s not a bit outdated.”)—a good ploy if you’re at a chessboard, perhaps less so if you’re on a field of battle with an opponent who doesn’t play the game. Howard is self-deprecating and cautious, quick to accept responsibility for failures in the field. Less so are his subordinates, including one Lt. Thellen, who falls at the battle of White Bird Canyon, the highest-ranking casualty there; Vollmann provides him with a compelling back story that includes a close association with a fellow officer: “I have imagined,” he writes in one of several appendixes, “without knowing for a fact, that they were close friends.” If not every moment of the narrative can be backed by historical documentation, Vollmann’s vivid reconstruction is believable and achingly beautiful, as often rendered in a kind of poetry as in ordinary prose: “he spies out the dark-tipped wings of the otherwise white snow goose, / the black beak and white breast of the long-billed curlew / but no brothers or enemies.”
Telegraphic and episodic—so much so that it recalls the later work of Eduardo Galeano—Vollmann’s saga is a note-perfect incantation. Stunning.