One of America’s most gifted novelists projects dark and daring speculations upon the incredible-but-true 19th-century story of a child piano prodigy who was blind, autistic and a slave.
In the waning years of antebellum slavery, a rapidly fracturing America was introduced to a stunning musical phenomenon: Thomas Wiggins, a young black slave from Georgia known only as “Blind Tom,” who “sounded out” his first piano composition at age 5 and, five years later, was famous enough to play before President James Buchanan at the White House. What made Tom even more remarkable was that he was both blind and autistic, thus compounding audiences’ astonishment at his extraordinary ability to not only perform classical works, but to spontaneously weave startling variations on American folk ditties into original musical tapestries. Because most of the details of Wiggins' story have been lost to history, there are many blank, enigmatic spaces to fill. Chicago-born Allen (Holding Pattern, 2008, etc.) assumes the imaginative writer’s task of improvising shape and depth where elusive or missing facts should be. What results from his effort is an absorbing, haunting narrative that begins a year after the Civil War ends when Tom, a teenager, and his white guardian, Eliza Bethune, arrive in a nameless northern city (presumably New York), where they are contacted by a black man who intends to reunite Tom with his newly liberated mother. The story rebounds back to Tom’s childhood, during which he struggles to feel his surroundings despite his compromised senses and finds his only warmth (literally) beneath the piano belonging to Eliza’s slaveholding family. Allen’s psychological insight and evocative language vividly bring to life all the black and white people in Tom’s life who, in seeking to understand or exploit Tom’s unholy gifts, are both transformed and transfixed by his inscrutable, resolutely self-contained personality.
If there’s any justice, Allen’s visionary work, as startlingly inventive as one of his subject’s performances, should propel him to the front rank of American novelists.
A tour de force of character, point of view and especially atmosphere, Prose's latest takes place in Paris from the late 1920s till the end of World War II.
The primary locus of action is the Chameleon Club, a cabaret where entertainment edges toward the kinky. Presiding most nights is Eva “Yvonne” Nagy, a Hungarian chanteuse and mistress of the revels. The name of the club is not strictly metaphorical, for Yvonne has a pet lizard, but the cabaret is also famous as a place where Le Tout-Paris can gather and cross-dress, and homosexual lovers can be entertained there with some degree of privacy. One of the most fascinating denizens of the club is Lou Villars, in her youth an astounding athlete and in her adulthood a dancer (with her lover Arlette) at the club and even later a race car driver and eventually a German spy in Paris during the Occupation. Villars and Arlette are the subjects of what becomes the era’s iconic photograph, one that gives the novel its title. This image is taken by Hungarian photographer Gabor Tsenyi, eventual lover (and later husband) of sexual athlete Suzanne Dunois. Tsenyi is also a protégé of Baroness Lily de Rossignol, former Hollywood actress, now married to the gay Baron de Rossignol, the fabulously wealthy owner of a French car manufacturing company. Within this multilayered web of characters, Prose manages to give almost every character a voice, ranging from Tsenyi’s eager letters home to his parents, excerpts from a putative biography of Lou Villars (supposedly written by Suzanne’s great-niece) entitled The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars, Lily de Rossignol’s memoirs and further reminiscences by Lionel Maine, Suzanne’s lover before she was “stolen away” by the photographer.
An exquisitely tuned exploration of class in post-Edwardian Britain—with really hot sex.
It’s 1922, and Frances Wray lives with her mother in a big house in a genteel South London neighborhood. Her two brothers were killed in the war and her father died soon after, leaving behind a shocking mess of debt. The solution: renting out rooms to Leonard and Lilian Barber, members of the newly emerging “clerk class,” the kind of people the Wrays would normally never mix with but who now share their home. Tension is high from the first paragraph, as Frances waits for the new lodgers to move in: “She and her mother had spent the morning watching the clock, unable to relax.” The first half of the book slowly builds the suspense as Frances falls for the beautiful and passionate Lilian and teases at the question of whether she will declare her love; when she does, the tension grows even thicker, as the two bump into each other all over the house and try to find time alone for those vivid sex scenes. The second half, as in an Ian McEwan novel, explores the aftermath of a shocking act of violence. Waters is a master of pacing, and her metaphor-laced prose is a delight; when Frances and Lilian go on a picnic, “the eggs [give] up their shells as if shrugging off cumbersome coats”—just like the women. As life-and-death questions are answered, new ones come up, and until the last page, the reader will have no idea what’s going to happen.
Waters keeps getting better, if that’s even possible after the sheer perfection of her earlier novels.
Holbert’s (Lonesome Animals, 2012) second novel is a tale of the American West as faithful to the legends as McCarthy’s Border Trilogy.
Holbert’s work rings out with the hard, clean truths of love and loyalty, family and friendship, all flowering from thickets of poetic language, some simple ("work was praying the same prayer everyday"), some gut-wrenching ("When he finally took the baby from her and held her bloody stillness in his hands, he wept"). Matt and Luke Lawson are twins, born to the rich land and open skies of eastern Washington. In 1918, as they journey home from school one day, they’re trapped in an epic blizzard; their father leaves the farmhouse to search for them. Of the three, only Matt survives. Everything else that unfolds is set in motion by that tragedy. Matt’s mother turns inward. Still a young teen, Matt runs the farm while obsessively searching for his father’s body; he's accompanied by Wendy, a storekeeper’s daughter, to whom he feels devotion. But Matt's also angry, frustrated and simmering with violence. He's the quintessential Western hero—taciturn and strong as iron with an unbreachable moral center. Rejected by Wendy, he abandons his mother and the farm; guilt-ridden Wendy moves to the farm to help. In this superb allegorical tale, Matt wanders through bar fights and ranch work and then settles in with Roland Jarms, a dissolute but good-hearted gambler. There, adrift in his great odyssey, Matt stays, and during his exile, he re-forms himself—"I believe I’m safe for people now"—before returning to Wendy bearing a motherless child he's named Angel. From the great flat land where "[w]ind gusted from the north and geese sliced ahead of it through the sky," Holbert's powerful work echoes the romance of America’s Western experience.
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.
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.
Morgan (A Little Folly, 2013, etc.) draws restless young Will Shakespeare as he resists being trapped in apprenticeship to his glove-maker father.
Will’s father, John, once respectable alderman and bailiff, has been disgraced by missteps into unlicensed wool trading. Will has no real prospects, but he will not be a glove-maker. At 18, he meets older Anne Hathaway and marries, with her pregnant. Morgan writes page-turning historical fiction, hearth to farm to London, following Will, who is stringing "his soul along posts of dream and fantasy and invention and imitation." Will’s a loyal son, devoted father and husband, but when a troupe of traveling players loses a member, he captures his dream, becoming a player and ending up in London. Will settles in "the great stinking trading-crowded roofed-over first place of the kingdom." In the great shadow of Christopher Marlowe, Will begins to write for theaters, his scribbling less than respectable but popular nonetheless. First are collaborations, plays Will doctors so that he might find stages to act upon, but his writing soon evolves into individual genius built upon folk tales and legends and cooperative stews, Will believing "there is no such thing as originality, except the originality that comes from synthesis." Soon, however, original comedies, dramas and tragedies flow swiftly, easily from his pen. Woven into the tapestry of Will’s story is the thread of Ben Jonson’s life, a London mason’s brilliant stepson denied a Queen’s Scholarship. Morgan writes masterful characters—royals, patrons and players; Marlowe, reckless rake; Jonson, arrogant, envious, but great loyal friend; Anne, earthy, passionate, loyal, fractured after the death of their son, lost and found again after Will’s dalliance with the troubled Huguenot widow Isabelle Berger; and most of all, Will himself, great, gentle genius behind a placid, circumspect exterior, implacable, unknowable, all effortless burning brilliance. In a layered narrative with a richness that rewards measured reading, Morgan re-creates Shakespeare’s Elizabethan milieu, every place and person rendered with near-perfect realism.
A talented new writer of historical fiction evokes 17th-century Amsterdam, the opulent but dangerous Dutch capital, where an innocent young wife must navigate the intrigues of her new household.
“Every woman is the architect of her own fortune,” reads 18-year-old Nella Oortman in a message that will gather meaning like a rolling stone as this novel progresses. It comes from the peculiarly knowledgeable artisan who is creating miniature objects for a dollhouse-sized version of her new home, which Nella received as a wedding gift. Hastily married to a wealthy older merchant, Johannes Brandt, after her father’s death left her provincial family struggling, Nella arrives alone in Amsterdam, readying herself for her unknown husband’s demands. Instead, she finds herself sleeping by herself, ignored by Johannes and dismissed by his brusque sister, Marin, who rules the house and influences the business, too. Distracted by the wedding present, Nella commissions a miniaturist to supply tiny items of furniture; but these exquisite objects and their accompanying messages soon begin to bear a chilly, even prophetic relationship to people and things—suggesting their maker knows more about the family and its business than is possible or safe. In a debut that evokes Old Master interiors and landscapes, British actress Burton depicts a flourishing society built on water and trade, where women struggle to be part of the world. Her empathetic heroine, Nella, endures loneliness and confusion until a sequence of domestic shocks forces her to grow up very quickly. Finally obliged to become that architect of her own fortune, Nella acts to break the miniaturist’s spell and save everything she holds dear.
With its oblique storytelling, crescendo of female empowerment and wrenching ending, this novel establishes Burton as a fresh and impressive voice; book groups in particular will relish it.
Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.
In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.
Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.