What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?
For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.
Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.
Sentenced to house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel by a Bolshevik tribunal for writing a poem deemed to encourage revolt, Count Alexander Rostov nonetheless lives the fullest of lives, discovering the depths of his humanity.
Inside the elegant Metropol, located near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi, the Count slowly adjusts to circumstances as a "Former Person." He makes do with the attic room, to which he is banished after residing for years in a posh third-floor suite. A man of refined taste in wine, food, and literature, he strives to maintain a daily routine, exploring the nooks and crannies of the hotel, bonding with staff, accepting the advances of attractive women, and forming what proves to be a deeply meaningful relationship with a spirited young girl, Nina. "We are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade," says the companionable narrator. For the Count, that way of life ultimately becomes less about aristocratic airs and privilege than generosity and devotion. Spread across four decades, this is in all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight. Though Stalin and Khrushchev make their presences felt, Towles largely treats politics as a dark, distant shadow. The chill of the political events occurring outside the Metropol is certainly felt, but for the Count and his friends, the passage of time is "like the turn of a kaleidoscope." Not for nothing is Casablanca his favorite film. This is a book in which the cruelties of the age can't begin to erase the glories of real human connection and the memories it leaves behind.
A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules of Civility (2011).
Morgan follows up her slim, keening debut (All the Living, 2009) with an epic novel steeped in American history and geography.
As a boy, Henry Forge determines to turn the land his aristocratic Kentucky family has planted with corn for generations into a farm for racehorses. Henry grows into an arrogant, hard man, imbued with the unthinking racism and sexism of his haughty father and unnaturally focused on his only child, Henrietta. Before she leaves him, wife Judith loudly voices the novel’s seething strain of bitterness about the lot of women in this world, but her anger is nothing compared to the rage of Allmon Shaughnessy, an African-American man who enters the story in the early 2000s, when Henrietta and he are both in their 20s. Backtracking to trace Allmon’s past, Morgan’s gothic tale of Southern decadence deepens into a searing investigation of racism’s enduring legacy. Allmon’s ailing, hard-pressed mother and her father, a storefront preacher and veteran civil rights activist, are notable among the teeming cast of brilliantly drawn secondary characters who populate the bleak saga of an intelligent, sensitive boy with zero prospects; by the time he’s 17, Allmon is in jail, where he discovers the knack with horses that gets him hired on the Forges’ farm. A few years go by, Henrietta and Allmon become lovers, but there’s little hope of a happy future for such damaged people. A series of five brilliant riffs called Interludes anchor this modern tale in a vast sweep of geological time and the grim particulars of Allmon’s ancestor, a runaway slave named Scipio. The consequences of the Forges’ brutality and pride come home to roost in an apocalyptic climax just after their extraordinary filly Hellsmouth runs the 2006 Kentucky Derby; it’s entirely appropriate to Morgan’s dark vision that it’s not the guiltiest who pay the highest price.
Vaultingly ambitious, thrillingly well-written, charged with moral fervor and rueful compassion. How will this dazzling writer astonish us next time?
Renowned author Proulx (Bird Cloud: A Memoir, 2011, etc.) moves into Michener territory with a vast multigenerational story of the North Woods.
“How big is this forest?” So asks the overawed immigrant Charles Duquet, who, with his companion René Sel, has nowhere in the world to go but up—and up by way of New France, a land of dark forests and clannish Mi’kmaq people, most of whom would just as soon be left alone. The answer: the forest is endless. Finding work as indentured “barkskins,” or woodcutters, they wrestle a livelihood from the trees while divining that the woods might provide real wealth, kidnapping a missionary priest to teach Duquet how to read so that he might keep the books for a dreamed-of fortune. René founds a powerful local dynasty: “Here on the Gatineau,” Proulx writes, “the Sels were a different kind of people, neither Mi’kmaq nor the other, and certainly not both.” She drives quickly to two large themes, both centering on violence, the one the kind that people do to the land and to each other, the other the kind that the land itself can exact. In the end, over hundreds of pages, the land eventually loses, as Sels and their neighbors in the St. Lawrence River country fell the forests, sending timber to every continent; if they do not die in the bargain, her characters contribute to dynasties of their own: “He wanted next to find Josime on Manitoulin Island and count up more nieces and nephews. He had come out of the year of trial by fire wanting children.” As they move into our own time, though, those children come to see that other wealth can be drawn from the forest without the need for bloodshed or spilled sap. Part ecological fable à la Ursula K. Le Guin, part foundational saga along the lines of Brian Moore’s Black Robe and, yes, James Michener’s Centennial, Proulx’s story builds in depth and complication without becoming unduly tangled and is always told with the most beautiful language.
Another tremendous book from Proulx, sure to find and enthrall many readers.
This touching chronicle of love and pain traces half a century in a family of five from the parents’ engagement in 1963 through a father’s and son’s psychological torments and a final crisis.
Something has happened to Michael in the opening pages, which are told in the voice of his brother, Alec. The next chapter is narrated by Margaret, the mother of Michael, 12, Celia, 10, and Alec, 7, and the wife of John, as they prepare for a vacation in Maine. Soon, a flashback reveals that shortly before John and Margaret were to wed, she learned of his periodic mental illness, a “sort of hibernation” in which “the mind closes down.” She marries him anyway and comes to worry about the recurrence of his hibernations—which exacerbate their constant money problems—only to witness Michael bearing the awful legacy. Each chapter is told by one of the family’s five voices, shifting the point of view on shared troubles, showing how they grow away from one another without losing touch, how they cope with the loss of John and the challenge of Michael. Haslett (Union Atlantic, 2009, etc.) shapes these characters with such sympathy, detail, and skill that reading about them is akin to living among them. The portrait of Michael stands out: a clever, winning youth who becomes a kind of scholar of contemporary music with an empathy for black history and a wretched dependence on Klonopin and many other drugs to keep his anxiety at bay, to glimpse a “world unfettered by dread.”
As vivid and moving as the novel is, it’s not because Haslett strives to surprise but because he’s so mindful and expressive of how much precious life there is in both normalcy and anguish.
A young couple’s plan to flip a house in Southern California goes awry and old wounds in their marriage reopen in this dark novel of unrelenting tension.
Nick and Phoebe are living in Boston when they notice other “young married professionals buying and selling houses for six-figure profits.” But it’s clear from the word “underwater” on the opening page that their dream is foundering. McGinniss (The Delivery Man, 2008) presents a smooth combination of present-time narrative and extensive flashbacks to reveal two lives wracked by more than just mortgage woes. Their marriage has been haunted by an affair Phoebe had with her mentor, JW, while on the fast track at a financial-services firm in Boston and an accident she had while “high on Klonopin” with their toddler in the car. Moving to California doesn’t improve matters. Nick learns on the eve of heading west that his new job there has evaporated. In their LA suburb, housing prices quickly go south after the couple takes out a heavy mortgage and plows all their money into renovations. Nick finds work as a kind of repo man with other underwater homes. Phoebe is a rep for a drug firm while maintaining a steady high with Klonopin and wine. Then JW resurfaces and Phoebe hopes to use him to get back on the fast track and somehow fix the family. Doomed and doughty, she’s a lexicon of contradictions, a kind of update on Maria Wyeth of Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays. McGinnis also recalls Nathanael West’s Day of the Locusts in depicting their road, Carousel Court, as a catalog of strangeness and dangers: from coyotes and marauding home invaders to weird neighbors and crying, screaming cicadas.
McGinniss covers familiar territory in the marketplace and marriage but injects it with an urgency, a sense of constant, inescapable threat that all adds up to a taut page-turner.
After accidentally shooting his friend and neighbor’s young son, a man on a Native American reservation subscribes to “an old form of justice” by giving his own son, LaRose, to the parents of his victim.
Erdrich, whose last novel, The Round House, won the National Book Award in 2012, sets this meditative, profoundly humane story in the time just before the U.S. invades Iraq but wanders in and out of that moment, even back to origin tales about the beginning of time. On tribal lands in rural North Dakota, the shooter, Landreaux Iron, and his wife, Emmaline, trudge toward their neighbors’ house to say, “Our son will be your son now.” As both families amble through the emotional thickets produced by this act (the wives are half sisters, to boot), Erdrich depicts a tribal culture that is indelible and vibrant: Romeo, a drug-addled grifter still smarting from a years-ago abandonment by his friend Landreaux (and whose hurt makes this novel a revenge story); war vet Father Travis, holy but in love with Emmaline; and LaRose, his father’s “little man, his favorite child,” the fifth generation of LaRoses in his family, who confers with his departed ancestors and summons a deep, preternatural courage to right an injustice done to his new sister. Erdrich’s style is discursive; a long digression about the first LaRose and her darkness haunts this novel. Just when she needs to, though, Erdrich races toward an ending that reads like a thriller as doubts emerge about Landreaux’s intentions the day he went hunting.
Electric, nimble, and perceptive, this novel is about “the phosphorous of grief” but also, more essentially, about the emotions men need, but rarely get, from one another.