An audaciously ambitious novel that takes great creative risks and, against considerable odds, makes most of them pay dividends.
What kind of novel is the latest from the British Arnott (The Long Firm, 1999)? Science fiction, most likely. Or World War II espionage. Or Utopian/dystopian. Or sexual manifesto. Or religious parable. Or a narrative about the possibilities and limitations of narrative. Or a series of interrelated stories inspired by the cards of a tarot deck. Or all of the above. Yet the reader need have no knowledge of the tarot (or the occult, which pervades the novel) to appreciate its imaginative vision or make sense of the way it hopscotches across genre, chronology, geography and cosmos. It begins and ends with the first-person account of a fictional American science-fiction writer named Larry Zagorski, best known for a novel titled American Gnostic, which attracted a hippie cult following in the 1960s. For the novel, Zagorski drew upon his own experiences with the likes of Robert Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard (the latter, fictionalized in Zagorski’s novel and rendered under his own name in Arnott’s, transforms his science fiction into a religion in both). Also playing key roles in the novel are Aleister Crowley, Rudolf Hess, Ian Fleming and Jim Jones (the prophet of mass suicide). Told through multiple narrators, it is a novel of “quantum leaps, of diverging timelines, alternate futures, and crucial moments when things could go either way." Yet, it sustains a narrative momentum as it unfolds as fact and fantasy, mystery and revelation, pulp fiction and metaphysical transcendence. Along the way, it traces the thematic arc of science fiction, which has gone “from being about the probable, the possible, the impossible, the metaphysical to the ordinary, the everyday. It seems the one form that can truly grasp the essential strangeness of modern living.”
A novel that combines the pleasures of genre fiction and the thematic richness of literary fiction, while blurring the line between the two and exploding the very concept of genre.
A terrific debut novel about the mystical and erotic power of art.
At the center of the center, as it were, is a hypothetical painting by the 19th-century artist J.M.W. Turner, one in which he brings all his genius to bear. The title of this painting is “The Center of the World,” and it features an astonishingly sensual portrait of Helen of Troy and Paris, with whom Helen eloped. The picture is so scandalous to 19th-century mores that it’s hidden away and believed to have been burned, but it turns up in 2003, of all places in a barn in the Adirondacks. It’s a testament to Van Essen’s control that he makes this scenario plausible, for it turns out that Cornelius Rhinebeck, the owner of a neighboring estate, was a rich captain of industry who, in the early-20th century, amassed a collection of European art, some of it acquired through questionable channels. Henry Leiden, who finds the painting, desultorily heads a small foundation and feels his life, and especially his relationship with his wife, is at an impasse, but the painting exerts an almost otherworldly influence on him. Van Essen creates a complicated narrative structure involving Leiden, Charles Grant (who posed for Paris when Turner was engaged in the painting at Petworth, the estate of the Third Earl of Egremont), Mrs. Spencer (Egremont’s mistress and the model for Helen) and the mysterious Mr. Bryce, head of a firm that arranges art sales and an aesthete who desperately wants to track down the elusive Turner painting. Actually, this masterpiece winds up turning everyone who comes in contact with it into an aesthete—and it also seems to have an almost miraculous power as an aphrodisiac.
Van Essen writes gracefully and makes accessible the issue of art as transcendence.
The second novel by British author and political journalist Ledgard (Giraffe, 2006) is a tangle of rich imagery, philosophical nuggets and factual anecdotes. And yes, there is also a plot, but one that the book abandons and rejoins at will.
Much of the action takes place within the mind of James More, a British spy posing as a water inspector in Somalia, who’s been caught and imprisoned by jihadists. In his memory, More relives his previous Christmas in a French hotel, where he had a brief and intense love affair with Danielle Flinders, a brilliant marine biologist. As the two characters head for very different destinies, the narrative heads off on tangents whose relation to the main story isn’t always immediately clear. James is a descendant of Utopia author Thomas More, which apparently makes him prone to philosophical thought; and Danielle has her own questions about the nature of religion and society. Shortly after the two lovers meet, she explains her fascination with the complexity of undersea life and concludes that human society is merely “a film on the water…nature’s brief experiment with self-awareness.” This less-than-hopeful worldview is borne out by a later scene that describes, in concise journalistic style, the stoning of a young girl. Though it covers only two pages and involves neither of the main characters, it’s a powerful sequence that underlines the existential anger at the book’s core.
While the nonlinear structure is initially frustrating, there are enough brutal and beautiful moments to make this book absorbing.
Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this tale of slavery, identity and the wages of sin is based in part on Brink's (A Fork in the Road, 2009, etc.) family history.
An impossible love story, it is not impossible in the traditional sense of love between mismatched partners, but because it shows how no love is possible between persons fundamentally unequal. Philida’s voice is the first voice we hear, and hers is a voice to attend to: idiomatic, lyrical, querulous, searching. Philida is on her way to lodge a complaint against Frans. He made promises, among others, to seek her manumission. She bore his children. But it appears he deceived her, when in fact he deceived himself. Francois “Frans” Brink, the feckless son of the hardheaded patriarch of Zandvliet, is not worthy of the slave Philida. How Frans responds to this complaint changes Philida’s mind and heart, but the larger socioeconomic conditions have the more lasting effect. The book begins in 1832; the slaves were “freed” in the colonies in 1834. Writing about his own family, Brink is silent, eloquently so, on its rampant hypocrisy, epitomized by Petronella, known as Ouma Nella. She is Philida’s protector but also the mother of Cornelis Brink, Frans’ father and Philida’s owner. The book traces the lacerating trajectory of the sins of parents, parents’ scars like open wounds on their children’s bodies. There is an astonishing frankness about the facts of life and a visionary lyricism in relation to these cruel facts. The “Acknowledgements” section details the genesis of the novel. In its way, it is as thrilling as the book itself.
A fictional portrait of ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq’s struggle with polio—and George Balanchine.
As O’Connor’s main narrative opens in the summer of 1956, the New York City Ballet is on tour in Copenhagen when 27-year-old Tanny (as everyone calls her) is stricken with polio. George nurses her devotedly and pushes her almost as hard in physical therapy as he did in rehearsal, but they must face the fact that she will never walk or dance again, while his life continues to be consumed by ballet. Tanny, his fifth wife, is well aware of George’s habit of marrying his favorite ballerina, making great dances for her, then moving on to new inspiration. The balance of the novel traces the evolution of their complicated relationship: during the remaining 13 years of their marriage, when she tells herself “the other women mean nothing” and are merely fodder for his choreography; through the crisis sparked by his obsession with teenage Suzanne Farrell, which destabilizes NYCB and finally leads to their divorce; and in later years, when they resume a friendship that still has moments of jealousy and anger, but is founded on enduring love and long intimacy. Jerome Robbins, Diana Adams and Maria Tallchief are among the other real-life figures vividly depicted in the first-person narration O’Connor (A Company of Three, 2003, etc.) crafts for Tanny, but the center of attention is always George, captured in all his intermingled charm, cruelty and utter devotion to his muse—whoever she may be. We believe Tanny’s assertion that she holds a special place in his heart, but we sense that she knows there are special places there for all his women. Tanny has another lover later in life, and she finds fulfilling work writing books and coaching dancers; this is not a novel about victimization or the malevolence of genius, but rather about the painful accommodations all of us make for the things and people we love.
Thoughtful, tender and quite gripping, even for readers unfamiliar with the historical events the author sensitively reimagines.
A metaphysically haunting, shape-shifting novel that keeps the reader off balance and can’t be fully appreciated until its climax.
In the “Acknowledgments” following the novel, Rock (My Abandonment, 2009, etc.) calls this “a more interpersonal, bewildering, educational and emotional experience than anything I have ever written.” Readers will likely not only understand those feelings, but share many of them. Like his previous novel, this one reflects considerable research on the fringes of society, specifically the apocalyptic sect of the Church Universal and Triumphant, which preached that the world would end in the late 1980s. It didn’t. Yet fortified underground survival shelters remain, as do some believers. The novel reunites a man and a woman who were close as children when raised within the church. Francine is married and pregnant, with her present life with her husband, Wells, seeming to have little connection with her childhood past. A neighbor girl goes missing and is feared dead, and Francine helps with the search. Inexplicably (at least with no explanation that Wells or the reader can initially accept), the friend she hasn’t seen for decades appears seemingly from nowhere to help with the search, and her bond with him quickly seems stronger than the one she shares with her husband. With that setup, the novel then alternates among different types of chapters: a document Francine writes in remembrance of her experience with the church—perhaps to make sense of her life for her unborn child or even for herself, but found by Wells after Francine disappears—as well as ones that trace the pilgrimage of her friend Colville, the flight of Francine, the mysteries that Wells must resolve and the appearance of some sect leaders, at least one of whom suggests a divine purpose that strains the reader’s credulity but makes perfect sense to Colville. And to Francine? She finds “the Teachings still inside her, waiting to be brought into practice, to surface,” as “here she was again, circling back, a person with a person inside her.”
Written with a matter-of-fact flatness, the novel becomes indelibly unsettling as it progresses.
Kelly has hit her stride in this third outing, a classic dark thriller combining suspense with gorgeous, evocative prose.
Told from the perspectives of four individuals, this story is British journalist Kelly’s third offering and by far her most inventive novel. Set in England, the tale involves a close-knit family named MacBride, whose members soon become the focus of a pathological mission to destroy them. It starts with Lydia, beloved mother of the clan and magistrate of the court, who is dying. Lydia confesses in one of the diaries she’s kept most of her life a deed so terrible and life altering that she realizes if her family reads it, the contents would forever change them. But she doesn’t plan on that happening since she intends to destroy all of her diaries before the end arrives. Meanwhile, the rest of the MacBride family continues on with their lives: Her disfigured son, Felix, once a happy and handsome child, brings a mysterious woman into their midst. Sophie, the oldest daughter and mother of three boys and a baby girl, struggles with her once-perfect marriage to Will. And Tara, mother of the mixed-race teen, Jake, seems to finally be happy with her boyfriend, Matt, a surrogate father to Jake. Rowan, the former schoolmaster, mourns his wife but takes great joy in his grandkids. And the entire group comes together at the traditional family getaway near a remote village, where cellphones won’t work and no electronics are allowed. It is there and in both Saxby and London that a tale of unreasonable, sustained hatred and revenge bubbles up, threatening to tear the happy family apart and leave them with a wound that will never heal. With writing so seductive and multiple voices that are pitch-perfect for the characters she’s created, Kelly shows that she is a writer who doesn’t need to keep repeating herself to stay in the game.
A book that will consume the reader as fully as the bonfire set by the novel’s characters.
With this second thriller in a series, Laukkanen’s latest provides an entertaining worst-case scenario of an accountant gone bad.
Carter Tomlin has a lovely wife, daughter and home, but the good life in Minnesota comes crashing down when he’s laid off from his accounting job. Now no one wants to hire him, and consulting can’t pay the bills. How can he support his family and their lifestyle? Well, banks have money. He’ll rob one. Just one ballsy heist to tide him over, and he’s done. It doesn’t yield him enough cash, though, and he discovers that scaring the living bejesus out of harmless bank tellers is a lot more fun than balancing books. So, he has to amp up his game, and he and a young lady partner go for bigger scores. Bullets start to fly, and soon, Tomlin is in much deeper trouble than he’d ever expected—and he’s loving it, all while his innocent family remains clueless. Meanwhile, FBI agent Carla Windermere and detective Kirk Stevens team up to identify the robber and try to bring him down. They’ve previously worked together in Laukkanen’s debut, The Professionals (2012), and have a professional and personal chemistry that makes them fun to follow and easy to root for. Tomlin takes them through plenty of twists and turns as he becomes increasingly unhinged and dangerous—even other bad guys had best give him a wide berth.
Fans of crime thrillers shouldn’t miss this one or anything else with Laukkanen’s name on the cover. The writing is so crisp, the pages almost want to turn themselves. He’s a terrific storyteller.
A lyrical novel heavy with mythological overtones.
Richard, a professor of Romantic and Victorian literature, has just taken a bride 40 years his junior. For their honeymoon, she wants to go somewhere—anywhere—by the sea, so she closes her eyes, sticks a pin on a map and opens them to find she’s “chosen” a remote island off northern Scotland. Coincidentally, this is near the area where she was born, but when Richard presses her about her family and her childhood, she becomes distant and elusive. Richard’s particular area of academic interest and expertise is folklore, especially phantasmic and elusive women like La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Undine and Vivien (lover of Merlin). Richard’s wife, who remains unnamed, also seems to partake of this spectral reality, for even though she’s 21, she has pure white hair and a wraithlike appearance. The novel chronicles the roughly two weeks of their honeymoon, as Richard finds himself alternately bewitched and puzzled by his new wife, who spends much of her time watching the tempestuous sea even though she’s afraid of its power and can’t swim. She’s also haunted almost nightly by vivid and disturbing dreams of water and being drowned. Although Richard could not be characterized as blissfully happy, he is deeply in love with his enigmatic wife. At the end of their honeymoon, however, the inevitable happens—she disappears mysteriously, seemingly absorbed back into the natural world which she’s both alienated from and attracted to.
Sackville writes like a dream (in all senses), conveying both the uncanny power of love and the inscrutable heartbreak of loss.