McDermott’s brief seventh novel (Child of My Heart, 2002, etc.) follows seven decades of a Brooklyn woman’s modest life to create one of the author’s most trenchant explorations into the heart and soul of the 20th-century Irish-American family.
Sitting on the stoop of her apartment building, 7-year-old Marie watches her 1920s Brooklyn neighborhood through the thick glasses she already wears—her ability to see or missee those around her is one of the novel’s overriding metaphors. She revels in the stories of her neighbors, from the tragedy of Billy Corrigan, blinded in the war, to the great romance of the Chebabs’ Syrian-Irish marriage. Affectionately nicknamed the “little pagan” in contrast to her studious, spiritual older brother Gabe, Marie feels secure and loved within her own family despite her occasional battles of will against her mother. Cozy in their narrow apartment, her parents are proud that Marie’s father has a white-collar job as a clerk, and they have great hopes for Gabe, who is soon off to seminary to study for the priesthood. Marie’s Edenic childhood shatters when her adored father dies. In fact, death is never far from the surface of these lives, particularly since Maries works as a young woman with the local undertaker, a job that affords many more glimpses into her neighbors and more storytelling. By then, Gabe has left the priesthood, claiming it didn’t suit him and that his widowed mother needs him at home. Is he a failure or a quiet saint? After her heart is broken by a local boy who dumps her for a richer girl, Marie marries one of Gabe’s former parishioners, has children and eventually moves away from the neighborhood. Gabe remains. Marie’s straightforward narration is interrupted with occasional jumps back and forward in time that create both a sense of foreboding and continuity as well as a meditation on the nature of sorrow.
There is no high drama here, but Marie and Gabe are compelling in their basic goodness, as is McDermott’s elegy to a vanished world.
Gilbert’s sweeping saga of Henry Whittaker and his daughter Alma offers an allegory for the great, rampant heart of the 19th century.
All guile, audacity and intelligence, Whittaker, born in a dirt-floored hovel to a Kew Garden arborist, comes under the tutelage of the celebrated Sir Joseph Banks. Banks employs Whittaker to gather botany samples from exotic climes. Even after discovering chinchona—quinine’s source—in Peru, Henry’s snubbed for nomination to the Royal Society of Fellows by Banks. Instead, Henry trades cultivation secrets to the Dutch and earns riches in Java growing chinchona. Henry marries Beatrix van Devender, daughter of Holland’s renowned Hortus Botanicus’ curator. They move to Philadelphia, build an estate and birth Alma in 1800. Gilbert’s descriptions of Henry’s childhood, expeditions and life at the luxurious White Acre estate are superb. The dense, descriptive writing seems lifted from pages written two centuries past, yet it’s laced with spare ironical touches and elegant phrasing—a hummingbird, "a jeweled missile, it seemed, fired from a tiny cannon." Characters leap into life, visible and vibrant: Henry—"unrivaled arborist, a ruthless merchant, and a brilliant innovator"—a metaphor for the Industrial Revolution. Raised with Dutch discipline and immersed in intellectual salons, Alma—botany explorations paralleling 19th-century natural philosophers becoming true scientists—develops a "Theory of Competitive Alteration" in near concurrence with Darwin and Wallace. There’s stoic Beatrix, wife and mother; saintly Prudence, Alma’s adopted sister; devoted Hanneke de Groot, housekeeper and confidante; silent, forbidding Dick Yancey, Henry’s ruthless factotum; and Ambrose Pike, mystical, half-crazed artist. Alma, tall, ungainly, "ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose," and yet thoroughly sensual, marries Ambrose, learning too late he intends marriage blanc, an unconsummated union. Multiple narrative threads weave seamlessly into a saga reminiscent of T. C. Boyle’s Water Music, with Alma following Ambrose to Tahiti and then returning alone to prosper at Hortus Botanicus, thinking herself "the most fortunate woman who ever lived."
A brilliant exercise of intellect and imagination.
Before an alcoholic can begin recovery, by some lights, he or she has to hit bottom. Dan Torrance, the alcoholic son of the very dangerously alcoholic father who came to no good in King’s famed 1977 novel The Shining, finds his rock bottom very near, if not exactly at, the scarifying image of an infant reaching for a baggie of blow. The drugs, the booze, the one-night stands, the excruciating chain of failures: all trace back to the bad doings at the Overlook Hotel (don’t go into Room 217) and all those voices in poor Dan’s head, which speak to (and because of) a very special talent he has. That “shining” is a matter of more than passing interest for a gang of RV-driving, torture-loving, soul-sucking folks who aren’t quite folks at all—the True Knot, about whom one particularly deadly recruiter comments, “They’re not my friends, they’re my family....And what’s tied can never be untied.” When the knotty crew sets its sights on a young girl whose own powers include the ability to sense impending bad vibes, Dan, long adrift, begins to find new meaning in the world. Granted, he has good reason to have wanted to hide from it—he still has visions of that old Redrum scrawl, good reason to need the mental eraser of liquor—but there’s nothing like an apocalyptic struggle to bring out the best (or worst) in people. King clearly revels in his tale, and though it’s quite a bit more understated than his earlier, booze-soaked work, it shows all his old gifts, including the ability to produce sentences that read as if they’re tossed off but that could come only from someone who’s worked hard on them (“Danny, have you ever seen dead people? Regular dead people, I mean”). His cast of characters is as memorable as any King has produced, too, from a fully rounded Danny to the tiny but efficiently lethal Abra Stone and the vengeful Andi, who’s right to be angry but takes things just a touch too far. And that’s not to mention Rose the Hatless and Crow Daddy.
Satisfying at every level. King even leaves room for a follow-up, should he choose to write one—and with luck, sooner than three decades hence.
A tale of two continents in an era of political tumult, rendered with devastating depth and clarity by the Pulitzer Prize–winning author.
The narrative proceeds from the simplicity of a fairy tale into a complex novel of moral ambiguity and aftershocks, with revelations that continue through decades and generations until the very last page. It is the story of two brothers in India who are exceptionally close to each other and yet completely different. Older by 15 months, Subhash is cautious and careful, not prone to taking any risks, unlike his impetuous brother Udayan, the younger but the leader in their various escapades. Inseparable in their Calcutta boyhoods, they eventually take very different paths, with Subhash moving to America to pursue his education and an academic career in scientific research, while Udayan becomes increasingly and clandestinely involved in Indian radical militancy. “The chief task of the new party was to organize the peasantry,” writes the novelist (Unaccustomed Earth, 2008, etc.). “The tactic would be guerrilla warfare. The enemy was the Indian state.” The book's straightforward, declarative sentences will ultimately force the characters and the reader to find meaning in the space between them. While Udayan characteristically defies his parents by returning home with a wife he has impulsively courted rather than submitting to an arranged marriage, Subhash waits for his own life to unfold: “He wondered what woman his parents would choose for him. He wondered when it would be. Getting married would mean returning to Calcutta. In that sense he was in no hurry.” Yet crisis returns him to Calcutta, and when he resumes his life in America, he has a pregnant wife and, soon, a daughter. The rest of the novel spans more than four decades in the life of this family, shaped and shaken by the events that have brought them together and tear them apart—“a family of solitaries [that]...had collided and dispersed.”
Though Lahiri has previously earned greater renown for her short stories, this masterful novel deserves to attract an even wider readership.
Atwood closes her post-apocalyptic trilogy (Oryx and Crake, 2003; The Year of the Flood, 2009) with a study of a small camp of survivors, redolent with suggestions about how new-world mythologies are made.
The main narrator, Toby, is a gatherer of strays at MaddAddam, an enclave of survivors of the previous years’ plague and environmental collapse. Amanda was tormented by vicious “Painballers”; Snowman, the hero of Oryx and Crake, is recovering from a grotesque foot wound; and a small tribe of “Crakers,” genetically engineered humanoids, are on site as well. Atwood’s story moves in two directions. Looking backward, Toby’s love, Zeb, recalls the history of the scientists who set this odd new world in motion while greedy evangelists like his father clung to rapidly depleting oil and cash reserves. Looking forward, the MaddAddamites must police the compound for Painballers out for revenge. As with many post-apocalyptic tales, the past is much more interesting than the present: Zeb’s story is a cross sections of end-times North America, from Grand Guignol entertainments to pharmaceutical horrors, and Atwood weaves in some off-the-shelf contempt for casual sexism, consumerism and god-playing. In comparison, the closing confrontation between the MaddAddamites and Painballers is thin, though the alliances are provocative: The Crakers partner with large, genetically engineered pigs—pigoons—to help the surviving humans who unnaturally made them. In numerous interludes, Toby attempts to explain this world to the Crakers, and their dialogue, rife with miscommunications, is at once comic and strongly biblical in tone. Societies invent origin stories, Atwood suggests, by stripping off nuance for simplicity’s sake. But Atwood herself has taken care to layer this story with plenty of detail—and, like most post-apocalyptic novelists, closes out the story with just a touch of optimism.
By no means her finest work, but Atwood remains an expert thinker about human foibles and how they might play out on a grand scale.
An inventive—if brooding, strange and creepy—adventure in literary terror. Think Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King meet Guillermo del Toro as channeled by Klaus Kinski.
In her sophomore effort, Pessl (Special Topics in Calamity Physics, 2006) hits the scary ground running. Filmmaker Stanislas Cordova has made a specialty of goose bumps for years; as Pessl writes, he’s churned out things that keep people from entering dark rooms alone, things about which viewers stay shtum ever after. Cordova himself hasn’t granted an interview since 1977, when Rolling Stone published his description of his favorite frame as “sovereign, deadly, perfect.” Cordova is thrust back into the limelight when his daughter is found dead in an abandoned warehouse in Chinatown. Scott McGrath, reporter on the way to being washed-up, finds cause for salvation of a kind in the poor young woman’s demise. McGrath’s history with Cordova stretches back years, and now, it’s up to him to find out just how bad this extra-bad version of Hitchcock really is. He finds out, too; as one of the shadowy figures who wanders in and out of these pages remarks, ominously, “Some knowledge, it eats you alive.” Oh, yes, it does. Readers will learn a thing or two about psychotropic drugs, to say nothing of the dark side of Manhattan and the still darker side of filmmaking. And speaking of hallucinations, Pessl’s book does a good imitation of a multimedia extravaganza, interspersed with faux web pages and images. All it needs is for a voice to croak out “boo” from the binding, and it’d be complete unto itself.
A touch too coyly postmodern at times, but a worthwhile entertainment all the same.
Barnhardt’s fourth novel is a revelation: witty, savage and bighearted all at once, it is the Southern novel for the 21st century.
The Jarvis-Johnston clan is a Charlotte, N.C., family of distinction; they have all that matters to society: money, pedigree and manners enough to keep secrets buried. But, as each family member is revealed (spanning a decade, every character has their own chapter), the ruin of the family becomes imminent. When Jerilyn Johnston heads off to Chapel Hill, she seems the one child who will live up to her mother Jerene’s exacting standards. But when she pledges Sigma Kappa Nu, filled with rich, surgery-augmented party girls who hope to raise spring-break money by starting their own online porn site, Jerilyn falls into the abyss, which is a place her uncle Gaston Jarvis frequents with pleasure. Though in his youth he was a Young Turk of the literary world, for the last two decades he has churned out a regrettable Civil War series featuring the adventures of Cordelia Florabloom. The books have made him rich and bitter, his only solace a bar stool at the club. The great Southern novel he wanted to write, Lookaway Dixieland, conceived with his comrade in arms Duke Johnston, serves as a treacherous reminder of his wasted life. Jerene and Duke’s other children—Annie, the much-married left-wing rebel; Josh, who spends his evenings trolling for black men on the down low; and Bo, a Presbyterian minister who despises his congregation—are all beyond their parents’ control, contributing to the mother of all Christmas dinner disasters. Perhaps most poignant is patriarch Duke Johnston: the golden boy beloved by everyone, offered the world but who, in the end, locks himself away in his Civil War library, fixated on an insignificant battle, shielded by history.
Barnhardt masterfully reimagines the Southern gothic: There is every kind of sordid deed committed, but there is also an abundance of humanity and grace.
A charged philosophical novel that ranges across centuries to examine where things went wrong (and sometimes right) in history for the Jews, from the heyday of Moorish Iberia to the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
“Our family originated in a mystery and a miracle before almost any of the European nations were created, and we’ve played a significant role in history without feeling arrogant about the secret knowledge...that we bore with us through various ages and lands.” Our narrator relates a millennium’s worth of tales surrounding that “secret knowledge,” namely the means to stay alive forever. Other alchemical talents include potions of various sorts, including one to fend off treason, another concoction that would find favor in the courts of Europe, where some member of the Spinoza family or another, Zelig-like, is always present. (The omnipresence of figures such as “the Cabalist” has a sharp point.) A best-seller in its birthplace of Norway, publisher and literary critic Gleichmann’s novel opens with a dying mother’s plaintive remembrance of a blameless young boy’s death at the hands of the Nazi occupiers of Oslo; it closes with an evocation of that sad young man, raised in the voice of our narrator, who is threatened with the very loss of that voice. He, like all in his lineage, has a gift of “embellishing the ugly and making the fleeting moment eternal.” But can that gift save them? Can they spin the gold of immortality for themselves as well? In a sprawling saga that embraces the likes of the storied kings of Castile and the philosopher Voltaire, Gleichmann has obvious good fun in exploring the implications, as well as the Big Questions, chief among them, “how God could allow such a thing.”
Full of wit and mystery. Memorable and sure to be one of the big novels of the season.
Polished debut fiction, from Australian author Simsion, about a brilliant but emotionally challenged geneticist who develops a questionnaire to screen potential mates but finds love instead. The book won the 2012 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript.
“I became aware of applause. It seemed natural. I had been living in the world of romantic comedy and this was the final scene. But it was real.” So Don Tillman, our perfectly imperfect narrator and protagonist, tells us. While he makes this observation near the end of the book, it comes as no surprise—this story plays the rom-com card from the first sentence. Don is challenged, almost robotic. He cannot understand social cues, barely feels emotion and can’t stand to be touched. Don’s best friends are Gene and Claudia, psychologists. Gene brought Don as a postdoc to the prestigious university where he is now an associate professor. Gene is a cad, a philanderer who chooses women based on nationality—he aims to sleep with a woman from every country. Claudia is tolerant until she’s not. Gene sends Rosie, a graduate student in his department, to Don as a joke, a ringer for the Wife Project. Finding her woefully unsuitable, Don agrees to help the beautiful but fragile Rosie learn the identity of her biological father. Pursuing this Father Project, Rosie and Don collide like particles in an atom smasher: hilarity, dismay and carbonated hormones ensue. The story lurches from one set piece of deadpan nudge-nudge, wink-wink humor to another: We laugh at, and with, Don as he tries to navigate our hopelessly emotional, nonliteral world, learning as he goes. Simsion can plot a story, set a scene, write a sentence, finesse a detail. A pity more popular fiction isn’t this well-written. If you liked Australian author Toni Jordan's Addition (2009), with its math-obsessed, quirky heroine, this book is for you.
An apparently random street murder sparks musings on shades of guilt and the mutability of truth in the distinguished Spanish writer’s latest (Your Face Tomorrow: Poison, Shadow, and Farewell, 2007, etc.).
For years, María Dolz has idealized Miguel Desvern and his wife, Luisa, as the perfect couple, basing this image on the loving interactions she observes at the Madrid cafe, where she has breakfast before heading to her job at a publishing house. (Marías pokes fun throughout at authors’ vanities and quirks.) After Miguel is stabbed to death by a deranged homeless man, María introduces herself to Luisa and through her meets Javier Díaz-Varela, a family friend devoted to helping the shattered widow rebuild her life. María and Javier embark on an affair, but when an overheard conversation reveals that Miguel’s death was not what it seems, the lovers engage in a long conversational fencing match. Did Miguel ask Javier to arrange his death because he had a horrible fatal disease? Or did Javier incite his best friend’s murder because he coveted his wife? As always with Marías, there are no definitive answers, only the exploration of provocative ideas in his trademark style: long, looping sentences (superbly translated by Costa) that mimic the stuttering starts and stops of a restless mind. It’s no accident that María’s and Javier’s first names combine to form their creator’s full name; they voice his consciousness. Marías’ rare gift is his ability to make this intellectual jousting as suspenseful as the chase scenes in a commercial thriller. He’s tremendously stimulating to read; arresting turns of phrase enfold piercing insights, such as an overbearing character’s “charming Nazi-green jacket” or the dark vision of “continuous, indivisible time…eternally snapping at our heels.” Though eschewing overt political commentary, the novel makes crystal clear the bitter contemporary relevance of someone who believes guilt can be evaded through “murder-by-delegation.”
Blindingly intelligent, engagingly accessible—it seems there’s nothing Marías can’t make fiction do. No wonder he’s perennially mentioned as a potential Nobel laureate.