This week: the true story of murder in a 19th-century convent, plus "The Shining" meets "The Abyss."
Refund by Karen Bender (Counterpoint) - Money and its mysteries—how to get it, keep it, steal it, and do without it—link the stories in this collection, but so do the mysteries of having children or being one. Bender’s youthful characters are imperious creatures who leave their parents bewildered, exhausted, and wrung out with love. Parenting, of course, is linked to money: only parents in the middle class—and Bender (A Town of Empty Rooms) makes it clear how tenuous that status is—notice when their children are “experimenting with disdain,” even if they don’t how to respond.Tthe stories’ strengths stem from Bender’s beautiful writing and her ability to convey the wonder and dread of ordinary life, the things we might notice—whether with terror or with joy—if we weren’t too busy worrying about paying the bills.
Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda, trans. from the Dutch by Jonathan Reeder (Hogarth) - Dutch author Buwalda’s magnificent first novel offers proof of Tolstoy’s dictum that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Three uniquely unreliable voices narrate this darkly humorous familial drama: the mentally precarious Aaron Bever; his beautiful girlfriend, Joni Sigerius; and her stepfather, eminent math genius and university rector Siem Sigerius. Their interweaving narratives, which hop between the Netherlands, Shanghai, Belgium, and California, chart the years between the rise and fall of their outwardly successful but privately dysfunctional family. Buwalda displays the sexual appetites of his characters from puritanical to hedonistic against the 1990s backdrop of an emerging Internet and concomitant ascendency of online porn. Temperatures rise until the explosion of a Dutch fireworks factory, which is followed by familial pyrotechnics. A custard doughnut plays a decisive role in deciding the Sigeriuses’ fate.
The Business of Naming Things by Michael Coffey (Bellevue) - The riveting prose in Coffey’s first collection of stories leaves the reader feeling unsettled and unmoored. In “Sunlight,” a man named Michael who works for Publishers Weekly (where Coffey was co-editorial director before retiring earlier this year) visits Harold Brodkey as he’s dying of AIDS. Michael believes that being an adoptee is the “source of all his problems” and asks Brodkey, who’s also an adoptee, whether being adopted prevented him from writing a “conventional narrative.” This sense of unrest and disquiet adds depth to the eight stories, which are varied but share certain themes, returning repeatedly to relationships between fathers and son and husbands and wives. There is no conventional narrative here. Coffey brilliantly examines the efforts of a mother to cope with her son’s death in “Moon Over Quabbin”; he uses the J.F.K. assassination as a backdrop to a tale about a sinful priest in “Inn of the Nations”; and, in “Sons,” he explores a difficult father-son relationship in the context of a possible Obama assassination attempt. Vibrant and unsparing.
Outline by Rachel Cusk (FSG) - On an airplane to Athens, Greece, where she plans to teach a summer school course, English writer Faye strikes up a conversation with the passenger sitting next to her, a verbose elderly gentleman. The two chat for the entire flight, and days later, Faye allows the man to take her swimming aboard his boat, where she learns about his multiple marriages and troubled children. Thus begins this brilliant novel from Cusk (The Bradshaw Variations),who shuns fictional convention and frills in favor of a solid structure around a series of dialogues between Faye and those she encounters on her travels. While dining with old friends on two separate occasions, she hears tales of literary stalkers and near-death experiences. And within her classroom, students recount their own histories: from family pets to daily routines. Though Faye often functions as the sounding board, the reader nevertheless comes to know her—divorcée, mother—through her interjections and inquiries. These 10 remarkable conversations, told with immense control, focus a sharp eye on how we discuss family and our lives.
The Deep by Nick Cutter (Gallery) - Fans of unflinching bleakness and all-out horror will love this novel. Expecting to assist in the study of a miraculous cell-regenerating substance discovered deep undersea, veterinarian Luke Nelson descends eight miles to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. What he finds there, in a research lab warped by incredible pressure and trapped in utter darkness, is a mounting wave of physical and mental aberrations. Something down there is testing—or playing with—the scientists and their lab animals. Readers watch as Luke is unpeeled, layer by layer, and reshaped into something terrible. The novel’s horror is notable both for quantity and quality. Horror fans will love it.
Binary Star by Sarah Gerard (Two Dollar Radio) - A teacher in training struggles with anorexia and a troubled relationship in this fast-moving debut novel in verse by Gerard (author of the chapbook Things I Told My Mother). The unnamed narrator, who weighs 98 pounds at the story's outset, thinks about her hunger, fear, guilt, and personal disgust while reflecting on her tumultuous long-distance relationship with her alcoholic lover, John. She recalls the previous winter when she and John drove along the perimeter of the continental United States. The narrative follows the couple's journey northwest from John's apartment in Chicago, south down the Pacific coast, east across the South, and north alongside the Atlantic. As their respective compulsions grow increasingly out of control, their relationship begins to resemble a dying star. Gerard's spare and methodical prose mirrors the narrator's obsessiveness. Gerard has produced a powerful, poetic, and widely relatable novel that eludes easy classification.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (Riverhead) - Rachel Watson, the principal narrator of Hawkins’s psychologically astute debut, is obsessed with her ex-husband, Tom. She’s having a hard time putting the past behind her, especially since she confronts it daily, during the hourlong commute to London from her rented room in Ashbury, Oxfordshire, when her train passes the Victorian house she once shared with Tom. She also frequently spies an attractive couple, four doors down from her former home, who she imagines to be enjoying the happily-ever-after that eluded her. Then, suddenly, the woman, pixie-ish blonde Megan Hipwell, vanishes—only to turn up on the front page of the tabloids as missing. The police want to question Rachel, after Anna, Tom’s new wife, tells them that Rachel was in the area drunkenly out of control around the time of Megan’s disappearance. The surprise-packed narratives hurtle toward a stunning climax, horrifying as a train wreck and just as riveting.
The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan (Minotaur) - In Khan’s beautiful and powerful first novel, Esa Khattak, a second-generation Canadian Muslim and the head of Toronto’s Community Policing Section, and his sergeant, Rachel Getty, investigate the death of Christopher Drayton, who fell from a cliff overlooking Lake Ontario “with no evidence of outside interference.” When their inquiries reveal that Drayton was, in fact, the alias for a Serb who oversaw the slaughter of thousands of Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, Khattak and Getty have to wonder whether foul play was involved. Through her characters’ interactions and passages taken from testimony at war crimes trials, Khan reveals the depths of horror and venality that people are capable of while also portraying the healing of long-sundered relationships.
The Magician's Lie by Greer Macallister (Sourcebooks) - This well-paced, evocative, and adventurous historical novel from Macallister chronicles the career of America’s preeminent female stage illusionist at the turn of the 20th century, who, as the Amazing Arden, created the lurid, controversial stage act known as the Halved Man. When Arden’s husband is found murdered following her performance in Waterloo, Iowa, she falls under suspicion, particularly after she goes on the lam. Later the same night, officer Virgil Holt, en route to his home in the nearby town of Janesville, nabs Arden and charges her with her husband’s murder. Holt escorts her to his office where she maintains her innocence and urges him to release her. The skeptical Holt compels Arden to relate her life’s story, from her birth as Ada Bates in Philadelphia to her growing up on a Tennessee farm. And so the tale begins in this satisfying, rollicking tale.
One Thousand Things Worth Knowing by Paul Muldoon (FSG) - “I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead.” Muldoon (Maggot) opens his 12th book of verse with an impressive set piece, one major Irish poet’s lament for another. The elegy makes the Pulitzer Prize–winner and New Yorker poetry editor’s fact-filled, intricately rhymed style sound not so much playful as meant to stave off grief, “hemmed in every bit as much// by sorrow as by the crush of cattle.” There follow poems built around decades-old memories, reactions to paintings, and reactions to poems by Lorca, Pessoa, Dickinson, and Muldoon himself—there is even an explicit sequel, “Cuba (2).” As loyal readers expect, there’s also a stack of proper nouns worth Googling, and an assortment of bafflingly allusive objects: “the face of a barstool/ covered in a whale’s foreskin,” or “the chestnut tree where a soul was known to roost// before it was set in linotype.” Unlike Muldoon’s books of rock lyrics and literary criticism, these densely worked poems are meant to be re-read.
The Nuns of Sant'Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal by Hubert Wolf, trans. from the German by Ruth Martin (Knopf) - This sordid tale of sexual indecency, false saints, and murder within a 19th-century convent in Rome has all the trappings of a good thriller. What begins with a 1859 complaint by a German noblewoman against Sant'Ambrogio (specifically, against the corrupt practices of novice mistress Maria Luisa) soon becomes a full-blown scandal: the subsequent investigation implicates prominent clergy in practices that blur the line between mysticism and the carnality. Behind the lurid story, however, are deeper historical conflicts. Both the rise of Romanticism—and its attendant fascination with the supernatural—and struggles over the direction of the modern Church explain the extent of the scandal and the passion with it was investigated.