This week: two must-read debut novels, plus a search for one's identity in the Arctic Circle.
For a generation of readers born and raised after 9/11, Baskin (Ruby on the Outside) offers a powerful account of how the events changed lives. Her cast is made up of four middle-school students who briefly cross paths at Chicago’s bustling O’Hare Airport two days before the Twin Towers fall. Characters include Will, a Pennsylvania boy still grieving his father’s death; Aimee, settling into her new home in Los Angeles while her mother is on a business trip in New York City; Brooklyn native Sergio, who has just won a national math award; and Nadira, a Muslim girl from Ohio who is trying to fit in by not wearing her “beliefs on her sleeve.” Hours before the hijackings, the children are preoccupied with family and peers, but after learning about the terrorist attacks, all are deeply and personally touched in some way, their problems put in new perspective. There are no graphic displays of violence; Baskin focuses on how her characters emerge wiser, worldlier, and more sensitive to others’ pain after surviving a profound and tragic piece of history.
Braverman’s search for personal fulfillment in some of the most unforgiving places on Earth, often behind a team of sled dogs, makes for a compelling if at times scattered debut memoir. Raised in California with childhood dreams of being a polar explorer, Braverman first visited Norway at age 10, cementing her desire to spend long periods in Scandinavia. A yearlong exchange program during her junior year in high school sends her not to the icy—and rural—north but to Norway’s more cosmopolitan south, to stay with a host family in Lillehammer. After high school, she returns to Norway to study dog-sledding, immersing herself in dog care and learning how to survive the endless night. This experience leads to a summer in an Alaskan dog tour company, Dog World. It’s still Norway that draws her in, and she finds herself most content working in the small northern village of Mortenhals, where she helps aging shopkeeper Arild with his general store and cobbled-together museum.
A stormy family lives through Jamaica’s early 1990s drought in Dennis-Benn’s first novel. Delores sells trinkets at a tourist market; her daughter Margot, whom Delores pimped out when Margot was very young, now works as a front desk clerk at a hotel. Margot turns tricks after hours to make extra money to pay her much younger sister Thandi’s tuition at a Catholic school. Margot’s romantic yearning is directed towards Verdene, a rich woman considered a witch by their village because she is a lesbian. Thandi, the unhappy recipient of her family’s hopes, feverishly tries to bleach her skin white and to resist her attraction to her childhood friend Charles, whose poverty would impede her quest for upward mobility. This is a striking portrayal of a vibrant community where everyone is related and every action reverberates.
Hambly’s outstanding 14th Benjamin January novel (after 2014’s Crimson Angel), set in the summer of 1839, takes the free black physician from New Orleans to Vicksburg, Miss., whose swampy environs hide runaway slaves desperate to join the Underground Railroad and “follow the drinking gourd” north to freedom. When Ezekias Drummond, the principal conductor of the local railroad, is stabbed to death, the authorities arrest Jubal Cain, who coordinates the whole railroad operation in Mississippi, for the crime. January, who’s been posing as a slave accompanying his white master, must identify Drummond’s killer before Cain’s role in the railroad is exposed. In addition to the slavery issue, Hambly focuses on broader social concerns. With panache and sensitivity, she explores the plight of women, both black and white, who can only endure abuses in such a society, and are rarely able to escape them as men sometimes can. Her well-tuned ear for the vernacular speech of her characters, whatever their race, is a plus.
At the start of Limón’s compelling 11th novel set in 1970s South Korea featuring U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division agents George Sueño and Ernie Bascom (after 2015’s The Ville Rat), Maj. Frederick Schultz makes an official complaint, accusing a prostitute, Jo Kyong-ja, of taking his money without providing the agreed-upon services. When Sueño and Bascom question Jo, she denies the allegation and claims that Schultz was upset when he was unable to perform. Shortly after that interview, someone roughs up Jo, and a few weeks later, Schultz, the logical suspect in that assault, turns up dead himself, the victim of a knifing in a back alley behind a Seoul nightclub. Complicating the murder inquiry is the involvement of the South Korean police and the unsettling revelation that Schultz was doing classified work involving the review of potential irregularities in the running of a military intelligence unit. Major developments in the lives of Limón’s leads complement the intricate whodunit.
McDaniels, one-third of the legendary rap group Run-DMC, confesses his private demons in his no-holds-barred tell-all. The entertainer writes about his home base of Hollis, Queens; his childhood as a nerdy comic book geek; his strict Southern parents; and using alcohol to numb his crippling stage fright while performing with his bandmates, Joseph "Run" Simmons and Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell, in the early 1980s. Holding very little back, he talks about the group's origins in 1981; scoring the first gold hip-hop record, Run-DMC, in 1984; earning the first platinum record, King of Rock, in 1985; and topping it with the multi-platinum Raising Hell in 1986. While the group appeared to be soaring until Jay's death in 2002, McDaniels says he was unraveling from emotional turmoil due to losing his voice, creative differences with the band, addictions, losing Jay, and finally learning he was adopted. Remarkably candid, very hip, and genuinely soulful, McDaniel's star-studded memoir of depression and hopelessness ultimately transitions into a reflective, inspirational mediation of rebirth and renewal.
Seventeen-year-old Scarlett Contreras is excited about her first summer job at Five Banners Adventure World—she’s a huge fan of the Skywoman comics that are also the theme of the park. But Scarlett has a secret. When she was eight, she was kidnapped and held for years in a basement before she escaped, finding her way home to her father and younger siblings, Melody and Matthew. Settling in back home has been hard, but Scarlett’s new job is fun, and she’s smitten with her coworker Connor. When another employee goes missing and an oddly familiar coworker says things that Scarlett remembers from her awful past, she’s terrified anew. Scarlett is determined to hang on to her newfound happiness, but at what cost? Writing from Scarlett’s perspective, Panitch (Damage Done) tells a harrowing story of captivity, survival, and the pursuit of hope; readers’ hearts will break as Scarlett tries to find her place in a world that left her behind. A jaw-dropping final twist gives way to a surprising, satisfying conclusion to this tense, clever thriller.
Sharma’s debut novel is an uncompromising and unforgettable depiction of the corrosive loop of addiction. Maya is a young woman living in New York with her husband, Peter. She has an afterthought of a job at a bookstore, is sleeping with a former professor, and regularly does heroin. Following a trip to Peter’s parents’ house for Thanksgiving, during which Maya tries to stop using, Peter leaves her (“You make me feel like an employee,” he says to her) and the professor breaks off their affair. Maya’s not-very-happy life descends further, becoming a cycle of sleeping with Internet strangers for drug money, attempting to quit, and then resuming. Sharma structures the novel in short bursts of prose, alternately jumping around or lingering in a scene. Despite the floaty plot, there is a propulsive energy in Maya’s story, guided by her askew yet precise perspective: “This is the way heroin addiction works: You take four classes thinking you will keep yourself busy, but then you mess it up because you’re always high... And so then, what’s the point of getting clean? To return to a mostly empty life?” In Maya’s voice, Sharma has crafted a momentous force that never flags and feels painfully honest.
Trillin, a regular contributor to the New Yorker since 1963, collects his insights and musings on race in America in previously published essays from over 50 years of reporting. They cover events from the 1964 voter registration drives in Jackson, Miss., to a 2006 deadly shooting on Long Island, N.Y., “the single most segregated suburban area in the United States.” Providing abundant context and telling details, Trillin covers the Mardi Gras Zulu parade in New Orleans, the resistance to school integration in Denver, race relations in the Mormon Church in Utah, a stop-and-frisk with tragic results in Seattle, and the confrontation between Italians and African-Americans over the construction of an apartment building called Kawaida Towers in Newark, N.J. Most of these episodes take place in the 1960s and ’70s, so Trillin provides updates at the end of each essay to show how the issues have evolved and what progress, if any, has been made. He also delves into the definitions of black and white in modern-day Louisiana and the qualities of a southern “moderate” in the 1970s, and invites a black civil rights activist to tell the story of her hardscrabble life in Dorchester County, S.C., in her own words. As Trillin notes in his introduction, today’s African-American students are more isolated than they were 40 years ago, education policy makers have abandoned integration as a cause, and a number of states have recently passed laws meant to suppress non-white votes. What’s shocking is how topical and relatively undated many of these essays seem today.
We Are Not Such Things: The Murder of a Young American, a South African Township, and the Search for Truth and Reconciliation
Van der Leun (Marcus of Umbria) focuses this tour-de-force depiction of modern South Africa on the 1993 death of Amy Biehl, a white American grad student and anti-apartheid activist living in Cape Town who was murdered by a mob as apartheid fell. The narrative follows Van der Leun as she uncovers a series of discrepancies surrounding Biehl’s murder and the subsequent truth and reconciliation commission for Biehl’s killers. Amid the suspense of her investigation, Van der Leun skillfully weaves in glimpses into contemporary South Africa, delving into issues such as the systemic disenfranchisements caused by apartheid, the colonial legacies of the British and the Dutch, rampant police brutality, government ineptitude, and the myriad issues that the country now faces in a fractured system. With a strong voice and exact vocabulary, Van Der Leun expertly juxtaposes the lives of white elites with the grim reality of the black township. Van Der Leun succeeds in telling a complex, nuanced, and perhaps ultimately unknowable story that will captivate all readers.