This week: Han Kang's follow-up to "The Vegetarian," plus true stories of imaginary illnesses.


Rachel Cusk. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25 (224p) ISBN 978-0-374-27862-5

Cusk’s outstanding latest, the second in a trilogy, works as both a companion piece to the superb Outline and as an independent narrative, following Faye, a writer and teacher, who moves to London with her two young sons after a divorce. As in Outline, Faye’s arc is less about plotted action and is more a series of vignettes, focused this time on long conversations about the ways we journey through life. During these chats, her hairdresser reveals his confrontation with fear and being unwanted one New Year’s Eve, and an author, while speaking on a panel with Faye at a literary festival, talks about the fame he has received by revealing personal stories. A construction worker soundproofing her floors talks with Faye about architecture and broken families, and a potential student discusses her obsession with an obscure painter, and how her love for him sprung from the ashes of a failed attempted affair. As always, Cusk’s ear for language and dialogue is sharp; her characters speak about universal ideas, such as anxiety and lust. This marvelous novel continues the author’s vivid exploration of the human condition.

Little Deaths

Emma Flint. Hachette, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-0-316-27247-6

One of New York City’s classic tabloid crime cases—cocktail waitress Alice Crimmins’s controversial conviction for the 1965 murders of her two young children—becomes the springboard for British author Flint’s affecting, achingly beautiful debut. That Ruth Malone, a separated single mom, leads an active sex life, including trysting with married men while her five-year-old Frankie Jr. and four-year-old Cindy remain home alone, locked in their bedroom, makes her the only suspect police seriously look into after her estranged husband reports the youngsters missing. And yet the deeper that fledgling crime reporter Pete Wonicke digs into the story, the more he becomes convinced that while Ruth may be guilty of many things, killing her kids isn’t among them. Eschewing easy answers or Perry Mason miracles, Flint focuses squarely on Ruth’s stiflingly straitened life in working-class Queens, close enough to gaze at the bewitching lights of Manhattan yet distant enough to feel marooned in another galaxy. This stunning novel is less about whodunit than deeper social issues of motherhood, morals, and the kind of rush to judgment that can condemn someone long before the accused sees the inside of a courtroom.


Tim Gautreaux. Knopf, $26.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-451-49304-0

Gautreaux channels Flannery O’Connor with a soupçon of Elmore Leonard in this collection of stories, many set in Louisiana, most featuring people of Cajun descent sliding down the socioeconomic scale, chasing dreams in a last-ditch effort to escape the nightmare of defeat. The first story, “Idols,” sets the tone with the tale of a typewriter repairman who inherits a rundown mansion. He hires a carpenter (one of several Gautreaux characters—furnace man, exterminator, piano tuner—with a gift for fixing things). This carpenter needs money to pay for removing his tattoos, which his wife calls idols. The home-restoration project stalls when the homeowner runs out of money and the carpenter tattoos. In “Radio Magic,” a renovated radio receives stations worldwide, allowing its owner, another doomed dreamer, to listen to old comedy routines broadcast from the Solomon Islands. “Gone to Water” focuses on an old man navigating through a recent oil spill. “Sorry Blood” portrays an 88-year-old who, unable to remember who he is, digs a ditch for the man claiming to be his son. A priest (“Attitude Adjustment”), a Texas car thief (“Easy Pickings”), and a boy from Kentucky (“Died and Gone to Vegas”) all seem “a few thimbles shy of a quart.” Gautreaux’s landscape is watery, his language fluid, his characters stuck in a world where, as one promising orphan puts it, what would be nice and what will happen are usually two different things.

Human Acts

Han Kang, trans. from the Korean by Deborah Smith. Random/Hogarth, $21 (224p) ISBN 978-1-101-90672-9

After winning the Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian, Han has written a harrowing second novel that traces the long-term reverberations from South Korea’s 1980 Gwangju Uprising, in which government troops killed anywhere between 200 and 2,000 civilians in the chaos following the assassination of President Park Chung-hee in 1979. The story opens in that fateful year with Dong-ho, a 15-year-old boy searching for his friend Jeong-Dae while tending to the bodies of protestors in the municipal gymnasium, helping family members identify and claim them. But Dong-ho is soon another casualty in the violence, and the novel, structured in linked stories, traverses the subsequent years to document the aftermath of Dong-ho’s death. The story is told in a combination of first-, second-, and third-person narration by those who knew Dong-ho, and it includes Jeong-Dae’s life after death, a book editor’s fight against censorship, a prisoner’s recollection of his captivity and torture, a former factory worker whose memories of the violence are brought up when an author needs her as a “witness,” and Dong-ho’s mother, remembering her son 30 years after his death. In the final chapter, Han herself reveals her connection to Dong-ho. Han’s novel is an attempt to verbalize something unspeakable, and her characters often find themselves adrift decades after the event. But she humanizes the terrible violence by focusing on the more mundane aspects: tending and transporting bodies, or attempting to work an ordinary job years later. And by placing the reader in the wake of Dong-ho’s memory, preserved by his family and friends, Han has given a voice to those who were lost in the Gwangju Uprising.

Homesick for Another World

Ottessa Moshfegh. Penguin Press, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-0-399-56288-4

In 14 expertly crafted stories, Moshfegh (Eileen) examines characters and situations too weird to be real and too real to be fiction, with themes of alienation, ennui, displacement, sexual neuroses, and addiction. A voyeuristic old man steels his courage to approach the beautiful, aloof woman working at the counter of the local arcade (“Mr. Wu”); an aspiring actor hooked on motivational clichés spins out of control in a breakup saga (“The Weirdos”); a high school English teacher has an on-again/off-again relationship with the drug-dealing “zombies at the bus depot” (“Slumming”); a grieving husband uncovers evidence of his dead wife’s infidelity and explores his own sexuality (“The Beach Boy”); an underachieving suitor embarks on a desperate quest for a cheap ottoman that holds the key to his quixotic romantic endeavors (“Dancing in the Moonlight”). There’s not a throw-away story in the collection. Each resonates with seemingly effortless, ineffable prose, rarely striking an inauthentic note—particularly memorable are the endings, which often land to devastating effect. The author’s acute insight focuses obsessively, uncomfortably, humorously on excreta, effluvia, and human foible, drilling to the core of her characters’ existential dilemmas. Moshfegh is a force.

Is It All in Your Head? True Stories of Imaginary Illness

Suzanne O’Sullivan. Other Press, $26.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-59051-795-6

By altering the conventional discussion surrounding psychosomatic illnesses, O’Sullivan helps laypeople recognize the reality of a problem that is often treated dismissively, in and outside of the medical field. A consultant in neurology, she is most interested in diseases that occupy the unconscious, their symptoms unmeasurable and their causes unknown—conditions that might be revealed by technologies like MRI but remain essentially mysterious. Each chapter of this book presents a case study, lending vivid life to patients with psychosomatic disorders, along with extensive context for everything including the bygone diagnosis of “hysteria” and the dawn of neurology as a medical profession. Seizures, still difficult to account for and treat, receive extensive attention. And this study is not just about the patients, but the intricacies, the inevitable challenges, of the doctor-patient encounter. Given repeated emphasis is the stigma of diagnosis—a stigma that O’Sullivan combats through her dedication to the individual stories she tells. If empathy is bolstered by understanding, then this book will bring such sentiments to a rarely understood condition. It will engage readers’ heads, but also quite possibly enter their hearts.


Hernán Ronsino, trans. from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter. Melville House, $15.99 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-61219-567-4

Argentinian novelist Ronsino’s compact, atmospheric English-translation debut follows four characters—Vardemann, Bicho Souza, Miguelito Barrios, and Ramón Folcada—for 40 years at the end of the 20th century. The small Argentinian industrial town of Glaxo, with its eponymous factory and incessant train traffic, creates a gritty, noirish backdrop, accentuated by repeated references to Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn in the film Last Train from Gun Hill. When Folcada suspects his stunning, inscrutable wife, La Negra Miranda, of infidelity, he sets a trap, in the process revealing details about his own past that shape the story and force the reader back to the book’s beginning for the subtle, closely observed details that breathe life into four narratives shifting in time. The author knows his Faulkner, and the story’s central figure, Vardemann (the same name given a credulous child in Faulkner’s modernist masterpiece As I Lay Dying), a barber who relates his story in brief, repetitive snapshot vignettes, is a sly homage to the modern novel. Ronsino’s story leads, finally, to a surprising conclusion during Folcada’s stream-of-consciousness admissions. Though easily read in one sitting, the novel packs a mean, memorable punch.

History Is All You Left Me

Adam Silvera. Soho Teen, $18.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-61695-692-9

From Griffin Jennings’s perspective, he loses his first love Theo three times: first when Theo heads to college in California while Griffin finishes senior year at their Manhattan high school; then when Theo finds new love with a fellow college student; and, finally, when Theo drowns in the Pacific. Griffin processes Theo’s death by recounting their relationship and the aftermath of the drowning in alternating chapters titled “History” and “Today,” telling most of the story in direct address to his lost love. Though Griffin’s vision is clouded by grief, passion, and guilt, readers will have no trouble understanding how unmoored Griffin has become: Silvera (More Happy Than Not) excels at capturing the confusion and pain he feels. The tragedy of Theo’s death is also leavened by the healthy families Griffin has to lean on: the boys come out to their parents, together, at a birthday party for Theo’s younger sister, and their declaration of love is met with celebration. Griffin has much to puzzle out as he tries to move forward, but he does so with the reassurance that real love exists.

The Animators

Kayla Rae Whitaker. Random House, $27 (384p) ISBN 978-0-8129-8928-1

Updating the theme of how artists turn personal pain into art, Whitaker’s outstanding debut novel portrays two women working together to create adult cartoons. Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses meet in a college art class. Confident, talented, and openly gay, Mel anticipates a career in animation, while quiet, lonely, straight, and inexperienced Sharon knows only that she wants to be an artist. Mel introduces Sharon to works by R. Crumb and other alternative animators and comics artists before the two women collaborate on their own dark, funny, carefully crafted work, discovering they perfectly complement each other. A decade after graduation, they gain recognition for Nashville Combat, a full-length animated film based on Mel’s early life in central Florida as the daughter of a delinquent mother who went to prison when Mel was 13. Mel and Sharon struggle following the film’s success: a drunken Mel rips out the microphone during an NPR interview; they argue; Sharon suffers an aneurism. Renewal for the pair comes with a new project, this one focused on Sharon, who returns with Mel to her eastern Kentucky home to confront her own disturbing memories and reconnect with her one childhood friend. Whitaker deftly sketches settings and characters: Brooklyn is all chain-link fences and loading docks and aging signage, Mel is the fire-starter, Sharon the finisher. Whitaker skillfully charts the creative process, its lulls and sudden rushes of perfect inspiration. And in the relationship between Mel and Sharon, she has created something wonderful and exceptional: a rich, deep, and emotionally true connection that will certainly steal the hearts of readers.