This week: new books from Alan Hollinghurst, Mallory Ortberg, and more.
The Adkinses (Jane Austen’s England) offer an alternative to the repetitive accounts of field operations that often dominate military histories of the 18th century: a page-turning tale of one of the era’s longest and most significant sieges, described from the perspective of those who lived through it and situated in wider military and diplomatic contexts. Gibraltar, a small territory at the bottom of the Iberian peninsula that’s considered the key to the western Mediterranean, had been in British hands since 1704. Spain attempted to retake it during the American Revolution; in June 1779, the Great Siege began. As the noose around Gibraltar tightened over the next three and a half years, sicknesses and shortages overshadowed battle and bombardment. A particular strength of this work is its domestic dimension; the besieged had ample time to write, and to air fears and grievances. The authors use primary accounts to bring to life the experience of Gibraltar’s residents, including the roughly 1,500 wives and children of soldiers who lived there, and demonstrate that Gibraltar’s defense depended more on endurance than heroics. Specialists may find little new material, but this well organized, fast-paced book is a worthwhile addition to the literature on a still-neglected subject.
Journalist Badkhen (Walking with Abel) delivers an evocative, hauntingly beautiful narrative of life in Joal, a fishing village in Senegal. As she embeds herself within boat crews and frequents the seaside gazebos where the fishermen spend their time on shore, Badkhen lucidly describes the rhythm of the village’s daily life (hauling the catch, building a pirogue), as well as its challenges. Between overfishing, illegal foreign ships, and climate change, Joal’s catch is a tenth of what it was a decade ago. Acutely observant, Badkhen meticulously documents Joal’s cuisine (po’boys with murex sauce); lore (spells for catching fish, genies); and special rituals, such as the sacrificial feast to prevent the sea’s anger. She captures the fishermen, their wives, children, dreams, feuds, and banter, and her writing is descriptive and poetic. Images flash before the reader: the barefoot fishwives “in bright multi-layered headwraps and embroidered velvet bonnets” rushing down to greet the catch of the day, the ancient mounds of shells “among the brackish channels that vein the mangrove flats between the Petite Côte and the mouth of the Gambia River,” and a “murmuration of weavers” flying out of an acacia tree. This is a moving tribute to a traditional way of life facing enormous change.
Nebula-nominee Baker delivers an emotional knockout punch in the wrenching third Arcadia Project novel (after Phantom Pains). It’s been three months since the collapse of the Project, a group that was responsible for bridging the gap between the fae and the humans for whom they are a vital source of artistic and intellectual inspiration. Now Dame Belinda of the Project’s U.K. office is leading the charge against the splinter groups in New Orleans and Los Angeles. In L.A., series protagonist Millie is tasked with saving the world, something she feels patently ill-prepared for. She has little time and even fewer resources to sway the support of Belinda’s allies and save her own partner, Tjuan. Complicating matters are the intricate and almost alien relationships she has with Claybriar, her fae counterpart, and Caryl, the half-fae former head of the L.A. Project. Millie’s attempts to navigate both the “normal” world and the darkly tangled world of fae politics are hampered by her striking vulnerabilities, which include but aren’t limited to her borderline personality disorder and amputated legs. Baker’s richly detailed worldbuilding intersects with powerful storytelling to keep readers hooked. The tear-jerking conclusion is a fitting wrap-up to the series, but readers will still hope for more Millie stories to come.
“A lot of what I’m writing almost definitely never happened. I wasn’t there, obviously. I was missing.” So says Alexandra Southwood, a University of York art history lecturer who has vanished. Early on, British author Bell signals that her provocative debut thriller—centering on Alexandra and Marc, her husband, who refuses to stop searching for her—isn’t going to be just another missing person mystery. But the full extent of her audacity only becomes evident toward the end of this ingenious optical illusion, which may leave some readers gasping in admiration and others angry at being played. The more the devastated Marc learns about the woman to whom he’s been married for years, all the while struggling to comfort and maintain some semblance of normalcy for the couple’s two young daughters, the more he’s forced to face the stomach-churning prospect that he may never really have known her at all. On one level a gripping page-turner and on another a disturbing exploration of identity, art, and decency, Bell’s daring performance can’t be ignored.
Novelist and actress Hall (Catching Heaven) probes her descent into Scientology in this impassioned, wonderfully constructed memoir. Raised in a creative, bohemian family, she felt tremendous pressure from an early age to live up to the artistic expectations set by her parents—a pressure that helped to drive her away from southern California and into anorexia, an ill-fated marriage, and, eventually, Scientology’s promise of spiritual solace. In the first section, she weaves together parallel narratives that describe her childhood alongside fraught years in her 30s within Scientology, describing the psychological ideas and tactics pioneered by L. Ron Hubbard, such as the reactive mind versus the analytical mind and the interrogation practice of “auditing,” and the fear that came from the intense culture of secrecy. In the second section, the two narratives combine as she recounts the dark period in her early 20s following an incident in which her brother fell off a bridge and suffered brain damage. As her marriage crumbles and her career ebbs and flows, she turns to Scientology hoping to find answers. Instead, after seven years within Scientology, she concludes that she has made a serious mistake. Hall reflects with brutal honesty on her decisions throughout this meticulously crafted book, which explores her negative experiences with Scientology and how her desire to please led her to believe in the unbelievable.
Holbert (Lonesome Animals) returns with a violent, gruesome, and beautiful tale that, despite its despondency, is perversely winning. The story is set in a hard-luck Washington town near the Grand Coulee Dam. Part Native American, Andre is a beloved math teacher and “minor tavern legend” known for his fierceness in bar brawls. His mother is a woman capable of putting “a year’s living into a long weekend,” as can his father (when he’s not locked up). Andre’s younger brother, Smoker, is a perennially broke, charming ladies’ man. All are alcoholics, vulnerable and vicious, damaged and doing great damage to one another. The novel darts back and forth across three periods in the family’s history. In the “Genesis” sections, which begin in 1981, Andre and Smoker fend for themselves in a dysfunctional household, and “Lamentations” describes the courtship and marriage of Andre and a fellow teacher. In “Exodus,” Andre, his marriage breaking up, accompanies Smoker to retrieve the latter’s daughter from a preacher’s remote, cultish commune, picking up an impressive litany of injuries—and a bear—along the way. The violence in this rangy, brilliant narrative is often grotesque, but this excess is tempered by dry humor, wonderful dialogue, and dark wisdom.
A gay man’s search for love and artistic expression is at the center of Booker Prize–winner Hollinghurst’s masterful sixth novel, written in elegant, captivating prose. Here, he shines a clarifying light on the gay and art worlds (often synonymous) through decades of British cultural and political change. The story sweeps along in five interlinked sections, in which the characters move through different stages of their lives and their country’s history. Some of the characters are first observed at Oxford as they wait to be called up for military service during the tense early days of WWII. Stunningly handsome David Sparsholt draws the attention of a group of friends, literary aesthetes who observe him with interest and, in some cases, with lust. Two decades later, David is a war hero, married and the father of a son, Johnny, who will be central to the remainder of the novel. Readers gradually learn about the homosexual scandal that brought David national attention and a prison term in the ’60s. David would like to disown his past; Johnny is an uncloseted gay man in a changed society in which homosexuality is no longer a crime. In 1970s London, Johnny, beginning his career as a painter, enters the milieu of some of his father’s former Oxford friends. In the last section, set in the present day, Hollinghurst makes explicit reference to “time, loss and change,” and celebrates Johnny’s erotic passion and the emotional haven of domestic companionship. In this magnificent novel, Hollinghurst is at the height of his powers.
No one could accuse the heroine of MacKenzie’s second novel (after City of Strangers) of leading an unexamined life, and the wit with which she conducts that examination elevates this brilliant work. Emma—her name evokes Flaubert’s restless housewife—is a “trailing spouse” accompanying her investment banker husband to São Paulo, “a city that reminded you of what Americans used to think the future would look like—gleaming and decrepit at once.” Possessing a degree in cultural anthropology and dead languages, she interrogates her position in this unfamiliar, stratified society: “There were aspects of the world that, because of my husband, I had the luxury of not paying attention to.” Emma gives English lessons, lunches with affluent wives, flirts with adultery, and muses on time as a “confusion of folds,” seeing Brazil, her marriage, and language as palimpsests bearing signs of the past, the present, and the future. Her observations are satirical, incisive, and often melancholy. As street protests calling for political change intensify, so too do Emma’s anxiousness and aimless desires, beset as she is by an “affliction of vagueness.” There is no cataclysm but rather a pervasive sense of unrest, both large and small scale, social and personal, conveyed in MacKenzie’s unruffled, discerning prose. With it, MacKenzie has captured one of the most memorable narrative voices in recent fiction.
Twins separated at birth discover their true identities and a spiritual leader pursues the ancestral homeland of his “dying nation” in this poignant, thrilling, and funny novel from Nwokolo (Diaries of a Dead African). Brothers Humphrey, a London writer, and Zanda, a journalist in Abuja, Nigeria, are Menai, descendants of a Nigerian tribe whose members were, in 1990, subjected by a pharmaceutical company to drug tests that killed thousands. By 2005, only a few dozen Menai remain, and their elderly shaman Mata sets out on a quest to find and be buried in their ancestral Saharan homeland. Meanwhile, a succession of hallucinations and blackouts reveal to both Humphrey and Zanda that they have been living double lives, unbeknownst even to themselves: Zanda has been operating as the anticorruption extremist Badu, while Humphrey lived as Izak for eight years on the Ivory Coast. Badu’s co-conspirators smuggle him to Cameroon; and Humphrey heads to Africa to rediscover his forgotten life. But Izak is wanted by the police, too, forcing Humphrey to flee to Lagos, only to be mistaken for his brother and arrested. Zanda is the only one who can clear his name, but he has to return to Nigeria first. The madcap twists and turns that ensue provide a joyful counterpoint to Mata’s somber odyssey, and Nwokolo manages to brilliantly distill his branching plot into a singular portrayal of a threatened culture.
Unlike most modern versions of fairy tales, Ortberg’s sly, scathing renditions avoid clichés and self-referential edginess, and instead strike directly at the heart. Ortberg (Notes from Jane Eyre) has been deconstructing and rewriting fairy tales and children’s stories for some time, most notably on her former website The Toast; this collection of those pieces triumphantly transcends the possible pitfalls, brimming with satirical horror. In the sheer inhumanity of her Little Mermaid’s outlook in the cheerfully corrosive “The Daughter Cells” and the Kenneth Grahame–meets-Barthelme gaslighting of “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad,” Ortberg’s voice echoes the standard pragmatic pedagogy of the oral-tradition fairy tale narrator in a charming, bitingly ironic way. “The Rabbit,” a brilliant take on The Velveteen Rabbit and one of the most deeply disturbing horror stories of the last several years, uses the emotional power of the original novel to get past the reader’s defenses. Throughout, gender roles blur and dissolve to reemerge in unexpected shapes. The book brings the shock of the new and the shock of recognition into play at the same time; it’s a tour de force of skill, daring, and hard-earned bravura.
A girl weighs what she’s been told about the world against what she observes and knows, leading to more questions and contemplations. Working in lush, watery acrylics, Tamaki (This One Summer) initially paints the girl on a windy beach. She admits that the sky and sea look blue at the moment: “But when I hold the water in my hands, it’s as clear as glass.” Just because something is visible doesn’t mean it’s true, the girl recognizes, and there’s truth in the invisible, too (“I don’t need to crack an egg to know it holds an orange yolk inside”). Color and nature—red blood, golden fields, a purple flower—serve as a through line in a story that takes a surreal leap when the girl throws off her winter layers, stretches, and grows into a tree, continuing her observations as the seasons pass. In a quiet conclusion, the girl (human once again) and her mother watch crows soar against a dawn sky that’s far from blue. Thinking, imagining, noticing—these, Tamaki suggests, are the tools we have to understand our world. Ages 5–7.
Tamirat’s wonderful debut novel weaves growing pains, immigrant troubles, and moments of biting humor. When the story opens, the unnamed 15-year-old narrator and her father are living on an island run by a shadowy collective. She then flashes back to her life in Boston with her father, an Ethiopian immigrant, and the story of how they ended up on the island. An overheard Amharic conversation draws her to much older Ayale, a fellow Ethiopian and parking lot attendant. Attracted to his challenging personality and intrigued by the sway he has over a wide range of devoted followers, the narrator becomes deeply attached to Ayale. Tension fills Tamirat’s story: quotidian teenage frustrations are combined with the real danger of the narrator’s unquestioning trust in Ayale’s hasty explanations for his package delivery scheme. As questions pile up and strangers start lurking near the narrator’s home, the danger rises and Ayale reveals his intentions. One of the debut’s highlights is the narrator: she is both able to hold her own against Ayale in intellectual debates and desperate to gain his acceptance and love; like many teenagers, she is at once world-weary, naive, outspoken, and vulnerable. The unsettling conclusion serves as a perfect ending for this riveting coming-of-age story full of murky motives, deep emotion, and memorable characters.