This week: Maurice Carlos Ruffin's stellar debut novel, plus a surreal political thriller in which assassination is a business “driven by market forces.”
Adam’s excellent debut explores a dark and haunting Sophie’s Choice–like dilemma set in the lush and dangerous bush of Trinidad. At the center are 13-year-old twin brothers—Peter, the brilliant son with a golden future, and Paul, the family’s sorrow—who are simultaneously lifted and doomed by the aspirations of their parents, relatives, and teachers. The first of three parts begins with the disappearance of Paul after a harsh tongue-lashing by his father, Clyde. The second part reveals Paul’s troubled childhood, in which he’s cast as mentally slow and Peter as a genius by their doting mother, Joy, Paul’s lifelong protector. It’s also when the concern of an Irish priest at the boys’ school in Port of Spain opens Paul to his first-ever glimmer of hope and confidence—before a break-in at the family’s rural home triggers the tragic chain of events leading to Paul’s disappearance. In the third part, Clyde makes the heartbreaking choice—forced by a jealous family member—that seals the fate of the boys and family. Throughout this stunning portrait of Trinidad’s multicultural diversity, and one family’s sacrifices, soaring hopes and ultimate despair, Adam weaves a poetic lightness and beauty that will transfix readers.
The past never truly dies in this searing fourth collection from Alyan (Salt Houses), it merely resurfaces in the form of battle scars and familial wounds. The Palestinian-American poet, novelist, and clinical psychologist weaves an ever-shifting narrative that chronicles the personal history that shapes and informs her present. These kaleidoscopic flashes of former lives share the feeling and act of displacement, the way in which the body can store the mental, emotional and psychological traumas long after the inciting events have transpired. “We inherit everything. Especially questions,” Alyan writes in “The Honest Wife.” Throughout her work the theme of displacement elicits more than emotion; it’s a recurring memory. In “Aleppo,” Alyan describes “how a lone bomb can erase a lineage: the nicknames for your mother, the ghost stories, the only song that put your child to sleep.” People do not merely inherit memories, they also inherit the accompanying pain; the book’s prevalence of couplets may attest to this kind of pairing. In “Armadillo,” where Alyan recounts family memories, she asks and answers, “What do we do with heartache? Tow it.” The inheritance of displacement is pervasive, as Alyan describes, and her lines are prone to linger in the minds of readers just like the ghosts that haunt the work itself.
Bujold’s delightful latest tale of Penric (after Mira’s Last Dance) finds Learned Penric, Temple sorcerer, drawn away from the safety of the Duchy of Orbas in order to rescue the mother of the woman he loves, Nikys Khatai. In previous novellas, Penric and Nikys successfully escaped Cedonia with Nikys’s half-brother, Gen. Adelis Arisaydia, who fell afoul of politics in the empire. Now those political foes have imprisoned Nikys’s mother in an island sanctuary of the Daughter, one of the Five Gods. Nikys and Penric sneak back into Cedonia and seek out Lady Tanar Xarre, once courted by Adelis, who is both the source of the news and their best hope for an ally. Together with Surakos Bosha, Tanar’s bodyguard/secretary, they orchestrate a rescue, which inevitably does not go quite to plan. While the rescue lives up to Bujold’s high standards of action and has its own droll comedy as well, the real highlight here is the romance between Penric and Nikys as the two explore their growing love and how that can coexist with Desdemona, the demon who lives in Penric’s mind. This is another winner in Bujold’s already strong series.
In this heartfelt and thrilling debut, Chen revitalizes the trope of the absent and unavailable father by placing Kin Stewart in an impossible situation: despite living on the same California coast as his daughter, he is separated from her by a century. Kin is a Temporal Corruption Bureau agent from 2142, tasked with preventing temporal anomalies. While visiting the mid-’90s, he was trapped in time by a bullet from one of his targets; 18 years later, Kin has broken protocol and settled down in the past. He has committed to his life; his wife, Heather; and his teenage daughter, Miranda. But Kin can’t hide forever, and eventually, the future catches up with him in the form of a best friend he barely remembers. Forced to return to 2142, Kin quickly finds himself at odds with his old friend, the TCB, and his life in the future. He misses his daughter, and when Miranda’s life is threatened, Kin will risk everything––including his own life, the future, and maybe even time itself––to save her. Chen’s concept is unique, and Kin’s agony is deeply moving. His choices are often selfish but entirely understandable; he is human, with good intentions and profound flaws. Quick pacing, complex characters, and a fascinating premise make this an unforgettable debut.
Houston (A Little More About Me), a professor of English at UC Davis, brings compassion, a deep sense of observation, and a profound sense of place to essays centered around the 120-acre ranch in the Colorado Rockies that serves as home base in her busy life of travel and academic commitments. Houston’s descriptions of ranch routine, which “heals me with its dailiness, its necessary rituals not one iota different than prayer,” leads her organically toward graceful, “unironic odes to nature.” Intimate but not sensationalized stories of Houston’s upbringing in an unstable suburban household with an abusive father and a neglectful, alcoholic mother set off her gratitude for an adult life lived in the midst of a sometimes perilous but beautiful landscape. “Ranch Almanac” entries that alternate with the essays offer delightful appreciations of the ranch’s other residents, including wolfhounds, lambs, chickens, and miniature donkeys; its human visitors, including her all-important “wood guy”; and the natural wonders visible there, notably including the Milky Way. Houston’s vision finds a solid place among the chronicles of quiet appreciation of the American wilderness, without the misanthropy that often accompanies the genre; her passion for the land and its inhabitants is irresistibly contagious.
Evan Smoak (aka Orphan X) faces his biggest challenge yet in bestseller Hurwitz’s explosive fourth Orphan X novel (after 2018’s Hellbent). Taken from a foster home at 12 and raised in the Department of Defense’s deep black ops Orphan Program, Evan has long since left the fold and now operates as the Nowhere Man, a private force for vengeance for those in need. The one-time head of the program, Jonathan Bennett, is now the U.S. president and is using all of his official and unofficial resources to eliminate the remaining orphans. Bennett is particularly focused on Evan’s first mission in 1997, and Evan’s only conclusion is that he must kill the most protected man in the world. Meanwhile, there’s a young man in L.A. who needs Evan’s special form of channeled violence and an incipient relationship with a single mother district attorney to pursue. Chases, hand-to-hand combat, and gunfights make the short chapters speed by like automatic gunfire. Hurwitz is at the top of this game in this gritty thriller.
Korean author Kim makes his U.S. debut with a powerful, surreal political thriller, in which assassination is a business “driven by market forces.” The faceless plotters of the title employ hit men such as Reseng, an orphan found in a garbage can who was adopted by a man called Old Raccoon. The bookish Reseng grows up in Old Raccoon’s library—a place “crawling with assassins, hired guns and bounty hunters.” In the first chapter, Reseng kills a retired general from the days of South Korea’s military junta after spending a sociable evening at the old man’s house. The complex plot, in which Reseng becomes involved with a more polished, CEO-like hit man named Hanja, builds to a highly cinematic and violent denouement. Most memorable, though, is the novel’s message about the insidiousness of unaccountable institutions, from those under the military junta to those that thrive in today’s economy. The consequence of the pervasive corruption is an air of existential despair. This strange, ambitious book will appeal equally to literary fiction readers.
Ruffin’s brilliant, semisatirical debut stars an unnamed narrator who’s all but consumed by his blackness. Forced to become the “committed to diversity” face of his law firm and the pawn of an insidious ad campaign headed by powerful, flirtatious shareholder Octavia Whitmore, the narrator suffers through one indignity after another. He endures a routinely racist police stop and learns that Octavia “fantasized about wearing blackface” and then there’s the historical revisionism at the school his mixed-race teenage son Nigel attends, where teachers insist that “every schoolboy knows the Civil War didn’t start because of slavery.” The narrator only wants Nigel to be spared the dread of being young and black in America. In fact, he’s been forcing Nigel to apply skin-lightening cream over the objections of his wife, Penny, and is planning to submit Nigel to an experimental plastic surgery procedure that he hopes will visibly erase his heritage and break the long chain of prisons, prejudice, and limited career options that characterize the narrator’s own forebears (his father is incarcerated, a fact that brings the narrator nothing but shame). And yet this is only the setup for a story that suddenly incorporates the violent interventions of a militarized cell of protesters, and hastens the narrator, Nigel, Penny, and Octavia toward a set of separate fates that are both harrowing and inevitable. Though Ruffin’s novel is in the vein of satires like Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and the film Get Out, it is more bracingly realistic in rendering the divisive policies of contemporary America, making for a singular and unforgettable work of political art.