This week: big novels from Christopher Castellani, Lauren Wilkinson, and Valeria Luiselli.
Pianist Ahmad shares a powerful account of his escape from Syria and the music that ultimately saved him. Ahmad became known worldwide after a photograph of him playing a piano in the rubble of Damascus in 2014 appeared in newspapers around the world. A second-generation Palestinian refugee, he was raised to love music by his blind violinist father. The 30-year-old musician grew up in a suburb of Damascus in the 1990s, and later attended the Damascus Music School. Ahmad describes the difficulty of living as a Palestinian in Syria, writing about how beginning in July 2013 the refugee camp of Yarmouk was without electricity or hot water. (“I suspect that the siege had been carefully planned. And Yarmouk’s particular geography made the task even easier.”) While delivering food to his neighbors, Ahmad was hit by a grenade, his hand irreparably damaged. Yet Ahmad retained his love for music, wrote songs, and fitted his piano with wheels in order to play on the streets. His performances were uploaded to Facebook and YouTube, which made him a target for radical groups yet also drew the attention of foreign journalists who covered his many performances. With the help of German musicians, Ahmad emigrated to Germany with his wife and children in 2015. This is a deeply moving account of one man’s struggle to survive while bringing hope to thousands through his music.
Castellani’s spectacular fourth novel (after 2013’s All This Talk of Love) imagines the relationships between Tennessee Williams, his lover Frank Merlo, and a young actress named Anja Bloom, whom they take under their wing. In 1953 Italy, Tenn and Frank make the acquaintance of faltering writer Jack Burns, an alcoholic who’s emotionally abusive to his doting lover, Sandro Nencini. Frank finds a foil in Sandro, who recognizes Frank’s devotion and loneliness as Tenn writes, ignores him, and has brief dalliances with other men. While Tenn’s also inspired by Frank to write plays and helps him pursue his dream of acting, Sandro’s dedication goes largely unappreciated. Frank is beloved by Anja, a 17-year-old who flees her mother and finds fame with director Martin Hovland. The ’50s scenes are interspersed with chapters set a decade later as Frank lays dying in a cancer ward, having been all but abandoned by Tenn, and a present-day period when Sandro’s college-aged son Sandrino befriends Anja. Anja reveals that Tenn wrote an awful final play in which he didn’t do Frank justice; she waffles as Sandro tries to convince her to produce it instead of destroying it. Castellani’s novel hits the trifecta of being moving, beautifully written, and a bona fide page-turner. This is a wonderful examination of artists and the people who love them and change their work in large and imperceptible ways.
Choo (The Ghost Bride) centers her riveting latest on five individuals connected to a series of deaths in Malaysia’s Kinta Valley. In 1930s Malaya, 11-year-old house servant Ren accepts the dying request of his master, Dr. MacFarlane, to find his dismembered finger (it was amputated after an accident) and bury it in his grave. The task must be completed within 49 days or else, according to lore, the doctor’s spirit is doomed to wander Earth forever. Thus Ren begins to work for William Acton, the British surgeon who amputated MacFarlane’s finger years before. As Ren desperately searches Acton’s home and the nearby hospital for the finger, the body of a young woman is discovered, her scattered remains presumably the work of a man-eating tiger. Meanwhile, Ji Lin, a dressmaker’s apprentice who secretly works at a dance hall, happens upon a preserved finger in the possession of an unsavory customer. Ji enlists the help of her step-brother, Shin, to discover the origin of the finger, but uncanny tragedies and mishaps follow in their wake. Mythical creatures, conversations with the dead, lucky numbers, Confucian virtues, and forbidden love provide the backdrop for Choo’s superb murder mystery. Mining the rich setting of colonial Malaysia, Choo wonderfully combines a Holmes-esque plot with Chinese lore.
Collins, a sociology professor, draws on interviews with working mothers in four different countries in this evenhanded, discerning exploration of work-family balance. Organizing her research by country, Collins finds that balance requires a harmonious confluence of workplace accommodations, government policies, and supportive cultural attitudes. Moms in Sweden are the most serene, enjoying extensive government benefits, adaptive workplaces, and divisions of domestic labor that allow parenthood and employment to be “compatible goals.” Germany varies, with mothers in Berlin enjoying public investment and support for “caring labor,” while moms in the more patriarchal western area of the country generally downshift to part-time work due to the social disapproval of “raven mothers,” who work when their children are young. Mothers in Italy, where unequal divisions of household work are the norm, feel extreme stress despite family support, cheap domestic labor, and patchwork government policies. In the U.S., where, Collins finds, children are regarded as a lifestyle choice and government supports are generally absent, mothers see their work-life conflicts as personal problems to resolve themselves. Collins suggests that policies must be passed in packages, rather than piecemeal—for example, making sure that daycare is available for children at the age when parental leave ends—to be most useful. This study, whose comparative approach illuminates how cultural norms affect policies and economic results, is intelligent, thought-provoking, and clarifying.
School shootings are horrors, but, as journalist Cullen (Columbine) depicts in this page-turner, something hopeful has risen phoenixlike from the Valentine’s Day 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.: an eloquent, organized group of survivors who have become nonpartisan activists for reasonable gun control. “There are strains of sadness woven into this story,” he writes, “but this is not an account of grief.” Cullen, who got to know the students over 11 months, recounts how the movement began the day of the shooting, with David Hogg’s first plea for calls to congresspeople on national television; grew as the Parkland activists forged connections with less-heralded teens advocating against gun violence in Chicago; and led to the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. Along the way, he draws nuanced portraits of several students, among them Jackie Corin, a preternaturally organized junior who handles logistics and event planning, and Cameron Kasky, a theater kid who was the first to tweet #NeverAgain. Cullen makes sure they come across as “kids, because that’s who they are”; despite their unusual maturity, they get tired, act out, break down. Both realistic and optimistic, this insightful and compassionate chronicle is a fitting testament to a new chapter in American responses to mass shootings.
In this thought-provoking novel, 11-year-old twin and experimental cook Elodee and her family leave behind an undefined sorrow for a new start in utopian Eventown, which eschews television, cars, and the internet; where everyone lives in identical houses; and where the air tastes like blueberries. Upon arrival, newcomers must visit the Welcoming Center to tell six critical stories—their most intense experiences of fear, embarrassment, anger, loneliness, joy, and heartbreak. An interruption in Elodee’s storytelling leaves her with her memories intact, whereas her twin Naomi can no longer remember her told memories from their past life and revels in the placid conformity of the town, with its library of blank books and single song: the “Eventown Anthem.” As the twins grow apart, Haydu (Rules for Stealing Stars) sketches the sinister underpinnings of this seemingly perfect place, especially its pressure to conform in all things—even baking without a recipe or planting a treasured rose veers from the town’s established (and always perfect) order. Ultimately, this memorable and brave heroine chooses sometimes painful stories, memories, and love in favor of a sanitized perfection. Ages 8–12.
Letts’s engrossing latest (following Family Planning) is a behind-the-scenes tale of the late L. Frank Baum, author of the The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and his widow, Maud. Maud is in her 70s in 1938 when she learns of the Judy Garland–starring film being made, and recalls a long-ago promise she made Frank to take care of Dorothy. The story goes back to 1880 when Maud, the daughter of a women’s suffragist, attends Cornell. Maud’s roommate, Josie, is Frank’s cousin, who serves as a matchmaker for the couple. Although she’s determined to focus on her education, Maud is drawn to Frank, who has a fledgling theater company. Despite her mother’s disappointment, Maud withdraws from college to marry. Maud reminisces about her life with Frank as she befriends young Judy; Judy confides in Maud about missing her deceased father, about older men’s advances, and about being coerced into taking diet pills to remain thin. In addition to being Judy’s confidant, Maud vocalizes the necessity of keeping the film adaptation true to Frank’s work. Letts expertly illuminates the true story behind the tale beloved by so many readers through history, but best of all is the wonderful depiction of Maud herself. This is a crowd-pleasing, thoroughly satisfying novel.
Luiselli’s powerful, eloquent novel begins with a family embarking on a road trip and culminates in an indictment of America’s immigration system. An unnamed husband and wife drive, with their children in the backseat, from New York City to Arizona, he seeking to record remnants of Geronimo and the Chiricahua Apache, she hoping to locate two Mexican girls last seen awaiting deportation at a detention center. The husband recounts for the 10-year-old son and five-year-old daughter stories about a legendary band of Apache children. The wife explains how immigrant children become separated from parents, losing their way and sometimes their lives. Husband, wife, son, and daughter nickname themselves Cochise, Lucky Arrow, Swift Feather, and Memphis, respectively. When Swift Feather and Memphis go off alone, they become lost, then separated, then intermingled with the Apache and immigrant children, both imagined and all too real. As their parents frantically search, Memphis trades Swift Feather’s map, compass, flashlight, binoculars, and Swiss Army knife for a bow and arrow, leaving them with only their father’s stories about the area to guide them. Juxtaposing rich poetic prose with direct storytelling and brutal reality and alternating narratives with photos, documents, poems, maps, and music, Luiselli explores what holds a family and society together and what pulls them apart. Echoing themes from previous works (such as Tell Me How It Ends), Luiselli demonstrates how callousness toward other cultures erodes our own. Her superb novel makes a devastating case for compassion by documenting the tragic shortcomings of the immigration process.
In Meijer’s outstanding and disturbing second collection (after Heartbreaker), her fragmented writing style produces an intense and distilled view of isolated moments—or, conversely, makes the outrageous or aberrant seem ordinary. The use of short declarative sentences, sparse adjectives, and lack of quotation marks furthers this splintered effect. In “Alice,” a father observes and responds singularly to his young daughter’s alarming weight gain: “We didn’t say Alice was getting fat. She was.” “The Lover” charts an unsettling romantic triangle, and features a gun and an unexpected kiss. The hapless hero of “Her Blood” is thrust into an uncomfortably undefined relationship when he helps a woman having a miscarriage in a bathroom stall and apparently feels a stronger connection with her than she does with her boyfriend. Not every story has a dark edge; “At the Sea” follows a father at the beach with his young daughter, later experiencing a rush of dread followed by a pleasant surprise. The strange, sensual, elliptical title story, which concludes the book, is narrated by a rag that starts out being used in mundane, household tasks but ends up being used in a murder. Though reminiscent of Mary Gaitskill, Jean Rhys, and Muriel Spark, these 14 stories bear a powerful style that is Meijer’s own.
Novakovich’s 14 remarkable stories explore the contemporary state of alienation, both physical and emotional. In “Lies,” set in war-torn Croatia, a slightly older brother convinces his sibling that he possesses a squadron of miniature soldiers. A young man with a poetic soul and no lover bemoans the current age and its lack of romance in “A Variation on a Theme of Boccaccio.” A hitchhiker from Yugoslavia experiences ignorance and racism as he travels across the Midwest in “Tumbleweed.” In “Charity Deductions,” a man identifying himself as “proud to be an American” gets so exasperated by the war in Bosnia he watches coverage of on CNN that he goes to help, in person, leading to unexpected consequences. In these stories, a straight-faced absurdity often simmers just below the surface. “My Hairs Stood Up” is narrated by a rodent, and in the title story, a young husband takes refuge from the madness of war by keeping bees—bees that add a haunting coda to the tale’s ending. Every story in this collection from Novakovich (April Fool’s Day) begins with a straightforward statement of premise—“At a Soho pub, David hosted a reunion of his friends from college”—yet his prose is so balanced and apt, with not a superfluous clause or descriptor, that it always lands artfully. This is a haunting, accomplished collection.
Sigurdardóttir just keeps getting better and better, as shown by this second entry in the trilogy that began with 2018’s The Legacy. In 2016, hunky demoted Reykjavík detective Huldar consults Freyja, a child psychologist with whom he worked on a previous case, about a 10-year-old unsigned letter left in a time capsule by an unknown high school student predicting six murders in 2016. The victims are indicated only by initials. Soon chopped up body parts start turning up, and Huldar and Freyja uncover disturbing information that links these murders to old crimes that sparked the letter. Sigurdardóttir effortlessly blends police procedure and politics with gleeful jabs at inane human frailties, like Huldar’s ill-advised drunken one-night stand with his foulmouthed female boss. She also categorically indicts a governmental system whose minions refuse to believe children who cry out for help in unimaginably sadistic family situations. The spiky romantic tension between Huldar and Freyja, who’s furious with him because he once slept with her under false pretenses, provides relief from the grim story line. This is must-reading for Scandinavian crime fans.
A young woman confronts life as a single mother in this graceful, eye-opening novel from Tsushima (1937–2016), one of the most influential feminists in Japanese literature. An unnamed radio archivist rents a light-filled Tokyo apartment with her unnamed two-year-old daughter after separating from her husband, Fujino, a deadbeat film student. Over the course of a year, the mother readjusts her routines, tentatively attempts to kindle a romance with one of her husband’s tutoring students, and, most challenging of all, transitions to single parenthood. She experiences nightmares about her daughter dying, then guilt that some part of her wishes it were so; she longs to have her “old life back,” yet does everything she can to make her daughter feel “keenly alive.” “Why were children the only ones who ever got to melt down?” she wonders. As the separation from her husband becomes a divorce, the mother begins to find her footing with the assistance of a friend who offers to babysit. But even once the mother has embarked on a spur-of-the-moment solo trip to the seaside, she can’t forget her daughter and finds “the physical distance between us allowed me a pillowy kind of peace.” Equal parts brutal and tender, Tsushima’s portrait of the strains and joys of motherhood is captivating.
Twin sisters Iris and Lark are “identical, but not the same.” Iris is down-to-earth; Lark has her head in the clouds. The girls have always looked after each other, and when they are placed in different classrooms and after-school activities (art camp for Lark, a library girls’ group for Iris) during fifth grade, they are devastated. Nothing feels right to Iris, whose dismay is exacerbated by a series of unsettling events: meeting the peculiar owner of an antique shop who claims he’s doing magic, noticing objects gone missing from the twins’ home, and being followed by a giant crow. The occurrences connect to a dark secret that proves dangerous to Iris and could separate the twins forever. As intriguing as it is eerie, this imaginative tale by Ursu (The Real Boy) is told from the point of view of the crow, who observes Iris’s actions and emotions as she faces life and peril, for the first time without her sister. This suspenseful mystery offers a story of empowerment, showing how one girl with the help of others can triumph. Ages 8–12.
Wilkinson’s unflinching, incendiary debut combines the espionage novels of John le Carré with the racial complexity of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Marie Mitchell, the daughter of a Harlem-born cop and a Martinican mother, is an operative with the FBI in the mid-’80s peak of the Cold War. Marie is languishing in the bureaucratic doldrums of the agency, a black woman stultified by institutional prejudice relegated to running snitches associated with Pan-African movements with Communist links. All this changes when she is tapped by the CIA to insinuate herself with Thomas Sankara, the charismatic new leader of Burkina Faso, in a concerted effort to destabilize his fledgling government and sway them toward U.S. interests. Now the key player in a honeypot scheme to entrap Sankara, Marie finds herself questioning her loyalties as she edges closer to both Sankara and the insidious intentions of her handlers abroad. In the bargain, she also hopes to learn the circumstances surrounding the mysterious death of her elder sister, Helene, whose tragically short career in the intelligence community preceded Marie’s own. Written as a confession addressed to her twin sons following an assassination attempt on her life, the novel is a thrilling, razor-sharp examination of race, nationalism, and U.S. foreign policy that is certain to make Wilkinson’s name as one of the most engaging and perceptive young writers working today. Marie is a brilliant narrator who is forthright, direct, and impervious to deception—traits that endow the story with an honesty that is as refreshing as it is revelatory. This urgent and adventurous novel will delight fans of literary fiction and spy novels alike.