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The Factory

Hiroko Oyamada, trans. from the Japanese by David Boyd. New Directions, $13.95 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2885-5

Reviewed by Gabe Habash

Three employees at a monolithic factory in an unnamed Japanese city begin to see reality itself seem to mutate in Oyamada’s stellar, mind-bending debut.

After quitting five jobs, Yoshiko Ushiyama finds a spot at the factory shredding documents all day. Meanwhile, Yoshio Furufue reluctantly takes a position “studying moss” in another department—in which he is the sole employee. His ostensible goal is to green-roof the whole enterprise, but he’s given no direction and no time frame and so ends up being reduced to a guide for a children’s moss hunt on the factory grounds. Finally, Ushiyama, Yoshiko’s brother, is tasked with proofreading opaque documents with titles like Goodbye to All Your Problems and Mine: A Guide to Mental Health Care, though he doesn’t know where his edits go when he’s done and is told “[y]ou won’t make any mistakes. You can’t.”

Soon, time and the characters’ understanding of life beyond the factory begin to fog, and perhaps Oyamada’s greatest achievement is transferring this disorientation to the reader. Scenes jump in time and loop back, and perspectives shift mid-chapter; at one point Ushiyama starts proofreading a report on the factory’s fauna authored by a child—the same child who asked Furufue to read that same report after Furufue took him on the moss hunt. There is an enclosed, purgatory-like feel to the setting: “The factory was a world of its own,” Furufue thinks at one point. “Only four ways in and out. North, South, East, West. Shouldn’t there be more?” The relentless logic of the factory accounts for everything—meal preference (there are “nearly a hundred cafeterias, and a decent number of restaurants, too”), resources (when Furufue is told it’s best for him to live on factory grounds, he thinks, “The idea of moving here didn’t bother me.... It was just happening so quickly and without my input, without my knowledge”) and, somehow, even the novel’s astonishing ending.

Oyamada expertly weaves in a series of strange phenomena—a middle-aged man known as the Forest Pantser who runs around the factory’s surrounding forests trying to pull the pants off people; huge flocks of a particular species of black bird (“the birds roost in such great numbers you can’t tell one from the next.... there are hundreds of them, all looking toward the factory”)—creating an atmosphere of unease bordering on pernicious. But by refusing to give answers and instead letting the mundane and the uncanny blend together (“I thought I saw one of the smaller women in Print Services holding a black bird by its wings, but when I looked again it was just a toner cartridge”), Oyamada maximizes her puzzle. This nonpareil novel will leave readers reeling and beguiled. (Oct.)

Gabe Habash is the author of Stephen Florida and is the deputy reviews editor of Publishers Weekly.

Reviewed on 08/02/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Girl at the Door

Veronica Raimo, trans. from the Italian by Stash Luczkiw. Grove/Black Cat, $16 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-0-8021-4734-9

In Raimo’s fanged, elliptical tale, her English-language debut, sexual politics roils a tranquil utopia. A philosophy professor and his pregnant girlfriend, both unnamed, are relative newcomers to the island of Miden, an egalitarian society whose “vital serenity” is in marked contrast to their unnamed homeland, which is reeling from a devastating financial collapse. When the professor’s former student and lover declares that she had been raped and “subjected to violence” during their affair, the Commission investigates the allegations to determine whether “the Perpetrator” will be allowed to remain within their community or whether the “violence nesting in [him] could contaminate the social fabric.” The novel is told in alternating chapters from the professor’s and his girlfriend’s perspective as the Commission sends out questionnaires to their acquaintances. The professor, a charming narcissist, finds “a wonderful perversion” in being the center of the denigrating administrative process, while his isolated girlfriend reassesses the choices that have brought her from her moribund country to this besieged paradise. The novel deals in shifting sentiments: between love, revulsion, and desire; hostility toward and identification with the accuser; and between the couple’s ironic stance toward Miden’s stifling contentment and their intense yearning for inclusion in the community. A writer of wry and lucid prose, Raimo sculpts from these ambiguities a crystalline, powerful novel. Agent: Anna Stein, ICM Partners. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/02/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Olive Again

Elizabeth Strout. Random House, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9654-8

As direct, funny, sad, and human as its heroine, Strout’s welcome follow-up to Olive Kitteridge portrays the cantankerous retired math teacher in old age. The novel, set in small-town coastal Crosby, Maine, unfolds like its predecessor through 13 linked stories. “Arrested” begins just after the first novel ends, with 74-year-old widower Jack Kennison wooing 73-year-old Olive. “Motherless Child” follows the family visit when Olive tells her son she plans to marry Jack. In “Labor,” Olive awkwardly admires gifts at a baby shower, then efficiently delivers another guest’s baby. Olive also offers characteristic brusque empathy to a grateful cancer patient in “Light,” and, in “Heart,” to her own two home nurses—one a Trump supporter, one the daughter of a Somali refugee. “Helped” brings pathos to the narrative, “The End of the Civil War Days” humor, “The Poet” self-recognition. Jim Burgess of Strout’s The Burgess Boys comes to Crosby to visit brother Bob (“Exiles”). Olive, in her 80s, living in assisted care, develops a touching friendship with fellow resident Isabelle from Amy and Isabelle (“Friend”). Strout’s stories form a cohesive novel, both sequel and culmination, that captures, with humor, compassion, and embarrassing detail, aging, loss, loneliness, and love. Strout again demonstrates her gift for zeroing in on ordinary moments in the lives of ordinary people to highlight their extraordinary resilience. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/02/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Country

Michael Hughes. Custom House, $26.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-294032-2

Hughes’s clever conceit in this dark take on political violence—the Irish author’s American debut—is to transport The Iliad from ancient Troy to Northern Ireland in the mid-’90s, during a cease-fire between the IRA and the British. The year is 1996, and Nellie is married to an IRA soldier while simultaneously being an informer for the British. When she fears exposure, she is spirited out of the country, thus paving the way for an SAS roll-up of her husband’s unit. To combat the SAS, Pig, the local IRA head, calls for the support of Achill, the most feared member of his unit. But Achill has a personal grudge against Pig and turns him down. In his stead, Achill’s friend, Pat, goes one-on-one with an SAS officer, Capt. Henry Morrow, even as the powers that be in London, Belfast, and Dublin use the cease-fire to their own, opposing cynical ends. The tragedy that ensues sheds light on what these past and present conflicts have in common. The original gang from The Iliad is represented—Helen, Agamemnon, Achilles, Patroclus, Menelaus, Hector—and it is the author’s language that keeps the story fresh. There is rough poetry in both the self-serving speechifying of the leaders and the violent threats of the rank-and-file. This is a canny update of one of the world’s oldest stories. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/02/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Keeping Lucy

T. Greenwood. St. Martin’s, $27.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-16422-3

Greenwood (Rust & Stardust) delivers an unabashed heart-tugger. The year is 1969 when housewife Ginny Richardson, of Dover, Mass., gives birth to a baby girl named Lucy, who has Down syndrome. Her lawyer husband, Abbott Jr. , and his overbearing lawyer father, Abbott Sr., convince her to have the newborn institutionalized. But two years later, after the institute is exposed on TV as a hellhole of neglect and mistreatment, a guilt-ridden Ginny spirits Lucy out of the place and hits the road with her daughter, unaware that she gave up parental rights and could be wanted for kidnapping. Accompanied by her six-year-old son, Peyton, and best friend, Marsha, Ginny drives to Florida to hide out with Marsha’s sister, a mermaid performer at Weeki Wachee Springs. On the way, Ginny tries to make up for lost time with Lucy. But she knows a reckoning with Abbott Jr., Abbott Sr., and the law is inevitable. The author makes Ginny’s transformation from timid housewife to empowered guardian an affecting one. And in Ginny’s road trip from Massachusetts to Florida by way of Atlantic City and the Blue Ridge Mountains, Greenwood explores a country caught between traditional values and the societal changes of the 1960s and ’70s. This is a moving depiction of the primal power of a mother’s love. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The World That We Knew

Alice Hoffman. Simon & Schuster, $27.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-5011-3757-0

Set in Nazi-occupied France between 1941 and 1944, Hoffman’s latest (after The Rules of Magic) is a bittersweet parable about the costs of survival and the behaviors that define humanity. The narrative follows several groups of characters: teenage Julien Lévi and his older brother, Victor, whose family is murdered by the Nazis; Ettie, a rabbi’s daughter, who with Victor and Marianne, the Lévis’ former (Protestant) housekeeper, become members of the Resistance; and Lea Kohn, a schoolgirl fleeing Berlin with her “cousin” Ava. Unbeknownst to most of the characters, Ava is actually a golem—a soulless supernatural protector out of Jewish folklore—and her interactions with them and the ways in which she touches their lives serve as touchstones for Hoffman’s reflections on the power of love to redeem and the challenges of achieving humanity, or retaining it, under such challenging circumstances. Though coincidence governs much of the meeting and team-ups of her characters, Hoffman mitigates any implausibility through the fairy tale quality of Ava’s involvement and her supernatural powers of salvation. The attention to the harsh historical facts makes the reader care all the more strongly about the fates of all of the characters. Hoffman offers a sober appraisal of the Holocaust and the tragedies and triumphs of those who endured its atrocities. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Opioid, Indiana

Brian Allen Carr. Soho, $16 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-64129-078-4

The landscape of Middle America is grim but has glimmers of hope in this outstanding novel from Carr (Sip). Riggle, 17, is on the verge of adulthood and feels like a misfit in the rural Indiana town he has recently moved to from his native Texas. His parents dead, he lives with his young uncle Joe and Joe’s girlfriend, Peggy, more an object of lust to Riggle than a surrogate mom. Riggle’s suspension from school for vaping only amps up his aimlessness. He has one good friend, named Bennet, a fellow high school student and neighbor. They hang out, go to the movies together, and ponder their futures after the recent school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Nostalgia about his mother’s omelets leads Riggle to a restaurant called Broth, where he finds a connection with the chef and almost lands a job. Joe is away from home, getting high—in fact, everyone around seems to get high—and the upcoming rent payment looms large. As Riggle’s week of suspension progresses, flashbacks reveal happier times during his childhood, and there’s an unexpected death, the possibility of new friends, and a threat from a local yokel at the other end of a gun. The first-person narration has authenticity and candor. Carr’s novel is both gripping and timely. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Fool and Other Moral Tales

Anne Serre, trans. from the French by Mark Hutchinson. New Directions, $15.95 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2716-2

Symbols and signs take on life-changing meanings in Serre’s three sharp, sophisticated, and inventive tales (following The Governesses). Examining a tarot deck given to her by a friend, the narrator of “The Fool” realizes she has already encountered the eponymous card in real life: “You think things appear only on playing cards.... In reality, they exist in life.” The Fool has already come to her in various guises, including Carl, her lover, and the nameless childhood dread that long ago inspired her to become a writer, “to make a pact with the thing that threatens you.” In the slyly funny anti-bildungsroman “The Narrator,” a man travels to a chalet to write, and as he engages in an affair with his landlady, he’s both delighted and inundated with material, feeling that “nothing remained of the world but... the ghostly apparitions of dreams,” which he will turn into a book. But his inability to connect with others occasions a crisis; he no longer wishes “to feel holier-than-thou with your precious images... to feel smug simply because you’re different.” Dreamy and deeply sexual, “The Wishing Table” revisits and revises the literature of debauchery; its narrator, now nearing 40, recounts a happily incestuous childhood. Drawing on fairy tales and psychoanalysis, pornography and poststructuralism, Serre constructs stunning and searing stories that will remain with readers. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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We Are Still Here

Emily Koon. Conium, $16 trade paper (237p) ISBN 978-1-942387-14-5

Monsters, ghosts, and lost souls remind readers that “no one wants to hear a story about a decent person” in Koon’s fine debut collection. In the title story, honeymooners happen upon long-forgotten and decaying amusement park tourists who are ambivalent toward their discoverers, having long since given up on rescue. Many stories push the limits of a seemingly realistic world, such as “United Postal Service,” in which a delivery man decides to move into the narrator’s apartment, permanently and uninvited; and “Myrtle,” in which the narrator befriends an ogre under a bridge and discovers the pair to be perfectly suited (which brings questions about the narrator's fitness for the normal world). Most of the 13 stories are haunting and clever, such as Koon’s wry critique of capitalism in “The People Who Live in the Sears.” The standout is the novella “Dark Paradise,” an outstanding weaving of potential paths that brought Lizzie Borden to the point of murder, told in second person. Throughout, Koon’s elegant sentences bring humor to what could otherwise be morbid tales. Offering up a mixture a flash fiction and disarming character portraits, Koon delivers a beguiling, fresh collection. (July)

Reviewed on 07/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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We, the Survivors

Tash Aw. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-0-374-28724-5

Aw’s captivating novel (after Five Star Billionaire) revolves around a fateful moment of violence set against the backdrop of an ever-changing Malaysia. In an almost stream-of-consciousness work, readers become the proverbial fly on the wall as the main character, Ah Hock, a convicted murderer, tells his tale to a graduate student working on a book. In alternating chapters of Ah Hock’s rambling confession and brief personal exchanges between Hock and his interviewer, Hock’s story wanders through his poverty-ridden upbringing with a single mother, his unsuccessful marriage, his murder trial, his days in prison, and, finally, to the night he committed murder. A simple man, Hock has spent his life believing hard work would bring success; as the manager of a fish farm, he reaches that success, but when his workers develop cholera, he’s forced to find replacements. Desperate for a solution, Hock seeks help from a boyhood friend now trafficking illegal workers, and this fateful decision leads him to an act of violence he never thought himself capable of. As Hock and his interviewer seek to understand what brought him to kill, readers are drawn into a Malaysia overwhelmed with thousands of immigrants seeking refuge, employment, and survival. Aw’s potent work entraps readers in the slow, fateful descent of its main character, witnessing his life spiral to its inevitable conclusion. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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