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Divine Child

Tatjana Gromač
a, trans. from the Croatian by Will Firth. Sandorf Passage, $18.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-9-5335-1323-2

In Gromača’s trenchant and philosophical English-language debut, a woman battles with her mental health while her daughter, the narrator, offers a disquisition on the casualties of a time after the Balkan Wars, when “all reality and all truth became different.” The 30-something narrator, her mother’s oldest daughter and “certified interpreter,” recounts her mother’s hospitalizations for “a strange illness” that “sometimes... made her overly happy, other times endlessly sad.” Because of her mother’s “Eastern origin,” after the wars began she went from being a well-known singer and dancer in her Croatian town to being called a “Serb dogface” by Croats. But while staying in a psych ward at a hospital, she “felt like a hero.” Most of the other women patients had problems with their husbands, but the mother’s stemmed from childhood and a father who “drove fear into her bones.” Interlaced throughout are the narrator’s incisive reflections on Croatia’s role in the Balkan Wars and their continued fallout 20 years later. Redolent of Havel’s The Power of the Powerless, Gromača’s work takes on the hatred that was manufactured, mythologized, and manipulated to feed, justify, and rationalize violence. Quick but substantial, this packs a powerful punch. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/06/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Blue Book of Nebo

Manon Steffan Ros, trans. from the Welsh by the author. Deep Vellum, $19.95 (156p) ISBN 978-1-64605-100-7

Ros (The Seasoning) delivers a spare and intimate story of a family surviving a naer-future global apocalypse. Rowenna, 36, supplies her 14-year-old son, Dylan, with a notebook she found in the nearby Welsh village of Nebo, and in it they take turns writing stories of what’s happened since “The End”—which began eight years earlier with reports of bombings of major cities in the U.S. and U.K. They grow vegetables and trap rabbits for food, and Dylan and his two-year-old sister, Mona, keep a mutated hare as a pet. Dylan feels unnerved after realizing he doesn’t know how Rowenna came to be pregnant with Mona, given that everyone else had either fled, joined mutually annihilating gangs, or died in their homes from the fallout of a nuclear power plant explosion shortly after The End. Rowenna writes of both children’s fathers, sharing stories of human weakness and grace. Ros’s restrained, slow drip of details about the outer world feels plausible and horrifying, and Dylan’s interest in the Welsh language (“that weird ll sound, like air escaping from the sides of the tongue”), which Rowenna has largely forgotten, engenders both poignancy and hope. In a time rife with and ripe for stories of the end, this one stands out. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/06/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Monster in the Middle

Tiphanie Yanique. Riverhead, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-1-59463-360-7

Yanique (How to Escape from a Leper Colony) inventively juxtaposes the start of a new relationship with family histories in this sumptuous saga. Fly Lovett meets Stela Jones in early 2020 during the lockdown in New York City, while he’s enrolled in grad school for music theory and she’s doing teacher training for high school biology. Yanique builds up to their meeting by recounting their parents’ failed relationships, as well as their own. Fly’s father, Gary, a Black man who deploys an idiosyncratic range of religious practices to cope with his mental illness, holds a flame for a white girlfriend well into his marriage with Ellenora and past the birth of their son, Earl, in 1991. Earl, rechristened Fly by a scamming preacher, later has his heart broken in college by a woman who uses sex as a missionizing tool. Meanwhile, Stela’s mother, an orphan from Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands, raises Stela with her second husband. Stela breaks off an engagement to her first love, a South African–born white American, after a traumatic experience on her semester abroad in Ghana. Each arc reads as an evocative short story and an episode in the two protagonists’ complex set of unraveled connections. This introspective exploration of first and lasting loves will hit the spot with fans of character-driven family dramas. Agent: Elise Capron, Sandra Dijkstra Literary. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/06/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Days of Afrekete

Asali Solomon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (208p) ISBN 978-0-3741-4005-2

In Rona Jaffe Award winner Solomon’s illuminating latest (after Disgruntled), two middle-aged women who were friends at Bryn Mawr reflect on sexuality, race, and selfhood. While Liselle Belmont prepares to host a dinner party for her husband, Winn, at their house in Philadelphia after his failed state legislative bid, she remembers her mother’s taunts her about her upper echelon lifestyle, habitually delivered with an “acid whoop of laughter.” On a whim, Liselle leaves a phone message with her old friend and lover Selena Octave. Solomon flashes back to the women’s years at Bryn Mawr, where they met in the school’s first Black literature course taught by a Black professor (and which was overcrowded by white students), and digs into the nuances of campus lesbianism and racial politics. Since then, Selena has been in and out of a psychiatric hospital for anxiety, and the two have fallen out of touch. Liselle reflects on her “ever twoness as the Black mistress of a tiny plantation,” complete with a housemaid, and Solomon focuses on Selena’s sensitivity to racial trauma, such as her interest in writing about the MOVE bombing in West Philadelphia in 1985. When Selena finally receives Liselle’s message, and as Liselle frets about Winn’s legal troubles, the outcome is unexpected and powerful. Solomon brings wit and incisive commentary to this pristine take on two characters’ fascinating and painful lives. Agent: Ellen Levine, Trident Media Group. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/06/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Book of Mother

Violaine Huisman, trans. from the French by Leslie Camhi. Scribner, $27 (240p) ISBN 978-1-982108-78-6

Huisman’s excellent debut chronicles the life of a charming but volatile Frenchwoman. Catherine, a manic-depressive dancer and mother of two, is as prone to fits of rage and mood swings as she is to expressing her love for her daughters. Violaine, her youngest, recounts events that took place when she was 10, in 1989. Catherine’s third marriage has failed, and she intentionally drives her car with Violaine and Violaine’s older sister, Elsa, into oncoming traffic on the Champs-Élysées. They all survive, and the girls’ father, Antoine, Catherine’s second husband, arranges with their grandmother, Jacqueline, to have her committed. Violaine then charts Catherine’s bitter relationship with Jacqueline, and Jacqueline’s own painful history, having been forced by her parents to marry her rapist, Catherine’s father, whom she manages to later leave. Though Catherine has a short leg, she trains at eight to dance just like her mother, and the pair later open rival dance schools. Later, Catherine ends her stable first marriage for the wealthy Antoine. The novel’s final section follows Violaine and Elsa, now adults, as they try to carry out Catherine’s wishes after her suicide in her Paris apartment. Huisman’s storytelling ability is immense: Violaine unfurls the wide-ranging narrative like a raconteur at a party, and develops a kaleidoscopic portrait of Catherine. This thoughtful exploration of familial trauma and love will have readers riveted. Agent: Mark Kessler, Susanna Lea. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/06/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Movement

Petra Hůlová, trans from Czech by Alex Zucker. World Editions, $16.99 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-64286-100-6

Hůlová (Three Plastic Rooms) offers a thought-provoking and disturbing dystopian tale of a feminist revolution. The Czech Republic’s “Old World” government has fallen to “The Movement,” a women-led group dedicated to decoupling men’s sexual desires from their views of women’s bodies. Unisex tracksuits are the only permitted fashion and plastic surgery is among the nation’s gravest crimes. The narrator is a guard at The Institute, a reeducation facility that aims to cure men of turning “human beings into objects whose exterior is elevated at the expense of what lies within.” Tactics there include electro-shock therapy and forcing patients to masturbate to photos of older women. While many men decry this as torture, “cured” men share their gratitude on TV. The majority of the novel is exposition, with little action until the halfway point, when a patient’s suicide prompts another guard to question The Movement. From here, the narrator speaks with a number of women who challenge her tidy image of the “New World.” This is most successful as a satirical look at gender essentialism and the difficulty of creating unity after a revolution. It’s a worthy thought experiment, but it falls short as a novel. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/06/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Prince of the Skies

Antonio Iturbe, trans. from the Spanish by Lilit Žekulin Thwaites. Macmillan/Feiwel and Friends, $19.99 (560p) ISBN 978-1-250-80698-7

Iturbe (The Librarian of Auschwitz) exuberantly tells the story of author Antoine de Saint-Expuery and his passion for flying, poetry, and beautiful women. In 1922, Saint-Ex meets fellow pilots Jean Mermoz and Henri Guillaumet, and they become pioneering aviators, opening up mail routes in North Africa and South America for Aeropostale. As the years pass, their paths cross and re-cross through crashes, rescues, deaths and enormous changes in aviation technology. Mermoz goes on to become the most famous pilot in France, and Saint-Ex a celebrated author. Both have marriages that crash and burn, and the one constant is their love of flying. When France declares war on Germany in 1939, Saint-Ex volunteers at 40 for the army and flies hazardous reconnaissance missions. Then, his American editor asks if he would like to write a children’s book for Christmas—and a literary legend is born. The author does a wonderful job of dramatizing how exhilarating and dangerous the early years of civil aviation were for a handful of bold and intrepid pilots. He also recreates in sparking fashion interwar French society. Saint-Ex, his colleagues, and their loves come to life in a novel that would do the author of The Little Prince proud. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/06/2021 | Details & Permalink

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How High?—That High

Diane Williams. Soho, $25 (128p) ISBN 978-1-64129-306-8

Williams (Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine) returns with a collection showcasing her mastery of succinct and suggestive stories. The pristine and opaque “Upper Loop” begins with a question: “I’m trying to think if there’s any reason for having fun anymore on any level?” Many of the stories seek to answer this by digging into the mundanity of aging. “Grief in Moderation” explores a woman’s loss of connection with her husband despite routine gestures of intimacy—a kiss, sharing a bed. The theme is explored further in “Feel and Hold,” which begins with observations from the narrators’ aging friends, the Rotches. They’d seen a vendor feeling and holding a cut of meat, and they contrast the action with their own lives (“When we hold a thing—I am not so sure we feel it”). Later, the narrator wryly observes of Mrs. Rotch: “Her heart gets so much assistance from a pacemaker that sometimes I think she is unable to die.” “Nick Should Be Fun to Be With” consists of snapshots of a couple’s fidelity and the dull blur of middle-class suburbia. Williams’s prose evokes both strangeness and familiarity as she gets at the core of what it means to live into one’s later years. This is by no means for everyone, but it will surely satisfy fans of well-wrought fiction. Agent: Alexis Hurley, InkWell Management. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/06/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Morning Star

Karl Ove Knausgaard, trans. from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken. Penguin Press, $30 (688p) ISBN 978-0-399-56342-3

Knausgaard’s first traditional novel since the 2008 translation of A Time for Everything offers a dark and enthralling story of the appearance of a new star. The action, which verges on horror, teems with brutalized people and animals behaving unpredictably. Arne, a teacher with a drinking problem whose bipolar wife, Tova, often disappears on long walks, observes a horde of crabs crossing the road toward the glare of the star. He and eight other narrators alternately react to the astrological event—and yet the turbulence of their home lives overrides their capacity to grasp its shocking effects. Among the players are Kathrine, a Church of Norway priest who is struggling with her marriage; Solveig, a nurse who recognizes a patient from when she was young; Jonnstein, a caustic reporter who gets a tip on a serial killer after committing adultery; and Egil, who is connected to many of the threads, and whose interpolated essay provides a dose of philosophy and one of the strongest narrative beats. Knausgaard wheels wildly and successfully through various forms. His focus on the beauty and terror of the mundane will resonate with fans of My Struggle as they traverse this marvelous, hectic terrain. For the author, it’s a marvelous new leap. Agent: Andrew Wylie, Wylie Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/06/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Last Checkmate

Gabriella Saab. Morrow, $16.99 trade paper (432p) ISBN 978-0-06-314193-3

Saab’s capable debut features a revenge plot set amidst the horrors of the Holocaust. In April 1945, three months after Maria Florkowska escaped from Auschwitz, she returns to the camp armed with a gun in order to challenge Nazi officer Lagerführer Fritzsch, who’d tormented her there, to a chess match. Flashbacks provide the backstory of their relationship: At 14, Maria, a chess prodigy, joined the Polish resistance in Warsaw, delivering blank baptismal certificates to Jews so they could avoid being sent to the death camps. On one mission, she panicked when she was confronted by German officers, and, as a result, she and her family were arrested and sent to Auschwitz. There, she was separated from them, eventually learning they were executed. She was spared because Fritzsch had been sufficiently impressed by Maria’s chess playing to allow her to survive as his regular playing partner. But when Maria learns that Fritzsch may have personally executed her family, she plots her retribution. Knowing from the outset that Maria survived the camp reduces the tension in the flashback segments, though they serve to set up a powerful crescendo. Readers who love WWII fiction with strong female leads should check this out. Agent: Kaitlyn Johnson, Belcastro Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/06/2021 | Details & Permalink

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