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The Disappearance of Mr. Nobody

Ahmed Taibaoui, trans. from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright. Hoopoe, $16.95 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-64903-214-0

Algerian writer Taibaoui makes his English-language debut with an acerbic noir involving a strange disappearance and a detective’s existential quest. The embittered unnamed narrator, a homeless man, moves in with his acquaintance Mourad’s elderly father in an Algiers suburb. Though the old man “disgusts [the narrator] with his slobber” and other symptoms of dementia, the narrator takes comfort in the man mistakenly calling him Mourad. After the old man dies, the narrator vanishes and the perspective switches to that of Rafik, the detective investigating the narrator’s disappearance as he gathers conflicting accounts of the narrator’s identity and whereabouts from café proprietor Mubarak and crooked bookseller Ousmane, who illegally sells liquor. Though Taibaoui’s prose can be overheated, the narrator delivers an occasional pearl (“Disappearing is more generous to one’s self than a phony and deceitful existence with distorted features”). Rafik’s investigation stalls, and the final act sheds a bit of light on violence involving Mubarak’s family and Ousmane’s corruption. Rafik, meanwhile, makes for an intriguing mirror image of his quarry (“he wanted to die without letting go of life,” Taibaoui writes of Rafik). Fans of Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation ought to take a look. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/16/2022 | Details & Permalink

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At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf

Tara Ison. Ig, $17.95 trade paper (296p) ISBN 978-1-63246-145-2

Ison follows Rockaway with a chilling psychological portrait of a young Jewish girl hiding in France during WWII. After 12-year-old Danielle’s father is shot dead in the street by a German soldier in 1941 for being Jewish, Danielle’s mother leaves her in the care of a couple posing as her aunt and uncle in a remote village in southern France. Now known as Marie-Jeanne, she attends the local Catholic church and school and tries to blend in. Terrified of being found out, Marie-Jeanne rehearses her false identity to the minutest detail, failing to realize that in the process she’s becoming brainwashed into collaborating with the Germans and forgetting who she really is. Then Lucien Bonnard, a young, handsome, and seemingly sympathetic Vichy official, flirts with the impressionable Marie-Jeanne, and she doesn’t realize until later that he’s tricked her into giving up her best friend, who likely ends up in Auschwitz. Finely drawn characters and scenes of rural life complement Ison’s unique vision and original spin on a familiar set-up. This challenging work stands out among historical fiction of the period. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/16/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Sing, Nightingale

Marie Hélène Poitras, trans. from the French by Rhonda Mullins. Coach House, $17.95 (192p) ISBN 978-1-55245-448-0

Poitras (Griffintown) delivers a gloomy and lyrical fairy tale set in and around Noirax, a fictional French village. Shortly after the widowed master of the Malmaison estate, referred to almost exclusively as “the father,” receives an offer from a young woman named Aliénor to revive his farm’s dwindling fortunes, his melancholy son returns home, fleeing a failed marriage. By the time Aliénor arrives—“She throws back the father’s glass of chartreuse, salutes her hosts, and sits at the head of the table, facing the boar’s head, in the patriarch’s seat”—it’s clear she has an ominous agenda, which Poitras reveals alongside Malmaison’s dark history. Generations of women have come to bad ends here, and the author bewitches the reader with her folkloric narration of their stories and Aliénor’s retribution. Though some of the prose is a bit overripe, most of Poitras’s linguistic flights land just right. References to blood, mother’s milk and other bodily fluids abound, and numerous traditional French children’s songs “both innocent and cruel” punctuate the brimming narrative. This is a feast for lovers of gothic lit. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/16/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Daughters of Madurai

Rajasree Variyar. Union Square, $27.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-4549-4876-6

Variyar explores the impact of infanticide on an Indian Australian family in her wrenching debut. In 2019 Sydney, Nila struggles with coming out to her parents as a lesbian. When she learns her paternal grandfather is terminally ill, she agrees to visit him with her parents in India. A parallel narrative set in 1990s Madurai follows Nila’s mother, Janani, as a young woman struggling with extreme poverty, an abusive mother-in-law, Vandhana; a drunken husband; and the loss of two baby girls to murder. Girls are useless, according to Vandhana, who arranges for the killing of Janani’s babies, and a woman who can’t produce a son, even more so. After Janani becomes pregnant again with another girl, she enlists the help of her friends Shubha and Sanjay (the latter of whom becomes Nila’s father when he and Janani eventually marry) and Sanjay’s aunt Priya to fight back against a tradition that would demand she murder her child. Though the love story between Sanjay and Janani is a bit drawn out, and there are some unnecessary late-breaking plot turns, the gripping account of the family’s struggle to save Nila will keep readers on the hook, as will the tension between Nila and Janani as Nila tries to find a way to share her identity. Despite its flaws, the complex mother-daughter story will move readers. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/16/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Dangerous Love

Ben Okri. Other Press, $18.99 trade paper (448p) ISBN 978-1-63542-266-5

Booker winner Okri (The Famished Road) offers American readers a sublime revision of a novel of his that was first published in the U.K., in 1982, under the title The Landscapes Within. In the early 1970s, a young man named Omovo has dreams of becoming an artist after the Nigerian civil war. Fellow residents of his low-income housing compound, all of whom attempt to find their way in a violent society, mock him as “painter boy,” and his intolerant father, Okur, threatens to throw him out. What’s more, his artwork is stolen and he’s distressed over the murder of a local girl. He begins an affair with an unhappy married woman named Ifeyiwa, with whom he’s able to share his deepest feelings and dreams of the future, but threats from Ifeyiwa’s husband hang over their heads. Okri immerses the reader in the quotidian struggles of his characters, such as elderly painter and mentor Dr. Okocha, and Omovo’s stepmother, Blackie, who treads gingerly around Okur in her attempts to forge a maternal bond with Omovo. Okri’s beautiful prose has the cadence of poetry and a singular voice (“An uncertain rain drizzled. The sky was in a bad mood”), and he conveys the lives of his supporting characters with specificity and economy. With its casting of a microcosm in epic proportions, this stands as one of Okri’s most powerful and accessible works. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/16/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Lesser Islands

Lorenza Pieri, trans. from the Italian by Donatella Melucci et al. Europa, $17 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-60945-825-6

Six translators deliver an uneven family saga from Pieri (The Garden of Monsters). During summers on the tiny Italian island of Giglio, in the Tyrrhenian Sea, the parents of narrator Teresa are preoccupied with managing their hotel, so Teresa spends most of her time with her bright but bratty older sister, Caterina. In 1976,when they’re young girls, their mother, Elena, coordinates protests against the government’s exile of two neofascists charged with a bombing in Milan to the island, efforts that only succeed temporarily. Six years later, Caterina goes to boarding school in Florence, and Teresa picks up on their parents’ increasingly strained marriage. During the summer, the sisters recapture a degree of their childhood closeness, but their father’s infidelity brings new ruptures to the family. In the final sections, set from the late 1990s through 2012, when the cruise ship Costa Concordia runs aground, Teresa deals with unexpected changes in her life and surprises herself by embracing her family members’ devotion to hospitality. The time jumps feel disjointed, and the thread involving the accused bombers is a bit convoluted, though Pieri has a sure hand in conveying Teresa’s adolescent unease and curiosity. Pieri’s island novel is a bit like island hopping, in that some stops are more rewarding than others. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/16/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Diary of a Malayali Madman

N. Prabhakaran, trans. from the Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil. Deep Vellum, $16.95 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-64605-207-3

Prabhakaran makes his English-language debut with a twisty collection featuring Indian characters on the margins. The protagonist of “Wild Goat,” presumed by others to be mentally disabled, becomes an unwilling pawn in his brother’s political ambitions. In “Tender Coconut,” a psychologist fixates on a patient’s story about how the patient was allegedly barred from a temple after befriending one of the temple’s unmarried priestesses. When the psychologist tries to find the temple, he learns more about his patient’s strange habits. In “Pigman,” an accountant goes to work on a pig farm, where the farmers contend with a mysterious disease and competition from a new farm. The novella-length “Invisible Forests” follows the life of an unmarried teacher. Along with monologues about her frustrations with students, which unfurl in one-sided conversations, she recounts with an unsettling detachment political violence and an alarming number of local suicides. The title story follows the circuitous diary of Aagney, who aspires to be a writer like Gogol, but his habit of talking to animals leads to his imprisonment and beatings as a suspected goat thief. Though some might find the stories too aimless, patient readers will appreciate the strange atmosphere and unsettling developments. Fans of contemporary Indian literature ought to take a look. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/16/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Playhouse

Richard Bausch. Knopf, $29 (352p) ISBN 978-0-451-49484-9

Bausch (Before, During, After) delves into the dramas of a Memphis theater company in his intriguing if slow-going latest. While the Shakespeare Theater plans a production of King Lear to fund a lavish ongoing renovation, the lives of the main characters fall apart. Theater manager Thaddeus Deerforth’s wife, Gina Donato, the company’s chief set designer, considers ending their marriage, and Thaddeus wonders if her closeness to Reuben Frye, the visiting director in charge of their Lear, is to blame. Longtime lead actor Claudette Bradley is struggling to care for her father, a retired history teacher with memory loss, when her increasingly erratic actor ex-husband returns to Memphis after failing to find work in Los Angeles. There’s also former TV anchorman Malcolm Ruark, who lost his job after he caused an accident while driving drunk with his underage niece Mona Greer. Now divorced and unemployed, Malcolm attempts to start fresh by accepting a role in the play, but his efforts are complicated when Frye casts Mona as Cordelia. As Thaddeus, Claudette, and Malcolm reimagine their lives, the theater’s reconstruction comes to an unexpected end. Despite a meandering start, the novel offers a rewarding homage to both literary and human drama. It’s a little slack, but even so this will have special appeal to theater lovers. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/16/2022 | Details & Permalink

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On the Savage Side

Tiffany McDaniel. Knopf, $29 (464p) ISBN 978-0-593-32070-9

McDaniel’s stunning latest (after Betty) draws on a string of real-life unsolved murders and disappearances in Chillicothe, Ohio. The economically depressed town reeks of funk from the paper mill and an equally pungent stench of despair. Twin sisters Arcade and Daffy retreat into their fierce imaginations while growing up in the 1980s, despite their parents being addicted to heroin. Their resilience persists even after their father dies from an overdose: Daffy shows promise as a swimmer and poet, Arcade as an amateur archaeologist. By the time the two become teens, they too succumb to heroin addiction and turn to sex work to support their habit. They form fervent friendships with a group of other young women, calling themselves the “Chillicothe Queens,” though their “crowns” are the blissful highs of heroin. After a woman turns up dead in the river, followed by others including some of the twins’ friends, Arcade grows increasingly desperate to save them from a similar fate. McDaniel portrays the twins and the others in their group as almost preternaturally bright, full of knowledge and wonder, making for an aching contrast to their traumas of addiction, abuse, violence, and loss. It’s a striking portrayal of women fighting for their lives, and one readers won’t soon forget. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/16/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Stone Blind

Natalie Haynes. Harper, $27.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-325839-6

Haynes (A Thousand Ships) reframes the story of Medusa from Greek mythology as one of victim-shaming in this sharp retelling. Haynes recasts Medusa, the only mortal from a family of gods, not as a monster but as survivor of rape by Poseidon, whose wife, Athena, then punishes her for it. As Medusa deals with her new life with a head of snakes and a gaze that turns people to stone, Haynes interjects by addressing the reader with a question: “I’m wondering if you still think of her as a monster.... I suppose it depends on what you think that word means.” Haynes’s inventive reappraisal extends to her narrative devices, including rueful passages from the perspective of Medusa’s severed head (“I have a much lower opinion of mortal men than [the living Medusa] did, for reasons which I would assume were obvious”), and she invites the reader into Medusa’s point of view with rich sensory details: “She could hear the cormorants arguing with the gulls and she knew exactly which rocks they had perched on before picking their quarrel.” Even before the plot builds toward Perseus’s pursuit of Medusa, Hayes conveys an urgency to Medusa’s life as a mortal woman among vengeful gods. Fans of feminist retellings will love this. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/16/2022 | Details & Permalink

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