Salvage the Bones, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 2011, is the profoundly harrowing story of a young teenage girl, Esch, and her father and brothers, as they prepare to face a hurricane threatening to upend their lives in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. It is a story about what it means to be black and poor in the South today, about burgeoning sexuality, about family and community and secrets, about the destructive power of nature.
Jesmyn Ward is a master of language and narrative, with a sharp, uncanny ability to craft a world that glitters with realness and chafes with grit. Her characters seem to emerge from a deep well of human understanding, they are nuanced and determined, tender and fierce, each one a survivor, hardened by the painful difficulties of life. Salvage the Bones houses both brilliance and heavy sorrow, what an intense and necessary book.
Rodrigo Hasbún’s Affections is a quick, dark, and calculated novel about family and politics. Set in Bolivia after WWII, and based on real historical figures, the narrative follows the German Ertl family, father Hans and two of his daughters, on an expedition into the Amazon, and beyond.
The Ertl family provides Hasbún with great fodder for his story. In Germany, Hans Ertl had worked with Leni Riefenstahl as a Nazi propaganda cinematographer. After WWII, he fled the country with his family, relocating in Bolivia where he made expedition documentaries, and eventually became a farmer. His daughter, Monika Ertl, became a guerrilla fighter after joining up with the remnants of Che Guevara’s army.
While there is a precise elegance to Hasbún’s writing, and the history of the Ertl family is intriguing, the novel, composed of vignettes told from various perspectives, felt limited and disjointed, and lacked an emotional nucleus.
Most girls, at some point in adolescence, survive a best friend breakup. Most women I know have been through multiple friend breakups: new friends are made, interests change. A certain rite of passage, it can be sad, heartbreaking even, yet inevitable. The Burning Girl is the story of a broken friendship between two young teenage girls, friends since preschool. The foundation of this friendship, however, felt stilted and false, totally ungrounded emotionally. It’s hard to mourn a broken friendship if that friendship doesn’t ring true and is just simply boring.
I’ve never been able to get into Messud’s writing (I hated the characters in The Emperor’s Children and couldn’t even make it half way through), though friends, whose opinions I trust, love her. In this, Messud’s astute adult voice underscores the thoughts and observations of her young teenage protagonist making her character’s inner dialogue too insightful for her age and completely unbelievable. Messud’s adult perspective in this teenage narrative, and the lack of real emotion evoked by the characters or the plot, made this one of my least favorite books of the year.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a novel built on love and desire, heartbreak, and astounding coincidence (characters with unknown ties cross paths again and again and again). It’s the life story of Cyril Avery, born to a teenage girl pushed out of her close-knit community in rural Ireland for being pregnant. Cyril is adopted by wealthy and eccentric Mr. and Mrs. Avery and his youth is marked by loneliness and longing.
While Cyril is trying to establish his identity and purpose in life, he’s a pretty unlikable character. Once Cyril settles into his skin and becomes the person he’s meant to be, the novel picks up speed and I found I was more engaged and sympathetic to his story. His story is very readable, and by the end I felt a genuine closeness to the quirky, flawed characters of Boyne’s imagination.
Mr. Smith, the protagonist of Francis Spufford’s historical novel Golden Hill, set in small-town 18th century New York City, is a mystery. Neither the characters around this aptly named any man, nor the reader for that matter knows what he’s about when he shows up in New York newly off the boat from England with a note for a large sum of money to be paid by a particular man at a well-known counting house. The money can’t be paid out immediately, so Mr. Smith goes about his mysterious business, making friends and enemies, getting into trouble with the locals, all the while staying mum on his identity and his mission.
Throughout this novel, the question lingers: who is this Mr. Smith? When Mr. Smith’s purpose is revealed, finally, I wished Spufford had spent more time on that story than building a complete narrative out of Mr. Smith’s mysterious circumstances. As a whole, Golden Hill, quickly paced, smartly written, and rich with historical touchstones, offers a glimpse of early life in America and the makings of a complicated nation.
Imagine a story in which two lovers exist outside gendered norms, their identities not defined by sex or gender but rather given shape by the affection and desire they share.
That story is realized in Sphinx, a fascinating book written under Oulipian* constraint, in which French author Anne Garréta walks a linguistic tightrope, building an experimental love story narrative around two central, genderless characters.
As impressed as I was by Garréta’s ability to construct this narrative, I was equally impressed by Emma Ramadan’s translation of the text from French. Ramadan’s translator’s note at the end of Sphinx addresses the task of having to rewrite parts of Garréta’s text to stay true to the constraint in English and the nature of writing with a gendered language. From Ramadan’s note: “Garréta believed that equality could not exist within a language that puts the two genders in opposition to each other, and so created a language and a world in which amorous relationships are not determined by a binary of distinction.”
*”[t]he adjective Oulipian is retrofitted from the name OuLiPo which stands for ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or workshop for potential literature: a collective established in Paris in 1960 with the purpose of exploring and exploiting the generative literary potential of linguistic, mathematical, and scientific structures — which lots of the time, is a fancy way of saying the use of constraints as a writing aid.” from the Introduction to Sphinx by Daniel Levin Becker
Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes the Sun, called “a lithe, artfully-plotted debut” and the “ultimate antibeach novel” by Jennifer Senior in her review in The New York Times is a good, solid read.
Set in and around a Montego Bay resort in Jamaica, the plot revolves around two sisters: Margot who works long hours at the resort while also turning tricks for tourists and those in the hotel who can further her career, and academically promising high school student Thandi, whose education is being paid by her big sister Margot. Each of these young women hides an inner tumult – for Margot it’s her love for another woman, and for Thandi it’s a desire to be released from her academic path – from each other and from their community.
Rich and evocative, with threads of race and class, sex and sexuality, and family and identity layered throughout, Here Comes the Sun is as much about a complex Jamaica and her people as it is about the relationship between these two complicated sisters. I’m interested to read what Dennis-Benn writes next.
Available November 2017
The End We Start From begins with the birth of a child called Z, born in a storm-flooded near-future London to a woman and R, her partner. Z is both the end of the alphabet and a beginning; a child born to a new generation, one that will come of age in a dystopian UK where transience is necessary and survival is key.
Megan Hunter’s brief and lyrical first novel beautifully explores themes of motherhood, survival, death and renewal, and home, while layering in all-too-real environmental terror and post-apocalyptic realism. It’s minimal and poetic. A strong debut.
Conspiracy of Ravens is the second in Lila Bowen’s The Shadow series starring Nettie Lonesome. Conspiracy of Ravens picks up right where Wake of Vultures ends; Nettie, now fully identifying as Rhett Hennessy, gathers his strength in the wilds of Bowen’s fantastical Southwest and sets out with his posse to hunt evil, monsters and men, as the Shadow.
I loved Wake of Vultures and liked Conspiracy of Ravens. Both are surprising, intense, bloody, and groundbreaking, though Bowen’s plot blocking and narrative structure started to feel formulaic and mechanical in this second book.
The transformation of Bowen’s mixed-race trans hero/ine, from Nettie to Rhett, from gritty boyish girl to the Shadow, offers a new and refreshing coming-of-age story in a genre where so many main characters in fantasy are young white cis men who go to wizard school and discover their great magic skills.