Carolyn Forché was well known as a poet before she published this memoir, which took her over a decade to write. Hers was always a poetry of engagement, and of testimony. There was always a blend of urgency--an urgency called forth by the subject--and of distance: the distance of another country, another language, a lapse in time of, and the distance of an intellect wording emotion. What You Have Heard Is True exhibits the same sensibility in a narrative mode, and it's every bit as powerful as the poetry. Forché is approached out of the blue by one Leonel Gómez Vides, a coffee farmer turned organizer and activist, who has a network of contacts from diplomats to campesinos in the El Salvador of the late 70s. He shows up at Forché's door in California and persuades her to ride around the Salvadoran countryside with him as he goes about his mysterious work; she is urged to see details, and to understand how people live; occasionally she shares their conditions. Just observing is harrowing; one wonders how a sheltered young academic from El Norte endured it. But she does some very brave things, which almost nothing else in her life prepared her for. Her sojourns in El Salvador's shape the rest of her life. This book is a labor of love, memory, witness-- and exquisite craft.
Late in the Day --Tessa Hadley
Tessa Hadley is a master stylist. Her prose is silken, or, to vary the metaphor, it goes down like expensive single-malt. Her sentences have a musical variety and rhythm to them, unusual in a time when prose is becoming more and more standardized. Late in the Day is the story of two couples, who have known each other since their youth. The death of one of the quartet opens up fault lines among the others. Hadley eschews obvious emotional drama for astute, nuanced psychological subtley; she's able to do this in part because her characters are highly educated, articulate and have rich and cultivated inner lives. You can call Late in the Day a bourgeois novel if you must, but it's one of the most quietly intelligent novels in years.
It’s probable that Flights could only have been written by a European. There’s an historical range of reference to it, a philosophical sensibility, and certain world-weary irony hard to find in American fiction. Its leitmotivs are two: travel, and the body. Like a number of other contemporary authors—Knausgaard comes to mind, also Rachel Cusk—Tocarczuk resists traditional narrative, so the book is a patchwork of forms: micro-narratives (some of them long short stories), as well as aphorism, philosophical rumination, historical remembrance, anatomical exposition, and travel description. Throughout the book, there’s the sense of a subtle mind at work and an enigmatic hidden depth that provokes a desire to read it again once you’ve finished it.
Go Went Gone, along with Exit West, is one of the most thoughtful books on the subject of immigration and displacement in the last year. Unlike Hamid's book, which operates from the immigrants' point of view, Jenny Erpenbeck's story focuses on a retired Berlin professor of classics named Richard, who encounters a group of African refugees camped out in a city square in Berlin. Almost without his conscious volition, he keeps visiting this group as they are shunted to various locations in the city and given minimal shelter and resources. He begins to forge fragile and tentative relations with various individuals, and his relationships with them becomes central to his life. In Erpenbeck's hands the book manages to think not only about immigration but about recent German history and even about the intersections between classical and African history. This elliptical book glimmers with intelligence and will make thoughts collide in one's mind.
In these intricate stories, John Berger provides a space in which place, companionship and memory meet and interweave. Each is named after a city, and we come to believe that the incidents described there could have happened in no other place. Berger’s prose has the limpidity and depth of clear water, with an irrepressible joy and energy to it; it gives a sense of the quicksilver fleetingness of experience. Berger has packed a lifetime of distilled understanding and wisdom into these pieces. They show forth a luminous way of being in the world.
China Miéville is an extraordinarily inventive writer, but this is perhaps his most extraordinary book yet. He is one of the leading practitioners of the genre called the "New Weird," alternate places where different rules, physical, social, aesthetic, religious and moral obtain. He explores these fictional places with an unmatched delicacy and feel for the uncanny. In This Census-Taker, the narrator is one who has survived the story he's telling, and his voice bears the traces of what he's been through. He was a boy in an isolated mountain community, with a loving but slightly remote mother and an increasingly strange father. He witnesses some of his father's acts and becomes more and more afraid of him. What gives the father his strange power, and is this boy, who commands our entire sympathy, really right about what he sees? Is he in control of his own strange gifts? A quiet, spare and gorgeous tale that packs a retrospective wallop.
One of the great virtues of Ben Lerner’s second novel is its ability to show, through the lens of an exceptionally intelligent protagonist, that the contemporary Western urban world can offer material for high-level thought and for non-standardized experience. Although the novel has a trajectory of sorts, it’s not about what happens, but how it registers and what it becomes in a mind that’s equal to it. Almost every page of this marvelous novel makes us see the the things around us--the cityscape, art, other people—as more complex and subtle than our habitual reactions give them credit for. Lerner’s ruminative, sometimes generous, wonderfully observant protagonist is the perfect vehicle to show us a richer, less reductive, way to take in a world that can sometimes be an assault on the intelligence and the senses.
Read a few pages of this novel, and you'll begin to feel you've lived in Bohane all your life, tramped its winding back streets, talked its talk, run with its gangs, believed in its myth. It's the story of a gang boss who's testing his power base. Rumor has it that his old rival is back in town, jockeying for his perch. You quickly develop an affection for the streetwise, hardboiled denizens of this town who care so passionately about style. And after awhile, you'll go around speaking their dialect, which is one of the supreme delights in recent fiction.
The Informers explores the linked lives of a colony of exiled Germans in Colombia during the Second World War. Decades later, a son of one of those Germans delves into the story of a friend's family and discovers his father's role in that story. Intelligent, complex in structure and in moral feeling, the novel is a subtle exploration of different shades of guilt, and invites us to think about the line between the search for truth and violation of the lives of others. Not unlike Bolaño, Vasquez takes incidents from his country's turbulent political past and makes from them intensely riveting fiction.
I Hotel is a fictional account of the lives of Asian-American activists in the late 60s and early 70s. Mirroring the fearless experimentalism of the time, Yamashita tells the story using a mix of narrative, drama, and real and fictionalized documentary passages; the writing is consistently energetic, unexpected, and compelling. The story, based in many instances on actual incidents, traces the intertwined lives of a generation of Chinese, Japanese, Pilipino, and Korean revolutionaries, in their contradictions and complexities, their elegant hipness, their naivete, their courage. She brings to light intriguing parallels between the then-emerging Black Power movement and the Asian activists. For those who remember these years, the revolutionary rhetoric will bring back an era now lost. A refreshing change from the usual mainstream offerings.
Terse, fast-paced, and smart, Wolf Hall chronicles the rise of Thomas Cromwell, a shrewd man of affairs who made himself indispensable first to Cardinal Wolsey and then to Henry VIII himself. He witnessed, and in some cases brought about, some pivotal events in English history: the fall of Wolsey, King Henry’s contested marriage to Anne Boleyn, and the execution of Sir Thomas More. In this subtly-shaded, morally complex narrative, Cromwell emerges as likeable, unflappable, and ruthless, a consummate backroom player on whom nothing is lost.
Permeated with the sounds and scents of Malaya, with its jumble of Chinese, British and Malay cultures, this extraordinary novel is narrated by Philip Hutton, half English and half Chinese. It's set in the late thirties, when Japan is invading China and working its way toward Malaya. Endo-san, an enigmatic Japanese teacher of aikido, comes to inhabit an island near Philip's home, and he instructs Philip in aikido and its spiritual discipline. A strong bond of friendship grows up between the two. But when Japan invades his country, Philip's close relationship to a Japanese endangers his prominent family, causing painfully divided loyalties. The novel combines sensuous specificity with a calm clarity that may owe something to the spirit of aikido that pervades the narrative. And you'll remember the friedship between Philip and the mysterious and highly attractive Endo-san long after you close the book.
If you want a smart novel that's not depressing, overflows with verbal energy, impish wit, and a Shakespearean embrace of life, Wise Children is your book. Told in the sprightly voice of an aging song-and-dance trouper, it's a snappy comedy about an English show-biz family (from both sides of the blanket) and its several sets of twins. Along the way, Angela Carter (the late, great, and incomparable) has shrewd things to say about class divisions and family ties. Outrageous coincidences and plot reversals abound--but then, when your model is Shakespearean comedy, you have a certain license.
The protagonist of this compelling novel is the nationally famous Danish clown Kasper Krone, who is blessed with the ability to "hear" the vibrations of personalities (as well as with an outrageous amount of sheer cool under pressure.) He undertakes to rescue an extraordinary young girl named KlaraMaria, who shares Krone's abilities and is wanted by the Danish government. The Quiet Girl combines the airily cerebral with the elegantly violent, and is sprinkled with nimble wit, Kierkegaardian philosophical musings, and Mission-Impossible effects.
This is the story of Cipriano Algor, a simple potter, his daughter Marta and her husband. Deprived of his usual livelihood by a decree from the Center, the slightly mysterious commercial and administrative complex which used to buy his goods, Cipriano and his family embark on a new career--making ceramic dolls. How this changes their relationship to the Center begins to become clearer as mysterious sounds of digging come from beneath their apartment, and what they find transforms the family's life. This book is deeply memorable,not only for its haunting, allegorical quality that teases the intellect, but also for the profound affection one develops for its characters.