Winter Lit Roundup 2016
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue Publication Date: September 20, 2016 Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
The Wonder, Emma Donoghue’s ninth novel, is historical fiction at its most literary.
Elizabeth Wright, or “Lib,” as she’s known, is a Florence Nightingale-trained nurse hired by a small Irish village for a two-week post. Her job: To observe—and only observe—Anna O’Donnell, who claims to have not eaten anything since her eleventh birthday four months earlier. At the end of the two-week post, Lib is to report her observations back to the village committee convened to determine whether or not Anna’s apparent fast is a miracle from God. Anna prays constantly and claims she’s been living off “manna from heaven.” Her parents exalt her as holy and anointed by God. Religious pilgrims come from all over the world to meet and touch the wonder. Even the village doctor theorizes that something miraculous and God-driven is at work: Anna’s possibly living off air, or converting sunlight into energy, or becoming reptilian. With her English, secular, and medical training, Lib sees this mystery as nothing more than a religious hoax perpetrated for money or fame, and she takes up her post ready to be the lone voice for sanity in this backwater village ruled by Catholic dogma and pagan superstition.
As the novel—and Lib’s two-week appointment—unfold, Lib finds herself stumped by the veracity of Anna’s fast, by her continued health, and by her own affection for the little girl who she expected to uncover as a “little liar.” It isn’t until the second week, when Anna’s health begins to fail rapidly and fatally, that Lib realizes both her complicity in allowing Anna to fall deeper into malnutrition, and her responsibility, as a nurse and as an adult who loves Anna, to save the little girl from own confused, religious convictions.
Woven into the central narrative are Lib’s past experiences with the Crimean war, a previous marriage that left her widowed, and a love interest with the journalist from Dublin reporting on Anna’s fast. Details from Lib’s past are used well in the narrative: dispensed sparsely and with the purpose of coloring her thoughts, attitudes, decisions, etc. The love story, however, is less convincing. While the journalist, William Byrne, was a bright character in this dark novel, the love story that he and Lib were grafted into seemed, at first, superfluous to the narrative arc, then all too conveniently necessary. In a story about a young child intentionally starving herself, Lib’s reluctant crush and Byrne’s willing reciprocation is a note of comfort. But does the reader really need comforting?
The tensions central to this novel aren’t meant to be comfortable. A young girl starves herself because she believes it’s what her God requires of her. A mother encourages her daughter’s harmful decisions. A doctor reasons away all signs of death in his patient. A priest refuses to conflict the religious ideology that has Anna starving herself. A whole community treats a child like an object to experiment on. When the reason for Anna’s fast is finally revealed, Lib confronts the pain of a child, wronged and unprotected, and the tensions of devotion to duty and duty to compassion.
This is my strongest criticism of The Wonder: While Donoghue draws out themes of faith and devotion, she leaves the reader very little space to dwell on them. Between the suspense of the plot, the unspooling love story, and the laser-focus hunt to discover the trick behind Anna’s fast, there’s little room left for the reader to grapple with these complexities. Where The Wonder succeeds is in the strength of its characters and on the mystery of its plot. It is a well-paced, well-developed, well-articulated piece of historical drama that gives a complex female voice power, determination, and agency. Even if Donoghue didn’t pose the challenge that I want out of a novel, you can’t fight her for writing a story worth reading.
—Torrie Jay White
The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George Publication Date: October 17, 2016 Publisher: Dorothy
The five stories contained in The Babysitter at Rest prove Jen George to be a singular voice with a keen insight into what it means to be young and female. There is much to admire about the collection, but George’s crowning achievement may be that each setting is so specific, each central character so fully conceived, and each story so strangely and beautifully unique, yet the central stumbling blocks, hopes, and pains are immediately resonant.
Take for example the collection’s first story, “Guidance/The Party.” The premise of the piece defies convention. In the first half, an ethereal, genderless, alcoholic, acerbic “Guide” instructs a 33-year-old woman to host a party to demonstrate adulthood; the second follows the resulting event. The voice is witty, conversational yet removed, unusual in its own right. But the unnamed woman’s desires, doubts, and the overwhelming sense of self-criticism that carries throughout the piece are undeniably shaped, or even induced, by societal pressures, and as such are inherently, instantly familiar. This undercurrent of pure truth in the emotions of George’s characters serves to effectively ground each story, even as many of them spiral in increasingly surreal directions, and it’s this element that makes the collection so deeply affecting.
All five stories, underneath their disparate settings and central conceits, deal with the struggles of young women moving into adulthood, and so there is some degree of repetition from one piece to the next. Nearly all of them feature older men who look at young women as objects of sexual pleasure, using and subsequently discarding them. This is an understandable theme; it reflects both the way that society as a whole treats young women and the way that many individual men do. And George, whose writing treats the subject with a bracing mixture of candid, brutal, matter-of-fact explicitness and heightened, surreal scenarios, writes astoundingly well on the subject. Yet after several stories in a row, one begins to wonder if the topic would perhaps be better served by one longer piece, in order to more fully explore the dynamic without feeling quite so repetitive.
Still, if a short story collection’s biggest flaw is that it makes the reader long for a novel from the author, that’s not such a bad thing. And taken individually, each story in The Babysitter at Rest stands as a gorgeous work in its own right. George’s prose is captivating, the specificity of her details and the surrealism of her settings is fascinating, and the stories are deeply affecting. Few books in recent years have brought me such a mixture of pleasure and deeply resonant pain. That this is George’s full-length debut only makes her achievement all the more impressive; I look forward to seeing what she does next.
The Boat Rocker by Ha Jin Publication Date: October 25, 2016 Publisher: Pantheon
Ha Jin introduces readers to the chaotic world of politically subversive publishing in his latest novel, The Boat Rocker. Jin tells the story of reporter Feng Danlin, a Chinese immigrant to the United States who writes a column for a small news agency which has grown famous for its criticism of the Communist regime in China. Our narrator attracts readers through his fiery attacks on his homeland’s treatment of its people. He is a “boat rocker” and doesn’t stop short of the entire truth, regardless of how insignificant that truth might seem.
Danlin’s life changes when his new assignment is to investigate his ex-wife, Yan Haili. Haili just landed her big break as a novelist, but Danlin feels her book exploits the attacks of September 11, is creating publicity from fabrications, and is secretly funded by the Chinese government. To make matters worse, the book is a pulpy romance novel. He feels the lies about the book need to be exposed, and he worries that making such a piece of rubbish a bestseller would bring embarrassment to the Chinese at home and abroad. However, Haili’s backers hold considerable sway with the Chinese government, which already hates Danlin, and their counter-attack creates turmoil in Danlin’s life, testing his commitment to publishing the truth, no matter the consequences.
Jin raises a number of questions in this work, but he does so in a natural way, the way we ask ourselves questions throughout the day. Danlin thinks deeply and tells every gross detail of his life to the reader. The character of Danlin is frustrating because he is the best and worst parts of most of us. At times, you admire his courage. At times, you despise his self-praise disguised as self-deprecation. “If only I could sell my soul without a qualm! If only I could be happy with nothing more than fine food and wine. If only I were still an obedient child or a credulous fool.” This is the narrator’s battle cry throughout the book: Look at me, I’m a martyr! You can’t help but sympathize with him, though. He’s a man who left his native land because it limited his freedom, but most of his friends and family are still in that Matrix, controlled and submissive. He’s awakened from the dream only to find most other people prefer to sleep.
The book jacket description uses the words “darkly funny” to describe the novel. This might surprise longtime readers, since Jin isn't famous for satire. It’s important that you don’t lose that phrase while you read, though. The novel verges on melodramatic. While political, the central event of the story is the publishing of a romance novel, and it’s comical how quickly the plot goes from a story of petty vengeance to the story of a political and social fiasco. If you're reading it purely as the memoir of a reporter embattled with a tyrannical government, you might find the novel to be over-the-top. If you realize that Jin is weaving a humorous commentary on both modern politics and modern art into his drama, the book is an informative, entertaining work of satire.
At times,The Boat Rocker reads like the two smartest kids in a liberal arts program got into an argument on social media, and that argument lasted 222 pages. Readers may feel that Danlin takes himself too seriously, but while the political commentary isn’t subtle, it’s also not aggressive. Jin is able to develop his points without losing his plot, and readers may come to love Danlin not for his politics but for his humanity. He’s not just sparring with the corruption of the Chinese government: He’s figuring out if he wants to start a family one day and recovering from the wounds of his divorce. The writer expertly mixes heartache and humor with a commentary on international politics. He dances through issues of which many Western readers are ignorant and invites us to look further, to care, and to take action.
Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce Publication Date: November 1, 2016 Publisher: Farrar Straus and Giroux
Kelly Luce’s Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail holds a special place in my heart. The book was released shortly after I moved to Austin from Japan, and its stories of life in that country brought me back to my time abroad. Luce, who had also lived in Japan, seemed to be writing directly to my interests and experience. But I was not the only one charmed by her debut. The stories, with their magical infusions lodged within universal portraits of humanity, won rave reviews from readers of all backgrounds. Luce had achieved a rare feat: she had channeled the essence of Japanese culture without reducing it to stereotype, using it as inspiration for tales that did not rely on their Japanese settings, but were strengthened by them. Unlike other Western representations of the country, such as the Sofia Coppola film Lost in Translation, Luce’s book did not present Japan as a perplexing bauble to be marveled at. Instead, the myths and magic of her stories stood on their own against the backdrop of the country, rather than as byproducts of it.
Now we have Luce’s debut novel, and it, too, takes place in Japan. But unlike its predecessor, Pull Me Under does not share in the joy of Japanese culture. In fact, it does the opposite: it presents the pain of living in Japan as a foreigner. This makes it a rather difficult read. Rio Silvestri, a.k.a. Chizuru Akitani, was a child murderer. After her mother committed suicide, Rio snapped at the school bully and stabbed him with a letter opener. Her father, Hiro Akitani, a renowned Japanese violinist, disowned her, and she spent her youth living at a center for troubled youth, until she was released under promise to leave the country.
“You are lucky to live in such a refined, compassionate country… The court would like to hear you thank your father’s country, the great nation of Japan,” the judge says, before granting her freedom. He then berates her mother for being “‘American’… pronouncing the word like she’d found something disgusting in her teeth.” The exchange reflects the feelings that Americans sometimes experience living in Japan, as all foreigners must occasionally feel in their adopted countries. But it makes for an uncomfortable read.
Such characterization colors the majority of Luce’s novel. Rio vilifies her Japanese father, who abandoned her, and lionizes her American mother, who we never really see. Rio’s classmates never liked her because she was overweight and hafu: half Japanese, half white. In light of everything, her poisonous attitude may be justified, but at some expense of credulity. The juxtaposition between the Chizuru we see in memories and the grown Rio’s interior monologue never feels fully believable. A nurse with a penchant for running, she lives more or less happily with her milquetoast, puzzle-loving husband and her young daughter, Lily. Rio Silvestri, inexplicably, is boring.
In contrast we have Rio’s old English teacher, Miss Danny. The two meet up when Rio returns to Japan to attend her father’s funeral. Miss Danny’s presence is vivid and refreshing, and her time with Rio makes for the most interesting part of the novel. But their relationship is never given the space it needs to develop the depth that it deserves. This is true of many of the characters’ interactions, which are mostly told of and rarely shown.
Luce’s intimate knowledge of Japan, combined with her ability to craft a smooth narrative, makes this an easy and occasionally rewarding read. But where her debut collection was eminently commendable, Pull Me Under is a difficult tale that twists itself up too tightly and never really unfolds. Readers unfamiliar (or uninterested) in Japanese culture will find it doubly difficult to grasp on to, but a certain audience will enjoy this peculiar portrait of an outsider in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada Publication Date: November 8, 2016 Publisher: New Directions
Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Yoko Tawada’s fifth translated work, is a satirical fable—a work of surreal amusement starring three generations of famous polar bears living among humans and trying to piece together the world’s absurdities.
The first bear, the grandmother, is a well-known writer from Russia, unknowingly exiled to West Germany. Here, her publishers advise her to continue writing in her “mother tongue,” despite her cute confusion: “I’ve never spoken with my mother… I don’t think (she) spoke Russian.” Tawada, a Japanese native and multilinguist who has lived in Germany since her 20s, can sympathize: she often refuses to confine herself to one language. In the case of Memoirs of a Polar Bear, she alternated between German and Japanese before translating herself and publishing a German and a Japanese version. When New Directions requested to work with the Japanese version, Tawada suggested the German one instead, for it had already been translated into a Western language.
A similarly comical East/West narrative moves as a common thread through all three of the characters’ memoirs. Once the grandmother finally decides to emigrate to a “cold” country—Canada—she reflects: “I’d already escaped from the East to the West. But how can one escape from the West to the West?” In the second memoir, her daughter Tosca becomes a circus star in the German Democratic Republic, where Russian politicians don’t notice she’s “not from the Soviet Union, but Canada.” Tosca then bears the real-life polar bear Knut, born in the Berlin Zoo after German Reunification. In the novel’s third memoir, visitors and zoo inhabitants label Knut with a different set of national identities: a real Berliner from the North Pole.
Placing her polar bears in these transcultural, very human spaces, Tawada satirizes the fixed identities we create. Yet in Tawada’s realm, the characters and their stories are more lovable than ridiculous—polar bears reach for champagne, read Kafka, watch soap operas, reflect on human rights, and go on strike. They are capitalists and communists.
Memoirs of a Polar Bear can be read as a fable, but it’s also a political satire of the Cold War period, in the style of George Orwell. Even polar bears in the circus are subject to a socialist moral realism on stage, and Tosca’s acrobatics and the grandmother’s writings are perhaps answers to a revolution. Knut is the victim of East German mothering and a national icon for a reunified Germany.
While each bear’s memoir can be read on its own, together they transform language into a malleable concept whose homogeneity, like our identities, can be twisted and combined. Here, circus acrobats also serve as a metaphor for Tawada and her bears—balancing between languages and identities. This makes the novel feel like a translation at times; however, this has little to do with Susan Bernofsky’s translation but is rather because Tawada inscribes a delightful weirdness in her writing. Her wordplay and metaphors, where conversations can have “too much side salad” and editing is like “adding bodily fluids,” add doses of the humor that she is known for.
Renowned for her novellas and short essays, this 250-page book is bigger than anything we’ve seen from Tawada—as big in form and prowess as a polar bear. Anyone who knows Knut’s story can guess how the novel will end; yet by blurring fact and fiction, Tawada again tramples genres and our expectations.
—Katie Lauren Bruton
Swing Time by Zadie Smith Publication Date: November 15, 2016 Publisher: Penguin Press
Zadie Smith’s much-anticipated fifth novel Swing Time tells the story of two mixed-race girls growing up in the housing projects of North London: their differences, their jealousies, and their genuine love for one another. Tracey and the narrator (whose name we never learn) meet in dance class at the age of seven. From the beginning, their shared passion for dance links them, but only Tracey has the talent to continue.
This is the first of many societal and class differences that will come to intrude upon their girlhood friendship. Tracey might be the fiery leader of the pair, but her home life is not as stable or as educated as the narrator’s. Meanwhile, the narrator’s mother disapproves of Tracey’s influence on her daughter’s life, and she disapproves of dance as a profession. So the girls grow apart. Tracey goes on to become a professional chorus line dancer, and the narrator goes to college; she eventually makes it out of their working-class neighborhood and takes a job as a jetset assistant to the white American pop star Aimee (who bears a striking resemblance to the real-life Madonna).
As is characteristic of Smith’s writing, the interpersonal tensions between the two central characters in Swing Time give rise to larger observations about identity, gender, class, race, art, and cultural appropriation. Discussions around music and dance become especially significant. As a child, the narrator pores over old dance films, including those of Fred Astaire. She mulls over a story about Astaire begging Michael Jackson to teach him to moonwalk, and she is fascinated by the fact that tap dance originated on slave ships. The name Swing Time itself comes from an Astaire film in which the performer appears in blackface, a detail that the narrator seems oddly ambivalent about.
This is not the first time Smith has tackled questions of blackness in her work, or the fantasy of Africa as a place of pure origin. In her 2009 collection of critical essays, Changing My Mind, Smith defines blackness as a mere word, which signifies “the ancient buildup of cultural residue.” This remark would seem to suggest a cynicism toward the ideal of coherent racial identity. Yet Smith’s fiction continues to delve into this same ambiguous territory, chasing an elusive idea of authentic contact with Africa and pure blackness. This is especially true in Swing Time.
While Tracey stays in London, the narrator embarks with her employer Aimee on a charitable mission to Africa. While there, she observes a traditional dance called the kankurang. On the one hand, the narrator is moved by the joy, vitality, and immediacy of this dance, but on the other hand, she does not identify with it or the place at all. The reality of Aimee’s mission in West Africa rings false in all the ways you might expect it to: the privileged pop star’s dream of opening a school for girls fails to anticipate the reality of life in the rural village they have arrived in. And the narrator finds herself simultaneously adrift inside of, and at odds with, her boss’s pat philanthropic mission.
The generic expectedness of this plot line about charity gone awry does not detract from the spirit of the novel. Just as in a musical, plot is not the driving force. Rather, it is the vacillations between current time and memory, past and present, fondness and resentment: “The story was the price you paid for the rhythm,” the narrator observes at one point. The story zigzags gracefully back and forth in time, and the best passages happen in the margins of the action. These are the seeming afterthoughts that come trailing at the ends of scenes, where the narrator clashes with Tracey or her mother, and then pulls away. Smith’s delicious prose and masterful withholding keep you coasting forward.
If you enjoyed White Teeth (2000) or On Beauty (2005), you are sure to find more of Smith’s vivacity and wit in Swing Time. It is also a delight to notice how the author’s approach to her signature themes has evolved over time. The trend in Smith’s more recent work appears to be a shift toward embracing even more nuance and the utmost discomfort of uncertainty. Smith is a talented enough writer that I, for one, am happy to follow her into such places.
Blood of the Dawn by Claudia Salazar Jiménez Publication Date: December 6, 2016 Publisher: Deep Vellum
Claudia Salazar Jiménez hails from Peru, where built a reputation as a literary critic, professor, and founder of the literary journal Fuegos de Arena. Her debut novel, La sangre de la aurora, was published in 2013 and won the Premio Las Américas award in 2014. It now appears in English as Blood of the Dawn, bringing us a fresh voice from a country with far too few literary exports.
Salazar Jiménez, like the well-known Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa and other Latin American writers before her, tackles the political upheaval of the region’s recent past. Her novel takes place during the 1980s, known as the “time of fear” in Peru, when the Shining Path communist rebel group terrorized the country. Its leader, Abimael Guzmán, declared that the revolution would cost a million lives. We see many of those casualties in Blood of the Dawn: innocent villagers caught in clashes between the rebels and military forces. Salazar Jiménez describes the bloodshed in violent, narrative-free language: “machete blade a divided chest crack no more milk another one falls machete knife dagger stone sling crack my daughter crack my brother crack my husband crack my mother crack”—the list goes on. This noun jumble mirrors the chaos of the scene, stripping away logic and all sense of time, although the impact of the violence is somewhat blunted by its abstraction.
The loose narrative hold extends beyond these scenes of carnage, making it difficult at first to comprehend what is happening. There are three women—Marcela, Modesta, and Melanie—and the perspective trades between them without notice. The first character we get to know is Marcela, a revolutionary who has left her husband and child so that she may give full attention to the cause. She is being interrogated after her capture following a village raid. Next we jump to Modesta, a humble campesino, and then Melanie, a well-to-do journalist. As the story unfolds, the three women’s lives intertwine and the narrative takes form, giving shape to the horrors that eventually befall each one.
At the story’s peak, the author reveals how abuse affects the women in a series of breath-catching pages, crystallizing the novel’s power and importance. Too rarely are we presented with the perspective of women throughout history; too rarely do we see the way that they are used and abused by men in positions of power. A feminine perspective is scarcely to be found in the chronicles of great historical movements. The novel opens with a quote from Marx: “Everyone who knows anything of history also knows that great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment.” This captures not just the literal crux of the story but its deeper significance as well.
Although the clarity of the story occasionally suffers in its experimentation, this eventually becomes a part of the novel’s power. Echoing the enigmatic poetics of another famous female South American writer, Clarice Lispector, Salazar Jiménez defies straightforward narrative as though it, too, were another constraint imposed by male-dominated society (and in many ways it is).
In the end, Blood of the Dawn is remarkable not just for its insights into the lives of women revolutionaries and villagers in 1980s Peru but for the way it plays with literary conventions to achieve its goals. It forges its own path through narrative expectations, focusing on the interior states of its protagonists and the hardships they encounter specifically as women in their time and place. Blood of the Dawn can be a difficult and harrowing read, but it is all the more rewarding for it.