Lisa Ko’s exceptional debut novel, The Leavers, was hand-picked by Barbara Kingsolver for the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction in the States, and is now the launch title for Little, Brown UK’s new imprint, Dialogue Books, which will feature “stories from illuminating voices often excluded from the mainstream,” specifically those “for, about and by readers from the LGBTQI+, disability, working class and BAME communities.” I highly recommend it to fans of Nathan Hill’s The Nix, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life and Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. It’s an ambitious and satisfying novel set in New York and China, with major themes of illegal immigration, searching for a mother and a sense of belonging, and deciding what to take with you from your past.
Eleven-year-old Deming Guo and his mother Peilan (nicknamed “Polly”), an undocumented immigrant, live in New York City with another Fuzhounese family: Leon, Polly’s boyfriend, works in a slaughterhouse, and they share an apartment with his sister Vivian and her son Michael. Deming gets back from school one day to find that his mother never came home from her job at a nail salon. She’d been talking about moving to Florida to work in a restaurant, but how could she just leave him behind with no warning?
Ten years later, Deming is Daniel Wilkinson, adopted and raised in upstate New York by a pair of white professors, Peter and Kay. He’s made a mess of his life with drinking and an addiction to online poker, and has been expelled from college. Now the guitar is his life, but even his best friend and bandmate Roland Fuentes isn’t willing to cut him any slack when he doesn’t show up for rehearsals and performances. Peter and Kay are pulling strings to get Daniel accepted into their college, but he keeps screwing up every chance he’s given. He can only hope his efforts to reconnect with his birth mother will be more successful.
The novel shifts fluidly between a third-person account of our protagonist then (Deming) and now (Daniel) and a first-person confession as Polly explains all: her upbringing in poverty in China, her pregnancy out of wedlock, her illegal entry to the United States, and why she had to leave Deming so suddenly. Polly and Deming/Daniel are vibrant characters, and I ached for their struggles. Both have the sense of being split between lives, of “juggling selves.” Their collective story is about figuring out who you are, what can be made right, and what to leave behind as you move forward in life. It’s such a beautiful novel, and an impressive debut from Lisa Ko.
The Leavers will be published in paperback by Dialogue Books on April 26th. My thanks to Little, Brown for the free copy for review.
2015 was a great year for fiction, largely dominated by doorstoppers (like Death & Mr. Pickwick and City on Fire, in addition to the Franzen and Yanagihara listed below) and Harper Lee. I’ve decided to pass on Go Set a Watchman, but I’ve read plenty of the year’s big-name fiction, as well as some more obscure titles I’d like to bring to your attention.
As difficult as it is to pit books against each other and come up with a numbered list, I’ve given it a go and come up with my top 15 fiction works of the year. To keep it simple for myself and straightforward for potential readers, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
Let the countdown begin!
- The Shore by Sara Taylor: Gritty and virtuosic, this debut novel-in-13-stories imagines 250 years of history on a set of islands. Every region needs a literary chronicler, and I reckon Taylor – channeling David Mitchell with her cross-centuries approach – is it for the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia’s islands.
- Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins: Gold, fame, citrus: reasons people once came to California; now, only a desperate remnant remains in the waterless wasteland. As a smart, believable dystopian with a family at its heart, this trumps any of last year’s efforts (like Station Eleven or California).
- Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish: Like West Side Story, this debut novel is an updated Romeo and Juliet narrative – a tragedy-bound love story with a grimy contemporary setting and a sobering message about racism and the failure of the American dream. The matter-of-fact style somehow manages to elevate the everyday and urban into an art form. (Reviewed for Third Way magazine in August.)
- Circling the Sun by Paula McLain: Before she ever thought of flying solo across the Atlantic, aviatrix Beryl Markham was just Beryl Clutterbuck: raised in Kenya, one of Africa’s first female horse trainers, its first professional female pilot, and the other side of the love triangle featuring Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) and Denys Finch Hatton. McLain describes her African settings beautifully, and focuses as much on the small emotional moments that make a life as she does on its external thrills.
- Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal: One of my favorite debuts of the year: a culinary-themed collection of short stories loosely linked through the character of Eva Thorvald, a young chef with an unfortunate past and a rare palate. Read it for a glimpse of how ordinary, flawed Americans live – no fairytale endings here.
- Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum: This arresting debut reads like a modern retelling of Madame Bovary, with its main character a desperate American housewife in Zurich. Watch Anna’s trajectory with horror, but you cannot deny there is a little of her in you.
- The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett: In this impressively structured, elegantly written debut, Barnett chronicles the romantic lives of two Cambridge graduates through three-quarters of a century, giving three options for how their connection might play out. There is no one perfect person or story: unsentimental this may be, but it feels true to how life works. (Reviewed for Third Way magazine in July.)
- Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: An incisive study of a marriage, beautifully written and rich with allusions to Shakespeare and Greek mythology. Groff makes it onto a short list of women I expect to produce the Great American Novel (along with Curtis Sittenfeld, Jennifer Egan, and Hanya Yanagihara).
- Purity by Jonathan Franzen: East Germany, Bolivia and Oakland, California: Franzen doesn’t quite pull all his settings and storylines together, but this is darn close to a 5-star Dickensian read. It’s strong on the level of character and theme, with secrecy, isolation and compassion as recurring topics.
- You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman: Kleeman’s first novel is a full-on postmodern satire bursting with biting commentary on consumerism and conformity. Think of her as an heir to Dave Eggers and Douglas Coupland, with a hefty dollop of Margaret Atwood thrown in.
- The Animals by Christian Kiefer: Kiefer’s second novel contrasts wildness and civilization through the story of a man who runs an animal refuge to escape from his criminal past. A tough opening sequence establishes themes that will be essential to the novel: the fine line between instincts and decisions, the moral dilemmas involved in environmentalism, and the seeming inescapability of violence.
- The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra: A collection of tightly linked short stories giving an intimate look at Russia and Chechnya in wartime and afterwards – revealing how politics, family, and art intertwine. Just as he did in his first novel, Marra renders unspeakable tragedies bearable through his warm and witty writing.
- Girl at War by Sara Nović: This pitch-perfect debut novel is an inside look at the Yugoslavian Civil War and its aftermath, from the perspective of a young girl caught up in the fighting. The way Nović recreates a child’s perspective on the horrors of war is masterful: Ana’s viewpoint is realistic and matter-of-fact, without the melodrama an omniscient narrator might inject.
- Adeline by Norah Vincent: Set in 1925–1941 and structured like a five-act play, the novel revolves around Virginia Woolf’s philosophical conversations with Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey and his lover Carrington, T.S. and Valerie Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and her doctor, Octavia Wilberforce. Vincent has produced a remarkable picture of mental illness from the inside.
- A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: Jude St. Francis: Dickensian orphan, patron saint of lost causes, Christlike Man of Sorrows, and one of the most memorable characters in recent fiction. This novel is an attempt to tackle the monolithic question of what makes life worth living; among the potential answers: love (though it doesn’t conquer all), friendship, creativity, and the family you create for yourself.
Debut Novelists Whose Next Work I’m Most Looking Forward to: Jessamyn Hope (Safekeeping – reviewed here in June) and Carmiel Banasky (The Suicide of Claire Bishop – reviewed for Foreword’s Fall 2015 issue).
The Year’s Biggest Disappointments: Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper; Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks and Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving (both rehash the authors’ familiar themes; I couldn’t make it past 15% in the latter).
Novels I Most Wish I’d Gotten to in 2015: Nell Zink’s Mislaid, Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither, and the final two volumes of Jane Smiley’s “Last Hundred Years” trilogy.
What are the best novels you read this year? Any new favorite books or authors? Your comments are always welcome.
I’ll be back tomorrow with my top 15 nonfiction books I read this year (most of them not published in 2015, however – I seem to have been a nonfiction slacker!)
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I’ll provide links to all the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating and a short taster so you can decide whether to click to read more. (A couple of exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie or BlueInk reviews since I don’t get a byline.)
Death and Mr. Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis [subscription service; excerpt available to non-subscribers]: The Pickwick Papers was a Victorian publishing phenomenon. Originally envisioned as a series of sporting tales to accompany Robert Seymour’s engravings in a monthly magazine, the story soon took on a life of its own. Debut novelist Jarvis believes that a conspiracy between Dickens and his publishers covered up two key facts: Pickwick was primarily Seymour’s creation, and Dickens’s brash attempt to take it over was the impetus for Seymour’s suicide in 1836. At 800+ pages, this novel is chock-full of digressions – some amusing, others seemingly irrelevant. Jarvis started the project with the ambition of reading everything ever written about Pickwick. The results are exhaustive…but also a little exhausting.
Coastlines by Patrick Barkham: In his third nature book, Guardian journalist Patrick Barkham blends science, history, and biography as he travels sections of the British coast protected through Enterprise Neptune, a National Trust campaign celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. His structural approach is unconventional: neither chronological nor geographical, but thematic. In sections on childhood, war, work, art, and faith, he highlights the many practical and metaphorical roles the coast has played in the British story. The choices of location often feel arbitrary and the themes are not quite strong enough to pull the book together, but Barkham succeeds in evoking the mysterious grandeur of the coast.
Two Lives by Sarah Bourne (& interview): A car accident causes Emma and Loretta’s lives to be intertwined in surprising ways as they negotiate loss, domestic violence and motherhood. There’s a great dynamic between these characters: Loretta vicariously relives her own experience of pregnancy through Emma. As time moves on, their relationship is more like Barbara and Sheba’s in Notes on a Scandal; secrets provoke a tacit power struggle. For a short book, it’s filled with heavy social issues. It loses points for poor cover design as well as frequent typos. All the same, this is a compelling story built around likeable main characters. It does what fiction does best: exploring the small moments that can change lives for good.
Sixty Degrees North by Malachy Tallack: “Geography begins at the only point of which we can be certain. It begins inside. And from there, from inside, rises a single question: where am I?” Tallack muses. This is a beautifully introspective book about the search for home and identity amidst the changes of time and the trappings of place. The goal of traveling across cold northern places makes it reminiscent of Joanna Kavenna’s The Ice Museum. However, a more telling comparison is with George Mackay Brown, chronicler of the Orkney Islands; like Brown, Tallack is interested in islands, both literally and metaphorically, as places of both isolation and authentic community.
Shiny New Books
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: Sure to be one of the books of the year, if not the decade. Jude St. Francis: Dickensian orphan, patron saint of lost causes, Christlike Man of Sorrows, and one of the most memorable characters in recent fiction. The reading experience might have been unbearable due to his suffering, but Yanagihara’s skill keeps you reading: the narration is matter-of-fact and revelation of Jude’s past is incremental, so distressing flashbacks are punctuated with more innocuous events. There is nothing ‘little’ about this book or the life portrayed. The novel is an attempt to tackle the monolithic question of what makes life worth living. Among the potential answers: love (though it doesn’t conquer all), friendship, creativity, and the family you create for yourself. Yanagihara has instantly shot to literary greatness; this is Pulitzer and Man Booker Prize-winning material.
BookTrib: A preview of the PBS broadcast of Poldark, which aired on BBC earlier this year.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads (the rating is below each description).
Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish: Like West Side Story, this debut novel is an updated Romeo and Juliet narrative – a tragedy-bound love story with a gritty contemporary setting and a sobering message about racism and the failure of the American dream. Lish’s post-9/11 New York City is less melting pot than Boschian hell, a violent abyss lubricated with the sweat of illegal immigrants. The matter-of-fact style somehow manages to elevate the everyday and urban into an art form. (Full review in August 2015 issue of Third Way magazine.)
Housebreaking by Dan Pope: This tightly crafted novel of adultery in dysfunctional suburbia is somewhat reminiscent of Tom Perrotta’s Little Children or the movie Far from Heaven, but with less memorable characters and storyline overall. The strategy of revisiting the same events of the late summer and fall of 2007 from different characters’ perspectives makes it feel slightly repetitive and claustrophobic.
In a Dark Wood by Joseph Luzzi: In November 2007 Joseph Luzzi’s wife Katherine was in a fatal car accident; she had been eight and a half months’ pregnant, so within one day he entered “the wild uncharted terrain of being a single father and widower.” For several years Luzzi disengaged from fatherhood, throwing himself into his work – teaching Italian at Bard College, editing the proofs for a forthcoming book – while his mother did the hard work of childrearing. As Virgil was to Dante, Dante is to Luzzi: a guide through the hell of loss and into a vita nuova as he starts a new life with his daughter Isabel and, later, his second wife.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert: Gilbert sets herself up as a layman’s creativity guru much like Anne Lamott does with Bird by Bird or Stephen King with On Writing. This is based on Gilbert’s TED talks, and it reads very much like a self-help pep talk, with short chapters, lots of anecdotes, and buzz words to latch onto. Her central tenet is “You do not need anybody’s permission to live a creative life.” The voice and message are similar to Rob Bell’s in the field of contemporary theology: reminding readers that what is too precious for words should, perhaps paradoxically, be held loosely with open hands. Releases September 22nd.
Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor: Emily Dickinson’s Amherst is an inviting setting, and the alternating first-person voices of Emily and the family’s Irish maid, Ada Concannon, are both well realized. However, the plot soon gets mired in the melodrama of a wrong done to Ada in the Dickinson household, which results in a crisis that – you guessed it – requires the reclusive Emily to leave the house. After reading, I remained greedy for more of Emily’s inner life and poetry.
Malignant Metaphor by Alanna Mitchell: A Canadian science journalist counters three misleading adjectives often applied to cancer: inevitable, preventable, and deserved. She personalizes her quest for knowledge through two family experiences. First her brother-in-law, having already survived prostate cancer, was diagnosed with untreatable stage III melanoma. Later Mitchell’s daughter had a thyroid cancer scare. In both cases, things turned out better than expected – proof that cancer is not a death sentence. Releases September 15th.
A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan: A sweet, funny debut novel about a woman who tries to juggle all the elements of a happy life: finding the perfect job for a modern book-lover…but also being a good mother to her three children, supporting her husband after he loses his job at a law firm, and helping her mother care for her father as he suffers a relapse of throat cancer. It succeeds because its female first-person voice is immediately engaging. You like Alice and root for her. Releases August 25th.
The Sunken Cathedral by Kate Walbert: Much has been made of Walbert’s “Impressionistic” style. There is some beautiful writing here for sure, but I think it would lend itself better to short stories as there is not enough plot or character continuity to latch onto. Essentially the novel is about a set of New Yorkers in a Chelsea brownstone (chiefly Marie, an old woman who came to America from France after World War II) and their disparate memories and experiences.