Every few days (hours) I check libraries, bookshops, blogs, and websites to keep abreast of new novels that are either being published soon, or that are making the ‘must read’ lists. The following books I found on www.oprah.com/book_club.html. The novels are varied in genre and subject, and appear to be worth the time and money. I will be haunting my library and bookshops in search of these. I would love to hear your thoughts on these novels. Happy Reading!
NW, Zadie Smith’s inventive and compassionate novel of aspiration, identity, and social hierarchy, takes its name from the part of London in which it is set—North West—a multiethnic, multiracial, mixed-income community where drug addicts wander the streets and wealthy entrepreneurs live among tradesmen. Sometimes using unconventional techniques—she includes computer-generated walking directions and the text of headstones—Smith tells the story of three natives of the area: best friends Natalie and Leah, and Felix, who at first seems to have no connection to the others. Each is determined to rise above a hardscrabble childhood. Felix, a former production assistant, links himself to a dissolute, aristocratic lover he meets on a film set. Natalie becomes a lawyer and marries a well-born banker. Leah attends a prestigious university in Scotland but returns home as an underpaid worker at a charity, suffering both guilt for being more successful than her parents and insecurity about not fitting in with an affluent crowd. When Natalie invites her to dinner parties, Leah and her husband “have no gift for anecdote” and “look down at their plates and cut their food with great care” while the others chat and laugh. Meanwhile Natalie—so set on remaking herself, she’s discarded her given name, Keisha—lives a double life, engaging in sexual encounters with anonymous partners found on the Internet. Natalie’s world collides with Felix’s in a violent incident that forces her to peer “over into the pit that separates people who have known intolerable pain from people who haven’t.” There to comfort her is Leah, who understands the cost and complexity of her choices, as well as the gains.
Georgina Harding’s Painter of Silence draws readers into a dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish fairy tale set in a world where paranoia and deprivation dominate daily life—1950s Eastern Europe. The privileged daughter of an upper-class family, Safta spent an enchanted childhood in the Romanian countryside, where her earliest playmate was a servant’s son named Augustin. Long after she lost interest in their friendship, Augustin, a deaf mute of eccentric artistic genius, remained devoted to Safta, though his inability (or unwillingness) to communicate made him an increasingly invisible observer of her family’s life. The novel begins as Augustin tracks down Safta, now a nurse at an urban hospital, after years without contact. World War II and the Communist aftermath have destroyed the Romania in which they grew up, but Augustin gradually brings Safta’s lost past back to her in drawings of her childhood home and of the lover she has long believed abandoned her. Augustin and Safta offer each other something deeper and rarer than romance—a healing respite amid the devastation, which Harding describes with heartbreaking delicacy. “It’s not the war anymore and nobody’s fighting now but there are casualties everywhere…,” Safta says. “You can’t see but they’re there. The wounded, the shell-shocked, the amputees missing pieces of themselves.” The novel’s magic lies in Harding’s poignant but unsentimental portrayal of people who face such losses and yet find a kind of wholeness.
Karen Nieto, the narrator and unlikely heroine of Sabina Berman’s enthralling debut novel, Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World, is a feral child, abandoned by her mother to roam the beach near her family’s declining tuna cannery in Mazatlán, Mexico. When the girl’s mother dies, Karen’s aunt, Isabelle, comes to restore the business and finds the 10-year-old hiding in tidal pools beneath the house, eating fistfuls of sand, unable to speak. Under Isabelle’s patient instruction, Karen learns to read, write, and live among people. But the autistic savant feels most at home in the ocean, swimming into the fishermen’s nets alongside the tuna and seeing the experience through the perspective of the prey. “Sea creatures are silent people, which is why I like being among them,” she thinks. “They don’t speak and therefore they don’t make up things that are not real.” Through Karen’s simple but eloquent voice, we’re immersed with her, sharing her sense of otherworldly calm. When the U.S. government, responding to activists’ complaints about unnecessary cruelty and the killing of dolphins, imposes an embargo on Mexican tuna, Karen puts the insights gained during her underwater excursions to use, developing a more humane way to catch the fish. The controversial idea attracts an investor, whose backing leads to dramatic changes for Karen, Isabelle, and the family company. Berman explores big philosophical questions about the ethical relationship between people and animals. But there are no sermons here, just a hymn to the sacred connection among all species.
The apocalyptic event in The Age of Miracles doesn’t immediately set off a series of world-ending disasters—but Karen Thompson Walker’s first novel is quietly explosive in its own way. On an ordinary Saturday morning, 11-year-old Julia and her parents awaken to learn that the Earth’s rotation has begun to slow. Days and nights grow endless, birds plummet to the ground as gravity becomes stronger, the Earth’s magnetic field starts to shift, solar storms light up the sky, and essential crops wither. Walker describes global shifts with a sense of utter realism, but she treats Julia’s personal adolescent upheaval with equal care, delicacy, and poignancy. “The slowing triggered certain other changes too, less visible at first but deeper. It disrupted certain subtler trajectories: the tracks of friendships, for example, the paths toward and away from love.”
There’s really one person who understands 14-year-old June Elbus—and it’s not anybody at her suburban high school. Nor is it her benign but boring accountant parents or her older sister, Greta, who has recently “turned mean.” The only one who “gets” June—who understands her need to wander the woods wearing Greta’s old Gunne Saxe dress—is her mother’s gay painter brother, Finn. And he’s dying of a disease just starting to have a name. So begins Carol Rifka Brunt’s Tell the Wolves I’m Home, a dazzling debut novel about a transformative relationship—first with Finn and then his partner, Toby, who’s regarded by the rest of the family, in 1987, as a murderer. The book is also about sisters, art (Finn becomes posthumously famous for a painting of June and Greta), and loyalty. But mostly it’s about a girl learning “that the past, present, and future are just one thing” and that sometimes it’s all right to look for connections in all the “wrong.”
Some of the 11 stories in Natalie Serber’s Shout Her Lovely Name stand on their own, but several are linked through Ruby—a character who appears as both a daughter and a mother. We first meet her as a college freshman returning home to find that while she may have matured during her time away, her bitter, sullen mother, Sally, has not changed. Jumping ahead a few years, Ruby, alone in a doctor’s office, discovers she’s pregnant by a man who “wouldn’t even stay for breakfast”; she ends up raising her daughter, Nora, on her own, making the classic mistake of trying to be both parent and friend. Throughout, the bonds Sally, Ruby, and Nora create remain complex: They love one another fiercely, yet can’t escape anger, regret, and loneliness. Call it fiction, but this collection is achingly true to life when it comes to the many ways mothers and daughters grow together and apart, over and over again.
In The Red House, Mark Haddon tells the story of a fractured vacation through the quickly alternating viewpoints of a family in the English countryside. Richard, a wealthy doctor with a new wife and teenage stepdaughter, has invited his sister Angela’s family for a week—and, oh, the baggage that piles up in the once-stately house. Resentments, secrets, and inappropriate desires are just the beginning. If you’ve had your fill of heartwarming endings, Haddon’s story about hopelessly disconnected relatives will feel particularly fresh and true.