Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

I had high hopes, not just because of the National Book Award nomination but because the premise has a lot of potential — but like so many contemporary novels, it was so dominated by the “issues” it addresses that it truly lacked in character, and for me, that’s fatal.

There’s a sense I get when the author is describing a character’s flaws, or inaccurate self-perception, or delusions, or shame, that the author thinks he fully understands it, and it’s relatively simple, but the character doesn’t see it. And that kind of contempt-for-character is very off-putting for me.

Here, we have a modern well-off white family renting a vacation house, and the house’s owners show up, explaining there is some kind of unknown but potentially apocalyptic emergency unfolding in the city. There’s no TV, internet, or cell service, and it unfolds from there. But it uses a bizarre omniscient narration style, jumping from person to person even within a chapter or scene and telling us what characters are thinking and why, with a level of judgment that just doesn’t work for me. Sure, tell us what each person is experiencing, but we don’t need all the commentary. And we don’t need the speeches about race, gender roles, parenting, and human nature. This book is a sledgehammer when I’d prefer a bird gently landing, watching, wondering.

The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey

It doesn’t feel fair to say I didn’t like this much. There are a lot of good things about it, and the general area–adolescents coining to terms in different ways with violence and betrayal–is ever-fruitful. It even has whodunit aspect, which can really propel an otherwise-dragging literary novel. The characters are (mostly) vivid and the prose is strong. And yet.

I think my real problem is that each of the three siblings portrayed here was to confined to whatever particular thing was troubling him or her, and their manifestations were overly convenient. Zoe is doing love and intimacy, so she both discovers her parents’ affair and gets involved a romance with an inconvenient subject. Matthew is doing violence, so he obsessively hunts for the perpetrator of a crime, is haunted by memories of a friend’s abusive father, and studies fencing. And Duncan, the youngest, both adopts a dog from an owner who may or may not be coming back and searches out his birth mother.

It starts with an incident with the three of them together, and ends with a huge costume ball where almost every character shows up and things get much more resolved than they should. Then it goes even farther and gives us an 8-years-later epilogue that ties everything up even more neatly. And–horror of horrors–it has a character who gets obsessed with a particular philosopher and makes proclamations about what he would’ve said about the various situations. (Usually when writers do this is Schopenhauer. This time it’s Spinoza.)

Interesting ideas, I guess, but far too neatly constructed for my taste.

A Burning by Megha Majumdar

Well, this book was devastating. It’s not terribly long, but it’s dense. You’re instantly thrown into the midst of the lives of three characters whose lives intersect, but only glancingly. I couldn’t put it down, even as the horrors piled up. It also pulls off a plot point that turns heavily on facebook without a hitch—something a lot of writers seem to struggle with.

It’s also rare to have a novel so squarely addressing social problems without ever feeling like that was how it came to be–because it’s so personal, so specific, so eminently plausible, which makes it all the more horrifying. And somehow, it’s also funny. And beautifully written. It’s rare to have this kind of fully baked self-assuredness in a debut.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

This is the story of Gifty, born in Alabama to a mother who came there from Ghana. She is a neuroscience PhD candidate at Stanford, where her research program involves trying to figure out why her brother became an addict and died of an overdose when she was a child. As part of this inquiry, she also reexamines her upbringing in an evangelical church and her relationship to God, which has changed a lot as she’s grown up and become a scientist.

In the present, her mother has come to stay with her in California, which has prompted a series of memories from childhood, centered around the loss of her brother and her experience in the church, helped along by a review of her childhood journal. It’s awfully heavy on theoretical exploration–it’s so nearly constructed to discuss the relationship between brain and self, and what role, if any, God has in that–but it mostly saves itself by being very personal at the same time.

I prefer my philosophy to take more of a back seat to the personal story, but both components are here, and it certainly kept me reading and enjoying.

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich is pretty consistent. She writes well, she creates colorful characters, she knows how to put together a narrative–but it just isn’t my style. I’m sure there’s part of it that’s cultural–she writes almost exclusively about Native Americans, often Chippewa, and there are aspects of world view I just can’t relate to–but I don’t think it’s just that. I want my fiction to feel more intimate than hers usually does. I’m more intrigued by internal struggle.

This book has the added complication of being set in real historical events, a 1953 attempt by the. U.S. government to terminate the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa, which Erdrich’s grandfather was involved in resisting. That drama is the main structure of the book, and then there’s an individual love/family drama set within it, but they mesh awkwardly for me. Like she was trying too hard to put them in the same book.

Actress by Anne Enright

First, I have an obvious soft spot for Irish novels. Something about the sensibility.

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This is a quiet novel–and one about late middle age, I think, even though the central figure is nominally a glamorous actress in all stages of her life. It’s about identity–of yourself in relation to your parents (and your parents for themselves). All the drama is the mother’s, but the impact is the daughter’s. There is a bit of a mystery, but it’s never fully solved.

So many of the facts of the book–of the narrator Nora’s life, really–are obviously fully formed but never much discussed; they just are. Her life, her house, her marriage, her children. It takes skill to create backgrounds like that.

There’s a lot of gender stuff going on here, which the book acknowledges by having a character remark on it, something the narrator doesn’t seem to like. That creates an interesting dynamic.

I’m never quite sure how I feel about books that just sort of drift through memory, pausing on things as they tie into some present thought. A book that’s about a life rather than an episode.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

downloadI have to say my hopes were not high–returning many years later to write a sequel to a very successful novel after it has become culturally relevant anew–but this novel largely ended up being able to stand on its own (minus what felt to me like an unnecessary epilogue). Three female narrators whose stories come together, a history of the horrors that occurred as it all began that’s all too believable, and a big, dangerous heist — not to mention a complex and deeply morally ambiguous woman at the center make for a really good read, even aside from the commentary on gender and power. I remember Salman Rushdie saying something once, at a reading, to the effect that if you tell a good story while you’re doing it, you can make people read anything. I think there’s enough story and adventure here to keep readers who aren’t interested in feminism.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

downloadI was so curious to read a novel about twins–because I am a twin, and because I am writing such a book myself. It could go either way–setting up a contrast using twins could be done in a way that feels obvious and artificial. But this book mostly avoided that, partly, I think, because it attended significantly to relationships, including the one between the twins (although I think that could’ve been developed even more).

We get fairly deep into the life of both twins, the twin who slips away to pass as white, and the one who never pretends, marries a black man, and returns to the hometown and family. We get into the lives of each twins’ daughter. I struggled some with the “white” twin’s psychology, largely around her reactions to racial tensions. That’s clearly a complex subject, but I came away with the sense that the writer had left something on the table there, both for her and for her daughter.

I was much more engaged in the Black twin’s daughter’s life. Those were the sections where the book felt really alive to me, as she goes to college and starts a relationship with a trans man. It draws parallels about passing, about secrets and identity, but it also just feels like a story. Some of the other sections felt more like they were created to serve a purpose.

I wonder if the book might have gelled and deepened more if Bennett had taken a few more years to sit with the characters and the material. There’s a lot here and it’s a good book as is; I just feel like there might be more.

Amnesty by Avarind Adiga

Amnesty-Aravind-Adiga-BookDragonThis book certainly has an interesting premise, and the writing is vivid. The narrator’s voice is one we badly need to hear these days, and the characters are engaging. But I came away with the feeling that this should’ve been a short story, not a medium-length novel.

The premise: Danny is a young Sri Lankan who escaped a desperate situation in his country and came to Australia, intentionally overstaying a visa. As an undocumented person and a South Asian, he is marginalized, but makes things work surprisingly cheerfully as a cleaner. He befriends one of his clients, a married woman who is involved in a long-term affair, and Danny, the woman, and her lover have a bizarrely close relationship. When the lover kills the woman, Danny seems to be the only person who knows what happened. The problem is, the killer will turn him in to immigration if he tells the police. That’s essentially it for plot — and the book begins after the murder has happened.

The book has a single-day structure (something I often enjoy) marked by time stamps, through which Danny continues to communicate with the killer and agonize ad nauseam over what to do.  Adiga certainly captures the anxiety and powerlessness Danny faces, but I’m not sure you can build a novel around endless waffling and worrying, without more.

Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin

downloadIt sounds like it’s going to be one of those sort-of literary mystery/thriller things–a girl disappears on a tropical island–but it isn’t really about what happened, in the way those books tend to be. It’s about how everyone reacts, months later, years later. And it’s about how things just kind of happen sometimes, even predictable things, when we really believed (perhaps out of privilege?) they wouldn’t.

Schaitkin names her island Saint X and populates it richly. It’s not meant to be a specific real island, but it exists alongside St. Thomas and Antigua and Martinique, and it especially reminds me of St. John. She’s been up front about her reasons for doing that, and naming it so, and I think it works here; it reflects the way Americans view the Caribbean.

Race and class take a predictably foregrounded role here–wealthy white resort guests interact with working-class island residents–but that’s not the heart of the book. It’s there, and it’s an important aspect, rendered with a decent amount of sensitivity (although there’s always the fact that it was, in the end, written by s white woman), but the true core of the novel (as I believe the true core of a literary novel ought to be) is about human nature on an even deeper level. Senseless things just happen sometimes, and they change countless lives, sometimes dramatically. The book is focused on the girl’s little sister, 8 or 9 at the time, already in some ways fragile and troubled, and the need she feels as an adult to learn precisely what happened (as if that’s going to fix it for her). It’s about the experience of seeing her idolized sister being, basically, a teenager, with contempt for their parents’ well-intentioned but condescending interactions with resort staff, because she’s just taken some kind of international culture class in her first semester at Princeton. Its the utter devastation of the life of a man who becomes a suspect in the disappearance, where we see how that one night changed everything forever. There’s the mother, coming to understand what letting go is and isn’t. And all of it has a feeling of truth to it.

It’s a first novel. It’s a very good one, in my view. But I think it’s a mistake to include, scattered throughout, brief sections from the points of view of various peripheral characters (the island’s chief of police; the college boy also staying at the resort who is briefly questioned; the otherwise uninvolved woman who finds the body; etc.) It feels like author-cheating, a cheap way to get some extra insight in about what even further effects these things might have, and the lives going on around them that are or are not changed, and I think she didn’t need to do that to communicate everything she needed to.