Best Literary Fiction of 2018

We’re continuing the countdown! This is a competitive category this year, and the award goes to a debut author as well:

Ohio

The Water Diviner and Other Stories, byRuvanee Pietersz Vilhauer****

ALT.FINAL_The WaterI read this book free and early thanks to Net Galley and University of Iowa Press. This distinctive collection is for sale now.

All told there are fifteen stories, all of them featuring Sinhalese Sri Lankans, most of them expatriates that have moved to the United States.  Before commencing I knew very little about the culture of this small island country, apart from its having been colonized by Britain earlier in its history. I still know very little, but this collection is an approachable way to introduce oneself, in addition to being well crafted fiction.

Several of the stories are dark, dealing with the racism and ignorance with which immigrants are often greeted. The angriest of the stories is “A Burglary On Quarry,” in which a student is accused of burglary by her well-to-do, bigoted landlord who doesn’t want to face the obvious perpetrator: her own son.  It reads like a manifesto, and it makes me want to pump my fist and yell, “Tell it!”

This, however, is something none of the characters in these stories would do, apart from the privileged Caucasian American in “Accident.”  David nearly comes to great harm while visiting his new wife’s homeland, largely due to his own obliviousness; it hasn’t occurred to him that he himself might be deemed unacceptable for his race and nation of origin, having lived all of his life as an affluent member of the dominant culture. He is from Texas, and he’s drunk, and he doesn’t even try to understand discretion or subtext. As his wife’s neighbors ogle him suspiciously and the police consider that he may have caused an auto accident for which he is not responsible, he continues to assure his wife—in English—that everything is just fine. He says nothing quietly, ever, and it takes a political connection on the part of his wife’s relatives to extricate him from the hard place he doesn’t know he’s in.

Other entries are also bittersweet, and “Sonny’s Last Game” stands out as one of these. However, “Leisure” literally made me laugh out loud. Well, guffaw, actually: “Cutex! Who does she think she is!”

The last entry, “Hello My Dear”, is both funny and bittersweet, as Prema is faced with the question of whether an email from a stranger is a scam or the real deal.

I enjoyed this collection tremendously and would read Vilhauer again in a heartbeat.

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens*****

wherethecrawdadsKya Clark lives with her family in a shack deep in a North Carolina marsh.  The year is 1969. They are miserably poor, but Kya’s mother tells her it will be alright, as long as the women of the family stick together. But then one day, she leaves. Older brother Jodie tells Kya that Ma will be back, because it isn’t in a mother to leave her children, but Kya isn’t so sure. Ma is wearing her alligator heels, and she doesn’t turn midway and wave like she always has. And one by one, everyone in her family leaves, and they don’t return. Kya is not even old enough to enter first grade, and she is alone.

This haunting novel is the best surprise of the summer, and it’s for sale today. Thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy.

Owens is a wildlife scientist of some renown; here she changes lanes with her debut novel. She uses her knowledge base to create an evocative setting that is real and immediate, but she never adds scientific information at the expense of pacing. Instead, the setting is used to reinforce Kya’s character; this is unusual in a researcher turning toward fiction writing. Professors and other specialists tend to shoehorn in every fact that they think the reader ought to know regardless of what it does to the flow of the narrative. Instead, Owens blends setting and character seamlessly, spooling Kya’s life before us with the patience and discipline of the finest master storyteller.

Kya barely survives, digging mussels to eat and selling them at a waterside convenience store owned by an African-American entrepreneur known as Jumpin’.  Little by little, Jumpin’ comes to realize exactly how dire this child’s situation is, and he and his “good sized” wife, Mabel, contrive to provide her with a few of life’s necessities without frightening her or hurting her pride. I would have preferred to see these resonant characters voiced without the written dialect, but there are no stereotypes in this book.

Tate is an older boy that has been a family friend since she was tiny, but she doesn’t remember him, and thinks she is meeting him for the first time after he begins leaving her beautiful bird feathers on a stump in the swamp. It is he that teaches Kya to read, and he becomes her first love.

The narrative shifts between Kya’s life and an investigation of a murder. Chase Andrews, a local football hero and the son of a local bigwig, is found dead at the base of a nearby water tower. Kya, who is poorly groomed, impoverished, and has no family to protect her becomes the focus of the investigation. Townspeople have long considered her to be “swamp trash,” and this discrimination is age old; Kya can remember her mother telling her that she must never run when she goes into town, because if she does someone will say that she stole something.

One of the most appealing aspects of this novel is that the mystery of Chase’s death never eclipses the main story. The book isn’t about Chase or his demise; it’s about Kya in the marsh, and as she becomes an official suspect, we only want what is best for her.

I read several stories at a time, now that I am retired, but this is the one that occupied my thoughts when I was doing other things. I kept thinking about that poor little girl out there. I can almost always put a book down; it’s what I do, after all. This one is exceptional.

Those that love excellent literary fiction; Southern fiction; or romance need to get this book and read it, even If you have to pay full jacket price.

 

The Line That Held Us, by David Joy****

thelinethatheldusDarl Moody and Calvin Hooper have been best friends forever, and so when Darl has the worst kind of accident, he knows who to turn to. You know what they say real friends will help you bury. The body in question is Carol Brewer; Darl was hunting out of season, and when he glimpsed something moving through the woods he thought it was a wild pig. Turned out he was wrong; turned out to be Carol, poaching ginseng on Coon Coward’s land. But you can’t bring the dead back to life, and you sure can’t call the cops for something like this. Carol is Dwayne’s brother, after all. Dwayne is a huge man, half- crazy and rattlesnake mean. There are no bygones in Dwayne Brewer’s world. There is only revenge.

My thanks go to G.P. Putnam and Net Galley for the galley, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

“I’d be lucky if all he did was come after me,” Darl said, “But knowing him, knowing everything he’s done, you and me both know it wouldn’t end there. I bet he’d come after my mama and my little sister and my niece and nephews and anybody else he could get his hands on. That son of a bitch is crazy enough to dig up my daddy’s bones just to set him on fire.”

“[Calvin tells him] “You’re talking crazy, Darl.

“Am I?”

So Carol disappears…for awhile. But Dwayne won’t be satisfied till he knows what has happened to his brother, who is all the family he has left. Once he finds out, of course all hell breaks loose.
Joy is a champion at building visceral characters and using setting to develop them further. I know of no living writer better at describing hard core rural poverty to rival anything the Third World can offer:

“The house had been built a room at a time from scrap wood salvaged and stolen. Nothing here was permanent and as each addition rotted away, a new one was hammered together from plywood and bent nails off another side so that slowly through the decades, the five-room shanty shifted around the property like a droplet of water following the path of least resistance. Red Brewer was no carpenter. Chicken coops were built better. So were doghouses. But this place had been the roof over their heads and had kept the rain off the Brewer clan’s backs all Dwayne’s miserable life.”

The murderous rage of Dwayne Brewer contrasts with the tender, poignant love that exists between Calvin and his girlfriend Angie, who has just learned she is pregnant. Calvin understands throughout all of this that he has a lot to lose, and this makes the conflict between Dwayne and Calvin a more unequal one.

I would have liked to see Angie better developed, and I blanched a bit at the line where she thinks that the only important thing is what’s growing in her uterus. But the story isn’t really about Angie, and I have seen Joy develop a strong female character in one of his earlier books. I hope to see more of that in his future work.

Meanwhile, the passage where Dwayne visits Coon Coward—some four or five pages long—just about knocks me over. This is what great writing looks like.

I struggled a bit with the ending, and this is where the fifth star comes off. The first 96 percent of this tale is flat-out brilliant, but I feel as if Joy pulls the ending a bit, and I can’t see why. None of the rest of the book points us toward this conclusion.

Last, the reader should know that there is a great deal of truly grisly material here. We have a torture scene; we have numerous encounters with a decaying corpse. If you are a person that does most of your reading during mealtime, this might not be the best choice.

For those that love excellent literary fiction or Southern fiction, this story is recommended. It will be released August 14, 2018, but you can pre-order it now.

The Melody, by Jim Crace****

“We are the animals that dream.”

TheMelodyJim Crace is an award-winning author with an established readership, but he is new to me. Thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, June 19, 2018. Those that love literary fiction should take note.

Alfred Busi is a singer, and he was famous during his prime, but now he’s old, living alone in his villa with just his piano to keep him company. At the story’s outset he hears a noise below late at night and goes down to run the animals or the whoever out of his garbage bins, but instead he is attacked. Something or someone flies out and bites him a good one; he thinks it was a boy, a half-feral child:

“Busi could not say what it was, something fierce and dangerous, for sure…before the creature’s teeth sank into right side of his hand, and, flesh on flesh, the grip of something wet and warm began its pressure on his throat, Busi knew enough to be quite sure that this creature was a child. A snarling, vicious one, which wanted only to disable him and then escape.”

The problem—beyond the injury itself—is that Busi is elderly, forgetful, and occasionally confused. His wife is dead, and he’s grieving hard. The only people remaining in his life are his sister-in-law and her son, his nephew, and they aren’t sure he isn’t delusional. Medical staff question his reliability as well; soon, a truly nasty journalist writes a smear piece making fun of him, and it comes out just as he is scheduled to perform for the last time at a concert where he’s to receive a prestigious award. It’s all downhill from there.

Concurrently there’s discussion among the locals about the homeless people living in the Mendicant Gardens—a place entirely devoid of foliage, where makeshift shacks are erected from cardboard, scrap lumber and whatever else is on hand—as well as the fate of the bosc. I find myself searching Google here because I am confused. I have never heard of a bosc, which turns out to be a wooded area of sorts, and my disorientation is compounded by not knowing where in the world this whole thing is unfolding. If our protagonist lives in a villa, and if we’re not in Mexico, then are we in Southern Europe somewhere? I am following language cues; the names of things and places sound like they could be Italian, or maybe French. Or in Spain. The heck? I go to the author bio, but that’s no help, since Crace lives in the U.S. I try to brush this off and live with the ambiguity, but I continue wishing that I could orient myself. It’s distracting. There’s a social justice angle here involving society’s obligation to its poorest members, but I am busy enough trying to establish setting that the effect is diluted.

Nevertheless, the prose here is sumptuous and inviting. Adding to the appeal is the clever second person narrative; we don’t know who is talking to us about Mr. Busi, and we don’t know whether the narrator is speaking to a readership or to someone specific. For long stretches we are caught up in the plight of our protagonist and forget about the narrator, and then he pops back in later to remind us and pique our curiosity.

I am surprised to see this title receive such negative reviews on Goodreads. To be sure, GR reviewers are a tough lot, but there are some angry-sounding readers out there. What they seem to share in common is that they are Crace’s faithful fans, and if this title is a letdown for them, I can only imagine what his best work looks like; after a brief search I added one of his most successful titles to my to-read list, because I want to see what this author could do in his prime.

And there it is. Many people won’t want to read this, because we don’t like thinking about old age and death. Busi’s whole story is about the slow spiral that occurs for most people that live long enough to be truly old. It’s depressing. Those of us that are of retirement age don’t want to think about it because it’s too near; those that are far from it are likely to wrinkle their noses and move on to merrier things. It’s a hard sell, reading about aging, physical decay, and dementia. And there are specific passages that talk about Busi’s injuries and physical maladies that caused me to close the book and read something else when I was eating. It’s not a good mealtime companion.

Crace is known as a word smith, and rightly so. If you seek a page-turner, this is not your book, but for those that admire well-turned phrases and descriptions as art, this book is recommended.

Sadness is a White Bird, by Moriel Rothman-Zecher*****

“There’s nothing ‘not political’ in Palestine, habibi.”

SadnessisaJonathan grew up in the United States, but now his family is in Israel, the land of his mother’s birth. He’s visited Auschwitz where much of his family died, and he can’t wait to turn eighteen so that he can train to be an Israeli paratrooper. Enough with being ‘people of word’, he figures; he wants to be a Jewish warrior, the ‘people of the sword,’ and exact some payback.  A friendship with two Palestinian teenagers complicates his life in ways he didn’t expect. I received an advance review copy of this exquisitely rendered story free, courtesy of Net Galley and Atria Books in exchange for this honest review.

Twin siblings Laith and Nimreen are Palestinians, but long days at the beach and twilit evenings spent with Jonathan, getting high and telling ridiculous jokes, blur the social boundaries observed by most Jews, and by most Palestinians. With the absurd idealism peculiar to young people that haven’t run up hard against life’s limitations, Jonathan thinks that he can have both, that he can become an Israeli soldier and keep his friendships separate from his new career. His friends know better, but still they love him.

There’s only one way to tell a story like this one, and that’s as a tragedy; that’s exactly what Rothman-Zecher does, but he does it better than anyone else I can imagine.  This doomed friendship becomes more deeply intimate the closer the day comes when Jonathan must report for duty. Ultimately it becomes a bizarre love triangle in which our young protagonist has a sexual relationship with both of them—though fortunately not simultaneously.  For a good long while this lodges in my craw, and as the story continues, I am too revolted to focus. As brilliantly written as this story is, I was headed in the direction of a four star review in protest; that was true, anyway, until I recognized the allegory. Then I was over it.

Nimreen is a teenager too, but she lives with the partitioned state every damn day of her life. She knows that Jonathan can’t have it both ways, but she hopes against hope that he’ll change his mind, that he won’t go into the service. And as Jonathan and his friends try to do anything, go anywhere where there are other people, we see exactly how polarized this place has become. They can’t hitchhike together; there are so many places where either Jonathan isn’t safe, or Laith and Nimreen are not permitted. He goes through a checkpoint where, without his suspicious-looking friends, he would simply have been waved through, and he finds out what it’s like to have one’s homeland invaded.

Rothman-Zecher does a splendid job of depicting exactly how difficult this question is. If I ask myself, have Jews been systematically robbed of their possessions, their homes, and sometimes their lives across not just hundreds of years, but across centuries? I know the answer is yes. I knew it before, but this story drives it home in a way that is visceral. And do Jews deserve to have a home that nobody can ever, ever take from them again? Again, the answer is absolutely yes.

But then we look at the Palestinians, indigenous people living in the Third World at a bare subsistence level. Their homes are almost all they possess, and does anyone have the right to march in, evict them from this place and chase them away from their homes, their families, their livelihoods? Oh hell no, of course not.

In this epic story, Rothman-Zecher bridges the scholarly with the deeply personal, fulfilling a task that can only be achieved by excellent fiction. This searing debut has put this writer on the map definitively and marked him as a new voice in literature.

Highly recommended.

The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin****

TheImmortalistsFour adolescent siblings growing up in New York City learn that a traveling psychic has hit town, a woman that can tell each person the date that he or she will die. Against the wishes of their parents, they sneak out to find her. I received my copy free and early in exchange for this honest review, thanks to Net Galley and G.P. Putnam’s Sons. This book is now available to the public.

The book is divided approximately into fourths, a quarter for each of the Gold children and across five decades. To my own way of thinking the first half of the story is far more resonant than the second half. Simon, the “golden boy”, dies of AIDS before the disease has been named, but before he is gone, the San Francisco of that time period is set out in such meticulous, immediate detail that I feel as if I am back there, back then. The portion of the book devoted to Klara, who becomes a magician, is nearly tangible in different ways, and older women that have worked in unconventional professions—before the year 2000, that meant just about all of them—will recognize themselves when they see how she is dismissed, harassed, and stigmatized.

Then I read a review by someone that felt exactly the opposite, claiming that the story didn’t really wake up until the second half. And so I suspect that the age and background of the reader will inform which part of the book stands out best.

However, once I have seen Simon and Klara die, I have other reasons for reading more slowly. If both of them die during the first and second quarters of the book, I have a pretty good idea what is about to happen to Daniel and Varya in the third and fourth quarters.  These characters, a Naval physician and a primate researcher, don’t reach me the way that Simon and Klara do. With Simon and Klara, I am right there with them, and at times I am peeking out and seeing the world through their eyes. With Daniel and Varya, I am along for the ride, checking to see how many pages are left in this thing so I can go write my review and be done.

Benjamin’s  greatest gift is setting. There are aspects of each place and time that I remember, and others that I have nearly forgotten until she brings them back again. But for those expecting to see a fantasy plot, as this has been billed, or magical realism, it’s going to prove disappointing; really it is literary fiction, and some reviewers will be unhappy because of the genre issue.

Those that love good literary fiction are going to want to read this novel. There’s been a tremendous amount of buzz, and there’s nothing else like it.

Robicheaux, by James Lee Burke*****

Robicheaux“You ever hear of the Bobbsey Twins from homicide?”

Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel are back. For those that have never read the work of James Lee Burke, it’s time; for those that have missed his two best-loved characters, this new release will be as welcome, as cool and refreshing as a Dr. Pepper with cherries and ice. Lucky me, I read it free thanks to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster in exchange for this honest review.

Robicheaux is a Cajun cop from New Iberia, a small town an hour from New Orleans. Southern Louisiana, he tells us in his confidential narrative, has become “the Walmart of the drug culture.” He is under tremendous pressure; grieving the loss of his wife, Molly in an auto accident, he blacks out one drunken night, the same night that a murder occurs. Dave was in the area, and he cannot say he didn’t commit the murder, because he can’t recall anything. That’s why they call it a black out. His daughter Alafair returns from the Pacific Northwest to help her father pull himself together; she tells him he didn’t do it because murder is not in him. Clete says the same thing. But Dave is a haunted man, and he wonders what he is capable of.

To cap it all off, Dave has been assigned to investigate the rape of Lowena Broussard. The story doesn’t gel, and he wonders if it actually happened.

All of the fictional ingredients that make up Burke’s fictional gumbo are here: slick politicians, mobsters, thugs, and sociopaths. We also have people from Hollywood, whose casually entitled behavior and attitudes are anathema to Robicheaux and probably also to Burke. Alafair has been hired to write a screen play, and lascivious comments directed her way from those in charge of the film make Dave see red.

Clete figures prominently here; as longtime readers already know, Clete “would not only lay down his life for a friend, he would paint the walls with his friend’s enemies.” At one point a couple of thugs follow him into the men’s room at a local bar, and we fear they will kill him. Instead, “Maximo and Juju went to the hospital, and Clete went to the can.”

Burke has long been admired for the way he renders setting. A creative writing teacher could assign this book, because examples of how to render a place in a way that is original and immediate can be found by flipping to almost any page. But there’s more than that here. The dialogue crackles. The narrative is luminous at times, philosophical at others (are the Confederates the new Nazis?) and hilarious here and there as well. It’s enough to make ordinary writers sigh; I may write, and you may write, but neither of us will ever write like this.

There’s also plenty of fascinating Cajun culture here, and it’s so vastly different from anything I have known in my long life, most of it spent in the Pacific Northwest, that I find myself rereading passages. There’s a travelogue feel to parts of it that is unmatched anywhere else.

Lastly, I have to tell you that this story holds an extra element of suspense for me. These characters were originally crafted in the 1960s, and our author is growing old. I wonder as I read whether he intends to kill his heroes, one or both, in order to prevent future pretenders from usurping them. Every time I find Clete in danger, my heart nearly stops. I know that Dave has to make it all or most of the way through this book because it’s written in the first person, but Clete can go any damn minute.

Will Burke pull the plug?

Obviously I am not going to tell you anything more; the quotes you see above all occur early. But for those that can read work that is gritty and at times violent—I had to take little breaks now and then—there is no better fiction anywhere.

Note to the reader: there are some of Burke’s older books on YouTube in the form of audio books. Authorized? Unauthorized? Who knows, but for now at least, there they are.

The Night Child, by Anna Quinn****

TheNightChildAnna Quinn is a brave writer. This wrenching debut novel occupies a place in literature that has lain dormant for decades; kudos to Quinn for bringing dark business out into the light of day for a good airing. I received my review copy free and early thanks to Net Galley and Blackstone Publishers. It will be available to the public January 30, 2018.

Nora is a high school teacher and the mother of a small child; her marriage is coming undone. Her mental health is a little on the shaky side, and she’s seeing a therapist to help her understand a terrifying vision that came to her in her classroom. A “wild numinous” face, the disembodied face of a child, floats over her students’ desks one day after school, and Nora panics. This face represents the core of Nora’s story, and once the layers of her outer self are peeled away, it makes for a deeply absorbing read.

Quinn takes some time to lay her groundwork. The first part of the story is unremarkable, and I briefly considered abandoning it. Character development seems limited to marital issues and time spent in therapy, and Nora lacks depth and originality until about the thirty percent mark. I tell you this lest you abandon the story yourself. It’s worth the wait, because once the story takes wing, it is hypnotic.

It’s tempting to say this novel is the twenty-first century’s answer to Sybil, but that doesn’t do it justice. Nora’s struggle to find the self that is held beneath layers and layers of emotional scar tissue, to heal herself so that she can be a good mother to Fiona, is one that we carry with us long after the book is over. Those that face serious mental health issues themselves will see vindication. Those that have family members or other loved ones working to unify a personality fragmented by trauma may see themselves as Paul, who’s juggling his own needs, those of his daughter, his love for Nora, and the crushing burnout that comes of living with a partner facing all-absorbing mental illness over a lengthy period of time.

Recommended to those interested in reading about mental health issues through the approachable medium of literary fiction.

The Girl in the Tower, by Katherine Arden*****

TheGirlintheTowerOh hey now…do you hear bells?

There are plenty of reasons to read this luminous, intimate, magical novel, the second in the Winternight Trilogy. You can read it for its badass female warrior, an anomaly in ancient Russia; you can read it for its impressive use of figurative language and unmatchable word-smithery; or you can read it because you love excellent fiction. The main thing is that you have to read it. I was overjoyed to be invited to read it in advance by Atria Books in exchange for this honest review; thanks also go to Net Galley for the digital copy. The book is available to the public tomorrow, December 5, 2017.

Vasya is no ordinary young woman. She sees and hears things few others do. Take, for example, the domovoi that guard the home; the priests discourage belief in such creatures, but they’re right there. She can see them. Then there’s the matter of her extraordinary horse, Solovey, who is nobody’s property and nobody’s pet, but who makes a magnificent friend and ally. And then of course there is the Frost Demon, a mentor and intimate acquaintance with whom she has a complicated relationship. But these are only parts of her story. The whole of it is pure spun magic that no review can adequately describe.

In ancient Russia, there are three kinds of women: some are wives; some are nuns; and some are dead. Vasya is determined to be none of these. Everyone that cares about her tries to explain how the world works so that she can make her peace with it. Her father is dead now, and so her brother, who is a priest, and her elder sister Olga both implore her to be reasonable. And even the Frost Demon wants her to face the facts. He tells her:

“Having the world as you wish—that is not for the young,” he added. “They want too much.”

Nevertheless, Vasya sets out into the winter woodlands with Solovey; she’s dressed as a man for the sake of safety. She learns that bandits have kidnapped the girls of a village that lies in her path, and everywhere she sees the depredations, the burned homes and ruined fortresses that have been laid waste by the Mongol invaders that have preceded her. She vows to rescue the girls and to seek vengeance, and as one might expect, she brings down a world of ruin and pain upon herself in the process.

A character like Vasya comes along perhaps once in a generation. Together with the first story in this trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale, it has the makings of a classic. My one small wish is not to see it become a romance rather than what it is now—brilliant historical fiction and deeply moving fantasy. At the same time, wherever Arden takes the third volume of her trilogy, I know she can be counted on to do it better than anyone else.

Can this book stand on its own if the first title isn’t available? Arden ensures that the reader has the basic information necessary to jump into the story, and yet I urge readers to get both books if at all possible. To disregard the first in the series is to cheat oneself.

This reviewer seldom keeps review copies on the shelves here at home. There are too many books and never enough space. This title (and the one before it) is an exception to this rule; I will love this series until I die.

You have to read this book.