It’s risky for a novelist to venture out of the mainstream. That applies whether we’re talking about constructing a plot in an especially creative way, having a protagonist who is bad or unlovable, or tackling subjects that are unusual or embarrassing or rarely broached.
Each of the 13 books described below offers both entertainment and mental stimulation. None contain, in my opinion, fatal creative missteps, and all are memorable and worth the time to read. They all either came out recently or are due to hit the market in a month or two. Keep an eye out for them.
Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch is a little different from his last risky novel, The Dinner (which I reviewed here). Koch is Dutch, and it seems to me that Sam Garrett translated the book perfectly. Koch’s narrator, Marc, is unreliable, though we begin to see what sort of man he is early on. A general practitioner who claims to spend 20 minutes per patient, but who tunes out after he makes his diagnosis in under five minutes. Marc speaks to us readers of his patients’ bodies in the most cringe-worthy terms, portraying attitudes most of us have to trust that our own doctors don’t hold.
The core of the story involves issues of trust and betrayal and mistaken assumptions and identities. And a real set of mysteries: who killed one of Marc’s patients, who raped Marc’s daughter, and will his marriage survive a tricky vacation trip? I’ll be reading anything Koch writes, preparing myself for some challenges in the empathy department.
Shrink Thyself by Bill Scheft. A little rambling (and with too many sports anecdotes for my taste – Scheft was a sportswriter), but what’s risky is the structure and the plot of this intriguing and funny novel. At some point in the narrative, the shrink that the narrator is seeing becomes the one in need of therapy. Meanwhile, the narrator is a writer who wants to write a major book to give meaning to his life (about a baseball great), and collaborates (in a manner of speaking) with his mother’s new husband, a real character. Sample, from when he leaves therapy early on:
I had sought help for the silly yet profound chain of events that had ended my marriage, owned up, had the behavior in my adjusted sights. And now, here was an opportunity to lead a non-psychological life. Not unexamined. Just examined in real time. To proceed as if there was nothing wrong. What a relief. To live, not dwell.
Of course the rest of the book demonstrates how difficult it is not to dwell on one’s own psychological state.
The Unwitting by Ellen Feldman is precisely the intelligent quandary-based novel I cherish. It takes place from 1948 to 1971, and involves the Cold War, the CIA’s (actual) secretive involvement with magazines in order to get them to influence public sentiment overseas. The characters are smart, the story’s about marriage and other relationships but, more than that, it’s about morality and ethics and what people do when their beliefs clash.
Feldman integrated real events smoothly, including McCarthyism, the death of JFK, protest and peace marches, even the price of apartments in Manhattan. Words are powerful, and journalistic integrity matters. In this clever novel, good and bad mingle in ambiguous and unexpected ways.
Above by Isla Morley is a daring tale that takes us underground, literally, with a young kidnap victim. Kept hidden by her survivalist kidnapper for many years, she has a child with him. She teaches the boy to trust his father’s apparently skewed view of the dangerousness that’s going on up above in the rest of the world. No spoilers here; just stick with the story and know that it changes more than you’d expect. Emotionally true, surprisingly action-packed, and quite harrowing about the impossible choices a mother has to make. Can you ever go home again after that kind of experience? Definitely a page-turner.
The Remains of Love by Zeruya Shalev, translated from the Hebrew, is full of luxurious stream-of-consciousness-like sentences. Themes include relationships of all kinds in flux, aging, dying, a troubled marriage, the longing to have a child. The novel is sometimes surreal and always psychologically complex and often moving. One example:
Reverently, she caressed the body at her side as it cooled, and the colder he became the more pleasant and reassuring was his touch, and she stroked his forehead and cheeks and lower neck and protruding collar-bones. His skin was turning solid from moment to moment like polished marble and she couldn’t take her hands from him, leaning her forehead on his chest as if it were a prayer-wall.
Euphoria by Lily King is a very smart novel about anthropologists in primitive countries and the hard realities of a not-so-good marriage. It’s so engrossing that I’m now reading every one of Lily King’s previous novels. I learned some fascinating tidbits about tribal life. The story itself contains drama, romance, and some twists. Here’s an excerpt from early in the story:
‘Stick it in,’ Fen said. ‘Stick it in right now.’
There was no reasoning with him, no speaking of dryness or timing or oncoming fevers or lesions that would open when rubbed against the linen sheets. They would leave bloody stains and the Sawos maids would think it was menstrual blood and have to burn them for superstitious reason, these beautiful fresh clean sheets.
She stuck it in. The small sections of her flesh that did not now hurt were numb if not dead. Fen pumped against her. When it was over, he said, ‘There’s your baby.’
‘At least a leg or two,’ she said, as soon as she could trust her voice.
He laughed. The Mumbanyo believed it took many times to make a whole baby. ‘We’ll get to the arms later tonight.’ He swiveled his face to hers and kissed her. ‘Now let’s get ready for that party.”
Worst. Person. Ever. by Douglas Coupland, author of more than a dozen previous novels and half a dozen nonfiction books, is a very funny romp that travels from London to a South Sea island as our bad-luck hero gets a job on a reality show. The brashly anti-American attitudes expressed are all in good fun, I’m sure (they tend to relate to stupid things that deserve it). It’s the voice that carries the tale, so here is a sample (coarse language warning) from the first page:
Seeing that I’m such a good soul and all, I really don’t know how to explain the most recent month of my life. There I was, at home in West London, just trying to live as best I could— karma, karma, karma, sunshine and lightness!—when, out of nowhere, the universe delivered unto me a searinghot kebab of vasectomy leftovers drizzled in donkey jizz.
Whuzzat?! Hello, universe? It’s me, Raymond! What the fuck! I am left, dear reader, with no other option than to believe that when my world turned to shit last month, it was not in fact me who had done anything wrong. Rather it was the universe, for I, Raymond Gunt, am a decent chap who always does the right thing.
The Bend of the World by Jacob Bacharach is a weird and diverting young man’s novel of strange goings-on in Pittsburgh. Are the UFOs real? Is the protagonist’s friend right about conspiracies abounding? Will our wise-cracking hero find real love or stick with his passive girlfriend who shrugs a lot and says this on their first date, “I’m not super into orgasms.”
The Guts by Roddy Doyle is a sequel of sorts to Doyle’s novels, The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van, though you needn’t read any of those to enjoy this one. It’s funny and literate. I like reading male authors who create good fiction out of the real challenges of growing older. I read novels by aging women, too, but the bit of distance I feel when I read of some fellow’s diminishing libido and hair loss and energy isn’t as depressing. The narrative is nearly all short snappy dialogue, concerned with dreams and schemes and cancer and dating and trying to put a band back together years later. If you stick with it, you’ll be moved.
Wake by Anna Hope takes place over five days in 1920, focusing alternately within the same day (chapter) on a variety of women. The overlap among characters is more major in some cases than others, and the narrative builds and becomes more moving, and not sentimental, as you go along, culminating in a huge ceremony in London for the nation’s first Unknown Warrior.
We get to know Hettie, who dances with men at a dance hall for a living and who falls for Ed, who is emotionally broken; Evelyn who helps fill out forms for soldiers in need, and who lost her one love; and Ada whose son died in the war but seems to keep appearing to her in ghostly form. You might call it an anti-war book, or an anti-delusions-about-war novel. Here’s a conversation from late in the book:
“England didn’t win this war. And Germany wouldn’t have won it, either.”
“What do you mean?”
“War wins,” he says. “And it keeps on winning, over and over again.”
He draws a circle in the air with his cigarette, and it’s as if he is drawing all of the wars, however many thousands of them, all of the wars past and all of them to come.
“War wins,” he says bitterly, “and anyone who thinks any differently is a fool.”
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion is a wryly amusing tale narrated by a man who may be on the autism spectrum, but who doesn’t realize it, even though he has researched Asperger Syndrome for a lecture. His current goal is to find a wife, so he sets about it in a methodical way, soon learning that real women whom you find attractive don’t necessarily fit predetermined parameters. While the plot doesn’t offer all that many surprises, it’s a pleasant journey all the way.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman, a Swede, shares some similarities with The Rosie Project, but they’re a world apart in their approach. Ove is an old-fashioned kind of guy: he likes to do things with objects, not talk about feelings. He’s had a very hard life and found love only to lose it. It’s not as though the reader doesn’t see what’s happening when Ove tries every which way to kill himself, all the while making reluctant connections with the quirky and needy people around him. You can’t help but be moved and hope that Ove, who isn’t initially very lovable but who is at heart a very good person, finds a reason to live.
The Two Hotel Francforts by David Leavitt is a relatively quiet story that takes place in Lisbon in 1940, where expatriates and refugees met and mingled and waited for ships to take them out of the path of war. Two couples become friends, and the men find themselves attracted to each other in a way that’s entirely new to the narrator of the tale. This is a novel that takes relationships apart and tries to put them back together, in the shadow of war, without humor and without sentimentality. I was drawn in by the expert writing and held throughout by the emotionally involving story.