Rooney’s much-anticipated third novel lives up to the hype, which is not an easy thing to do for a novelist who has been dubbed the actual voice of her generation. Set in Ireland, her newest novel touches on similar themes as her previous two — friendship, love (unrequited and requited), and class politics — but Rooney’s cast of characters have found themselves cresting 30 and facing a new sense of urgency in their lives. After a stint in New York, Alice, a famous novelist, absconds to a seaside Irish town and meets Felix, a warehouse worker, whom she takes on a publicity tour through Rome. Her best friend Eileen, who has had her own entanglements, pines for Simon, a man she’s known since childhood and who has always been just a little bit out of reach. Rooney’s signature crisp writing depicts these characters as they misread cues, awkwardly try to navigate their relationships, and find their place in the world as aging millennials. What’s exciting and fresh here is insight into Alice — a woman who is wrestling with literary fame so seismic that she has nearly lost herself because of it. One can’t help but think Rooney is grappling with the double-edged sword of her own fame, and it’s fascinating to be able to contemplate it along with her. —Karolina Waclawiak
The author of the short story collection A House is a Body makes her novel debut with this intimate portrait about being an artist and a woman in Bombay during the 1960s and ’70s. Vidya’s complicated relationship with her mother defines her life: her mother’s absence after the birth of her brother, her mother’s return and disdain for Vidya, her mother’s death. But before her death, Vidya’s mother instructed her to become a mother to her brother and devote herself to dance. Vidya becomes consumed by dance, aspiring to be an artist like her teacher. Her absorption with dance continues once she’s in college studying electrical engineering, where she begins to fall in love with a fellow female student, though she eventually marries a wealthy English man. Vidya holds onto one truth: She will not have a child; she will dance and be free, unlike her mother. Swamy brings Bombay to life with her rich descriptions of food and setting, and the richness of her prose continues with its portrayal of Vidya’s inner life. Despite the historical setting, Vidya’s struggles with how to be a wife, mother, and artist are equally relevant today. It’s a gorgeous, sumptuous novel. —Margaret Kingsbury
Chicago journalist Dawn Turner charts the divergent paths of three little girls — her younger sister Kim, her childhood best friend Debra, and Dawn herself — in this powerful memoir. Growing up together in a housing complex in 1970s Bronzeville, Turner is an ambitious student, while her younger sister Kim skips school and mouths off to their mother. Debra, meanwhile, is a class clown, who, as she ages, becomes more interested in partying and drugs. While Turner goes on to become an accomplished journalist, Kim, who has an alcohol addiction, dies of a heart attack at only 24, while Debra is eventually imprisoned for killing a man. How these girls — who grew up in the same building in a working-class neighborhood once famous for its Black luminaries but besieged by institutional neglect, violence, and drug addiction — had such different life experiences is the central question of this book. Turner provides no easy answers while passing no judgment. —Tomi Obaro
In Lish’s follow-up to Preparation for the Next Life, his PEN/Faulkner Award–winning debut, 15-year-old Corey’s mother Gloria is diagnosed with ALS and his estranged, mysterious father, Leonard, comes back. Told over Corey’s teenage years, The War for Gloria begins as a poignant narrative about confronting mortality and the fragility of life and evolves into a taut, mesmerizing thriller. Vividly realized and researched, Gloria uses an intimate level of detail to describe making ends meet as a single mother, prolonged neuromuscular degeneration, life in crummy apartments, and the connections one makes in the working-class Boston suburbs. Lish draws from personal experience serving in the Marines and competing in mixed martial arts fights to tell the gripping story of Corey’s youth and young adulthood as his coping leads to hormonal rage and delinquency. —Emerson Malone
Groff sets this powerful, sapphic historical novel in 12th-century medieval England during Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine's reign, though King Henry is never mentioned in the novel. Instead of the usual male-centric narratives from medieval history — ones focusing on King Richard or the Crusades or even Robin Hood — the novel focuses on women's concerns and power. After her mother dies, young Marie de France is sent to Queen Eleanor's court. Flummoxed with what to do with Marie — who is too tall, too manly, too clumsy, and, perhaps, too in love with the queen — Eleanor decides to send her to an abbey as its new prioress. While at first Marie longs for the queen and struggles to acclimate to her new impoverished life as a nun, after writing her Lais, Marie has an epiphany and begins turning the abbey into a women's haven. This is a place where women can love women and find respite from the abuse of the outside world. The abbey exists both within its time and outside its influence. Marie is queen of it all. Little is known about the actual Marie de France, but Groff's reimagining of her life is richly realized with historical details that don't overwhelm. —M.K.
The Jamaican poet Kei Miller turns to nonfiction in this excellent essay collection exploring the strategic and harmful silences that occur in the family and in the world. The essays take various forms — some are letters, including ones written to James Baldwin and the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, while others are written in the second person, or in the third. Each essay unpacks common assumptions — how racism impacts predominantly Black countries, the self-righteousness of white liberals, the class divides among Black immigrants. There’s no didacticism or sermons here, merely curiosity and sometimes anger and a deep commitment to speaking the uncomfortable truths we’d rather not hear. A bold and daring collection. —T.O.
A master of genre-hopping, Whitehead tackles crime fiction in this compelling read about how people justify becoming criminals. Like his recent novels, Whitehead takes a setting in Black America and fully develops it into its own character — in this case, 1960s Harlem. In three distinct yet connected storylines, Black furniture salesman and entrepreneur Ray Carney finds himself in the midst of a crime — sometimes a crime he’s planning, and sometimes a crime his wayward cousin Freddie has drawn him into. Ray considers his illicit activities distinct from the risky, messy crimes his father participated in and his miscreant cousin often finds himself involved with. Ray still views himself as an upstanding member of the community whose illegal work is only done out of necessity, or so he tells himself. Those only familiar with Whitehead’s past two novels might be surprised by the thematic departure in his latest work, but his gift of bringing historical African American settings to life is a consistent theme, and this one is well worth reading. —M. K.
Jones returns to novel writing after a 21-year hiatus with this sweeping chronicle of the life of an enslaved woman named Almeyda. The novel opens with 8-year-old Almeyda learning to read from the white priest Father Tollinare. She and her mother and grandmother are enslaved on a Brazilian plantation, and she spends her days learning to read basic religious texts and listening to her grandmother’s stories. Some call her grandmother a witch or insane, but Almeyda enjoys her grandmother’s nonsense stories and slowly begins to see some truth in them. As Almeyda travels from plantation to plantation, her reading, writing, and language skills grow. She meets a large cast of characters, from English writers to free Black folk and sorcerers. She marries a Muslim man named Martim Anninho, and the two find freedom and a home in Palmares, a secret settlement where the enslaved can live free. When Portuguese soldiers raze the settlement and Almeyda is separated from Martim, she embarks on a journey across Brazil to find him. Jones entwines magical realism with rich historical details and compelling characters to create a stunning epic of 17th-century colonial Brazil. —M.K.
Science writer Roach is known for her hit book on cadavers Stiff (2003), sex treatise Bonk (2008), and a string of other monosyllabic deep dives. Her newest tackles how wildlife and humankind collide in illegal, unethical, and sometimes murderous ways. “The wildlife in these pages are simply animals doing what animals do: feeding, shitting, setting up a home, defending themselves or their young. They just happen to be doing these things to, or on, a human, or that human’s home or crops,” she writes. Roach cites a 1659 case in Italy, where caterpillars were charged with trespassing, summoned to court, and given legal representation. Fuzz is about how absurd it is to apply the human-designed legal system toward acts of nature, but, zooming out, it’s also about the hubristic idea that we could ever tame the chaos of wildlife. The book is full of kernels of fascinating information; in the “Breaking and Entering and Eating” chapter, she delves into the ethics of translocating bears far from home, the effect of climate change on their hibernation, and which doorknobs they can easily manipulate. Her approach is informative and unpretentious, and she’s always armed with a dry sense of humor. Roach will change the way you think about the great outdoors. What more could you ask for? —E.M.
Millions of refugees from the Middle East and Africa traverse the Aegean Sea by boat in an attempt to find asylum on the island of Lesbos. This is the setting for Alameddine’s latest novel.
Mina, a physician who grew up in Beirut and is the trans daughter of a Syrian mother and Lebanese father, receives an invitation from a nurse friend to come to Lesbos to offer her medical and translation services. Her brother Mezan, the only member of her family she still speaks to, will meet her there as well.
Written in short chapters and addressed to an unnamed acquaintance who, like Alameddine, is a gay Lebanese writer, Mina oscillates between her own memories: meeting her wife, Francine, her decadeslong estrangement from her family, and the stories of refugees on Lesbos. She meets a Syrian family whose wife and mother, Sumaiya, has advanced cancer and doesn’t want her children to know. Mina watches venal white volunteers ask for selfies and European journalists make racist assumptions about the people they interview. The refugee crisis has become the kind of slowly unfolding calamity that can invite a lot of overwrought trauma porn; Alameddine resists that temptation here, opting for nuanced and insightful reflections on ordinary people trapped in horrific circumstances often caused by the countries whose asylum they now seek. —T.O.
In The Overstory, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Powers went big. His characters spanned decades, centuries even, as a ragtag group of ecowarriors attempt to stop the destruction of chestnut trees. In Bewilderment, Powers hones in on a father and son. Theo Byrne, an astrobiologist, is trying to care for his 9-year-old son Robin, who has a love for nature inherited from his late mother, an environmental lawyer. But Robin also has trouble controlling his anger, which is causing problems for him at school. When a new experimental neurological treatment becomes a possibility, Theo decides to have Robin enroll. But as he becomes a calmer person, political strife escalates, courtesy of a climate change–denying president who refuses to concede after an election, which threatens to end the lifesaving treatment Robin has been receiving. Powers writes wonderfully and hauntingly about the natural world, and in Bewilderment, Powers grapples with one of the most fraught aspects of living on Earth right now: What kind of planet do we want our children to inherit? —T.O.
The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century by Amia Srinivasan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Sept. 21)
In a 2018 essay for the London Review of Books that subsequently went viral, the Oxford professor challenges the idea that our sexual desires are innate, fixed, immutable preferences uninfluenced by the social forces around us, or that — even if they are — those desires, which deem certain minority groups “fuckable” and others not, should go unquestioned.
Srinivasan has now written an essay collection, first published in the UK in August, which includes that essay as well as five other essays about sex and feminism more broadly. In “The Conspiracy Against Men,” she writes about the faux apology tours of famous bad men and also the tensions inherent in a phrase like “believe women.” (The women who are to be believed are overwhelmingly white and middle class or higher; this same courtesy often does not extend to people outside those descriptors). In “Talking to My Students About Porn,” she revisits the arguments of anti-porn feminists like Andrea Dworkin and marvels at how her students who grew up with porn’s ubiquity are apt to agree with Dworkin that there is something insidious about the male and female dynamics of most mainstream porn. She also revisits her 2018 essay in a follow-up: “Coda: The Politics of Desire.” The strength of this collection lies mainly in Srinivasan’s appetite for questioning comforting norms: “Feminism must be relentlessly truth-telling,” she writes in the preface, “not least about itself.” —T.O.
The follow-up to Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize–winning All the Light We Cannot See, Cloud Cuckoo Land is a novel of epic stature and ambition. It oscillates between five disparate characters: Anna and Omeir, two young children witnessing the fall of Constantinople in the year 1453; Seymour and Zeno, whose lives intersect during an attempted bombing at a library in present-day Idaho (some readers have criticized the portrayal of Seymour’s neurodivergence and his vilification); and Konstance, a 14-year-old living on a spaceship drifting through the cosmos on a centurieslong voyage. These vignettes can last years or just a moment; though their lives are separated by time and space, they’re unified by an ancient Greek fable and the enduring tradition of storytelling. The novel itself is not strictly story-driven and instead operates as a series of independent character studies (which works because of Doerr’s deep and tender empathy for said characters) — but there is so much book in this book: It is in turn a coming-of-age tale, war epic, and historical fiction and cycles between pulsing drama, magical realism, and high-concept sci-fi. —E.M.
Sixty-nine-year-old Charlie Barnes has cancer. His business as a financial adviser is on shaky ground following The Great Recession, and his relationships with his adult children and ex-wives are strained, save for his relationship to his second-born son, Jake, who narrates the novel. Jake paints a compelling portrait of a man “Updikean in his defects and indulgences,” born in Illinois at the turn of the century, always trying to start a new business, and who is a profligate cheater and a less than ideal father. But his declining health compels Charlie to make amends. With a Rothian sense of humor and equally slippery relationship to fiction and fact, A Calling for Charlie Barnes is a return to form for the author of the 2007 bestseller Then We Came to the End. —T.O.
Like the best of Toews’ novels, Fight Night deals with weighty subjects — suicide, aging, illness, and mortality — with a keen sense of humor. Swiv, a spunky 9-year-old who has been suspended from school, writes letters to her absent father. The letters are mostly about her grandma, a chronically ill firecracker who loves to rile her daughter, Swiv’s mother, who is a struggling actor pregnant with a baby they’ve all dubbed Gord. When Swiv and her grandmother leave their Toronto apartment to visit relatives in Fresno, California, Swiv learns more about her family’s true fighting spirit. Like Toews herself, Swiv comes from a family of Mennonites, a minority Christian sect with strict gender roles for its dwindling populace. Her aunt and grandfather killed themselves and the shadow of that loss haunts both her grandmother and her mother, but they both cope, or fight as Swiv puts it, in different ways. As a narrator, Swiv is charming and hilarious, her grandmother even moreso. I laughed and cried reading this book; I can’t think of a higher endorsement. —T.O.
How the lives of disparate people are affected by the 2010 Haitian earthquake is the focus of this poignant novel by a Haitian-Canadian-American academic. There’s Ma Lou, a market woman and neighborhood fixture, whose son, Richard, a rich businessman who lives in Paris, returns to Haiti unbeknownst to her; Sara, a young mother mourning the loss of her children and missing husband; Sonia, a high-class escort with aspirations of owning her own home with her best friend, Dieudonné; Leopold, a Trinidadian drug dealer who adopts Haiti as his hometown; Sonia’s younger sister, Taffia; and Didier, a cab driver living in Boston and aching for home, among other characters all connected to each other in various ways.
Each chapter centers on a different character; some of them survive the earthquake and recount the grim aftermath, living in tent cities built by foreign aid; others reminisce about their lives before “Douze” (Kreyòl for 12; the earthquake hit Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010), lives that weren’t necessarily easy in a country plagued by income inequality and the insidious aftereffects of U.S. and French occupation. This book is a difficult but incredibly powerful read. —T.O.
Known for his absurdist fiction, Lim continues that streak here with this experimental, freewheeling exploration of grief and capitalism. Characters morph from college professors to robots and factory workers. Existential conversations about identity and self take place between a person and a dog. Fans of Lim’s previous novels and Borges’ obvious influence won’t be disappointed here. —T.O.
Losing a person we love leaves us with a sense of instability, muddying a self that might have previously seemed clear. Discoveries can do the same. In Chibundu Onuzo’s third novel, Sankofa, fiftysomething Anna Bain is mourning her quiet, unassuming mother when she discovers her father’s old diary. Having only known the merest outline of his life — his name, Francis Aggrey, and the fact that he was a Black student in London who once lodged with her maternal family — she relishes the confidence and intimacy of his words. But the diary also reveals his true identity: He went on to become the president of Bamana, a small (fictional) West African country.
Subtly infused with Anna’s self-protective guardedness, Sankofa tracks her journey to her father’s homeland in search of family and identity. Some may balk at the invented geography and the straightforward way Anna’s past unfolds (though it’s not without conflict). But Onuzo’s clean prose highlights the novel’s hopeful contours. The title, Sankofa, is an Akan word denoting a mythical bird that “flies forwards with its head facing back.” That is, if you study your past, you can move on with your future. Wouldn’t it be good if that were true? —Estelle Tang
Albert Samaha’s Concepcion is probably the most satisfying first-gen immigrant memoir I’ve read in recent memory. As he reaches the age his mother was when she migrated to the US from the Philippines, Samaha investigates his mother’s beliefs that led her here, their family history, and whether a life in America was worth it after all. Samaha, who is half-Filipino and half-Lebanese, charts not just his family’s immigration story, but the story of countless others who came around that time too. Part-memoir and part-journalistic venture, Concepcion is both a time capsule about a family’s hopes and desires, as well as a history lesson for those who don’t know much about US immigration, Spanish colonialism, and the legacy of imperialism. It’s a personal story that only a reporter could write. (Full disclosure: Samaha is an editor at BuzzFeed News, and I also wrote a blurb for his book before its release.)
The book is, at once, informative but approachable, heartbreaking but hopeful. It doesn’t matter where your family is from, where they ended up, or where you think you belong — Concepcion speaks to the inherently human desire to build something better. —Scaachi Koul
Antrim is both a fiction writer and an exceptionally skilled memoirist, and his 2006 book about his alcoholic mother, The Afterlife: A Memoir, was a funny, loving, and ultimately tragic portrait of a woman trapped in a cycle of addiction and mental health issues. Now, in One Friday in April, he recounts the journey he took leading up to his first memoir’s publication, when he was wrestling with dread thinking that he had betrayed his mother by telling the story of his tumultuous upbringing. With exceptional clarity and tremendous self-compassion, Antrim methodically recounts the moments that led up to committing himself to a psychiatric hospital for several months and the harrowing experience of getting the help he needed to bring himself back from psychosis, including treatments of ECT. Interwoven in his hospital experience is a documentation of the personal annihilations he has suffered throughout his life because of his childhood: “If any one feeling has defined my life, it is the feeling, more an awareness than a thought, that only lonely rooms are safe.” (Disclosure: Donald Antrim was my professor at Columbia University in 2009.) —K.W.
Bajaber won the first Graywolf Press African Fiction Prize with this unique novel set in Mombasa, Kenya. Aisha’s mother died when she was younger, and now her father, a fisher, has gone missing. Her grandmother believes him to be dead, but Aisha refuses to give up hope. With the encouragement and help of a mysterious talking cat, Aisha journeys across the water on a skeleton boat searching for her father. On the water, she meets mythical creatures and beasts from Hadhrami folklore who help her on her quest. With sparse, sharply written prose and surreal imaginings, this vivid coming-of-age novel depicts the complexity of childhood, the importance of family, and the thirst for adventure. —M.K.
Consider this novel by Pulitizer-winner Strout a book-length refutation of the idea that exes can’t be friends. First introduced to readers in My Name Is Lucy Barton, Barton is now recently widowed and still living in New York City. She’s friendly with her first husband, William, whose young wife has unexpectedly left him and taken their young daughter with her.
Feeling bereft and with lingering curiosity and grief about his late mother, a Maine woman who married a German prisoner of war, William and Lucy embark on an unconventional road trip to uncover some secrets about her past. Written with Strout’s signature compassion, Oh, William! is a moving depiction of family. —T.O.
It seems odd to call a book delightful when it tackles such decidedly undelightful topics: the pandemic, a ghost haunting, an indigenous woman wrongfully accused of a crime and sentenced to 60 years in prison, police brutality, the entire year of 2020. Yet this novel, with its spiky yet warm main character and homage to the world of bookselling and reading, is an utterly delightful read that doesn't shy away from 2020's misery and uncertainty. Much of the novel takes place in author Louise Erdrich's bookstore, Birchbark Books. When Tookie is released from prison after a much shorter sentence than she originally received, she begins working in the bookstore. She also reunites with the man who arrested her and the two marry. Shortly before the pandemic, a frequent customer, Flora, dies and begins haunting the bookstore, particularly Tookie. Flora was the kind of white woman who longed to be indigenous and frequently invented ties to the indigenous community, although she also donated to the community. At first, her ghost is content to wander amongst the shelves, idly flipping through books, but when the pandemic hits, the ghost becomes more sinister. Sentences in multiple forms play an essential role in the novel, from prison sentences to favorite sentences from books. While the novel does meander from its ghostly plot, the bookish odes and conversations, as well as Tookie's family life, are such a joy to read that the reader will hardly mind. The novel is likely to become the book to read about the pandemic. —M. K.
In 2012, Blake’s 16-year-old cousin killed a 9-year-old boy during what his family believes was a psychotic break. He confessed to the crime and was subsequently tried as an adult for murder. Blake, now a lawyer, unpacks this history of violence both in her family, which has a history of alcoholism and violence, and the nation writ large. She teaches at a prison outside San Francisco and meets young men who, unlike her cousin, are poor and Black or brown. Like Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty, which she often quotes, The Uninnocent is a sobering meditation on what justice and mercy look like and who gets it and who doesn’t. —T.O
This series of lyrical vignettes unveils a British South Asian girl’s coming of age amid her mother’s mental illness. Ruby talked as a toddler, interpreting her older sister Rania’s constant stream of dialogue for her mother, but once she begins school she stops talking. She becomes an observer, and her startling observations are both comedic and melancholic, from comparing her father to a canary to describing her sister’s predilection for blood and her mother’s episodic torpor and mental anguish. These brief stories from Ruby’s life capture her child's perspective while also depicting realities Ruby experiences but hasn’t yet grasped, like her neighbor’s racism and her mother’s mental health. It’s a beautifully written and heartbreaking novel that blends autobiography with fiction and poetry with prose. —M.K.
The author of such bestselling novels as The Dutch House, Bel Canto, and Commonwealth has come out with her fourth book of nonfiction with this collection of essays about her life. They range in subject matter from her decision not to have children, to her relationship with her father and two stepdads, to the sprawling title essay about the unique friendship she had with a woman who worked as Tom Hanks’s assistant and the strain of illness and mortality. Patchett’s wise and compassionate voice and wry sense of humor make this collection well worth reading. —T.O. ●