The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles (author of A Gentleman in Moscow) follows Emmett Watson, an 18-year-old just released from a juvenile work farm for accidentally causing the death of a fellow who had been bullying him. Having survived his mother’s abandonment, he returns to the family farm, where his father has just died, and the bank has foreclosed on the property. His goal is to take his younger brother, precocious 8-year old Billy, on a road trip westward to California, along the Lincoln Highway, the nation’s first transcontinental route. Two other inmates of the juvenile facility have broken out and attach themselves to Emmett and Billy. Where their travels lead them, and some of the colorful figures they meet (often satirically portrayed), are reminiscent of the picaresque novels of Daniel De Foe, Henry Fielding, Miguel de Cervantes, William Thackeray and Laurence Sterne. The reader roots for the protagonist, who is basically a good person but not necessarily the brightest, is apt to be taken advantage of, but becomes wiser as the narrative proceeds. The novel covers ten days of adventure, color, vibrant characters, and delight for a reader.
Intimacies by Katie Kitamura is about a multi-lingual interpreter who moves to The Hague to work as a translator at the International Court. One of her first major cases is interpreting for a defeated African president charged with war crimes. In addition to her linguistic abilities, she is skilled at discerning nuances of non-verbal communication. Her intimate observations play out in the dramas of her personal life – her still married lover Adriaan; her friend Jana who is affected by a violent attack on a person outside her apartment. The unnamed narrator also gets drawn into the mystery surrounding the victim of that attack. Intelligent, loving, and lonely, she is nonetheless less skilled as she confronts big decisions about her own life. This highly recognized book is short but a really good read.
A Separation by Katie Kitamura written in 2017 (four years before Intimacies) attracted me because I had so enjoyed Intimacies. This earlier book paled by comparison. Although A Separation demonstrated Kitamura’s skill at conceiving a personal story with a mystery to be solved, its execution was flawed. In A Separation, her writing is digressive to the point of distraction, diminishing its value as a tension builder. Her style also loses clarity with overly long sentences, using commas rather than periods, with so many additional phrases and clauses that you have to reread to reconnect subject and predicate. Some parts conveying the protagonist’s interior journey were nearly as thick as James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the end, I could see where the story was going, but I was irritated and not sure I cared if I got there.
Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson is a first novel, about sex, intimacy, love, honesty – all seen through the eyes of a Black man dealing with society’s damaging impact on his physical and emotional well-being. The writing is profound, poetic and provocative. Told through the eyes of the unnamed man, a photographer, the story tenderly recounts his meeting and falling in love with a beautiful dancer. The power of their attraction grows in a sensual manner, enhanced by the visual, musical and rhythmic ways they move through life. The dynamics of their highs and lows, the freedom they experience because of their honest love, are all intensified by the impact of society’s treatments of Blacks in southeast London. The narrative peaks when a Black friend of the narrator is killed. It is a short book, but it is packed with raw emotion, physicality and enduring questions.
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alamedinne is an international best-seller in which, as one critic observed, almost nothing happens. The narrator is a single woman in her ‘70’s who lives life through books. A translator (Fluent in English and French, she has translated 37 books into Arabic), she supports herself by working in a bookshop. She spent most of her time translating great literary works solely for the pleasure of immersing herself in the task. Her unpublished manuscripts remain stuffed in boxes in her apartment. Her descriptions of life in Beirut, especially during the civil war (1975-1990), and of three women also living in her building are laced with literary allusions and humor, witty and acerbic. She (Aaliya) is estranged from her family, and her one friend had died long ago. Her relationship with the three neighbors, whom she disdains, changes slightly toward the end of the book when a catastrophe in the apartment brings the three other tenants to her aid. She doesn’t like other people and, despite her love of literature and music, she is not likable herself. The darkness of her persona becomes a cautionary tale, but this book is not light entertainment.
The 86th Village by Sena Desai Gopal was published last week. It is a spellbinding narrative set in a small village of Southern India. Gopal, a widely published journalist, comes from a small village in India, probably not unlike the setting for the book. Government bureaucracy and corrupt individuals have ravaged a cluster of these lovely villages, whose farmlands were laid waste initially by mining, then by flooding as influential interests built an ill-considered dam on the Krishna River. The government turns a deaf ear to the villagers cries for relocation and compensation. Against this battle between the powerful and the powerless runs the thread of a beautiful young child who seeks refuge in the town of Nilgri. As it turns out, this mysterious child, origins unknown, has ties to Nilgri’s most influential family, and the unraveling of her story and that of her mother make this book hard to put down. Gopal knows how to write compelling narrative, and her frequently lush prose often rises to poetic art.