A Year in Reading: Jennifer Croft

Maaza Mengiste has a new novel out this year called The Shadow King, but I took a while in the spring to read her first book, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, which is easily one of the best novels I’ve ever read. Its spirited prose, its pulsing life force, and the incredible economy of its magnificent wisdom set it apart from just about everything else. Beneath the Lion’s Gaze tells the story of how Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie’s fall in 1975 made way for a brutal military junta, and Mengiste is rightly merciless in her accounts of betrayal, murder, torture, and rape. Everyone should read this book.

I thought Igiaba Scego’s Beyond Babylon was a shocking and exciting book, and Aaron Robertson’s translation from Italian was entrancing and great. One example: “Children were always popping up in the village like poisonous mushrooms. Then he appeared. He looked like a tall child, but he was just very thin. He was like the Buenos Aires sky.” And one more: “Although he’s a man, Maradona looks a lot like me. He looks like an angel when it shits.”

This was a reread for me, since I also read the U.K. edition last year, but Vernon Subutex 1, by French author Virginie Despentes, translated by Frank Wynne, is just out in the U.S. and completely blew my mind—both times. In fact, I can’t wait for next time! Fortunately for all of us, this is the first volume in a trilogy, so there is also more in store. It’s an absolute triumph of curiosity, poise, and sheer narrative power. Despentes and Wynne are like the perfect dance partners, whirling around and around modern-day Paris—with its hypocritical left and its virulent right, its rampant homelessness, racism, and the sad materialism that seems to be eroding its very face—while posing two main, mesmerizing questions: who are we, and what have we become?