The novel—named one of the Best Books to Read This Winter by Vogue—earned praise for Victor LaValle, who said: “Africaville turns history into an engaging family story, one that begins in Nova Scotia and then travels across North America. It’s a gripping and moving book. Jeffrey Colvin writes with such affection and authority. I thought of the fine work of Esi Edugyan and Edward P. Jones and E.L. Doctorow, too. He deserves to be counted in their number and this is an excellent debut.”
Nova Scotia, 1918
Newborns are never afflicted with the malady. The swollen tongue, the reddish throat, the raw cough seem to afflict only babies older than six months. By the spring, in the village situated on a small knuckle-shaped peninsula just north of Halifax, all five of the stricken babies have now developed a high fever.
Having no luck with sweet milk and lemon bitter, worried mothers administer castor oil mixed with camphor, then a tea of beer’s root steeped with beech ash and clover. When desperate, they even place a few charms under the mattresses of the beds where the stricken babies lie crying.
In mid-April, with three more babies now suffering from the malady, health department nurses visit the village, their faces frozen even before they have examined a single new case. Why our children? several mothers standing in the yard of one house want to know. Hadn’t Halifax already given enough babies in the fire that leveled ten square blocks of the city months before, when the munitions ship exploded in the harbor? Then again, those had been white babies. No colored babies had died in that explosion. Was it now Woods Bluff’s turn to lose infants? And if so, how many—five, ten, all twenty-two?
The following week, after two of the feverish babies die, the mothers turn to the grandmothers, though many are leery of this option. Already several grandmothers have suggested that since the home remedies haven’t worked, and since neither nurse nor doctor has useful medicines, the afflicted infants must be bad-luck babies.
It is an expression the mothers haven’t heard since they were children, though the fear of having a bad-luck baby has terrorized mothers on the bluff as far back as 1790. That was the year the first groups of cabins sprang up across the bluff, displacing the foxes, hare, and moose that ran through the thick Christmas ferns and sheep laurel. Back when no medicine could reinvigorate a baby whose body had begun to show the outline of bones, smothering was sometimes recommended. Take no action, and bad luck might infect the entire village. Best to end the child’s suffering midday, when injurious spirits would likely be bedside, feeding on the moisture of a weak baby’s last breaths.
Yet several mothers are unconvinced the deceased infants are bad-luck babies.
And even if the now-suffering babies are saddled with bad luck, who’s to say those old tales of smothering are true? Had anyone actually seen a mother place a blanket or pillow over a child’s face? And most important for these new cases: by what evidence will we make the diagnosis?
The grandmothers have ready answers. For several descendants of the Virginian who came up to Nova Scotia in 1772 as a messenger in the British army, a feverish baby had to be put to sleep if its father had recently had a limb severed above the knee or elbow. Death was also imminent if the baby’s fever came during the same month as the mother’s birthday. For the granddaughter of the Congolese woman who, in 1785, dressed as a man, sailed into Halifax Harbour on a ship out of Lisbon, Portugal, a feverish baby had to be smothered if the newborn was smaller than a man’s hand.
And for the largest group of grandmothers, those descended from the nearly two hundred Jamaicans who landed in Halifax Harbour in 1788 after being expelled by British soldiers from their island villages for fomenting rebellion, a feverish baby’s fate was sealed if the child coughed up blood during the same month a traveling man arrived on your stoop selling quill turpentine, goat leather, or gunpowder. Hadn’t such a vendor made the rounds in Woods Bluff the month before? Why continue to nurse such a child? Death already had a square toe on the baby’s throat. It was only a matter of days, a week maybe, if the baby were a girl.
The mothers nod as they listen to the explanations, but over the next weeks only one baby is smothered, although Lovee Mills denies doing it. Near the beginning of May, however, another mother on the bluff seriously considers taking the grandmothers’ advice about ending her baby’s suffering. Her afflicted child is the cousin of the first baby that developed the fever. Adding to the mother’s exasperation are the noisy groups of neighbors that have been gathering outside her home each day at sunset, a few of them knocking on the door and asking outright if the bad-luck baby had been relieved of its worldly suffering.
By now the malady has a name. It refers to the style of cabin where the woman and her extended family live. A dogtrot cabin’s construction— two rooms connected by a short breezeway in the middle—had confounded the villagers for years. Some suspected the man who built the cabin wanted a reminder of his home in Virginia. But a breezeway in a dwelling in Nova Scotia? Pure stupidity.
And now living in the cabin has caused two babies to get sick. Many blame the parents and the other members of the large extended family that lives there. Tight living made sense in 1782, they say, but this is 1918. If parents, grown children, and grandchildren are going to continue to jungle up in quarters that tight, what was the use of leaving prison? Even in the best families, sleeping foot to head too long breeds animosity. And if lies, jealousy, and ill will erupt easily in close quarters, why not a virulent fever?
“Will she do it?” someone in the crowd that has arrived at the dogtrot cabin this evening asks.
“If you mean smother the child, she had better,” another replies. “Or else one of us will.”
The cabin’s odd construction had also puzzled several of the rebellious Jamaicans who arrived in Halifax Harbour in 1788. Of course, by the time they first saw the odd dwelling, their minds had been addled by two years of confinement in the military prison on the western edge of Halifax. It took that long before Canadian military commanders believed they had sorted out which of the prisoners were combatants or abettors, and which were mere residents of the Jamaican villages torched by British soldiers.
The wait had been a horror in the cramped underground magazine and provisions spaces.
Eighty-two prisoners were moved to cells aboveground. From this group, squads of men were conscripted to repair damaged sections of the Citadel, help guard the city against French soldiers raiding its perimeter, and do road repair. One warm October day, a group of men on a road detail snuck off to walk the foot trails of Woods Bluff.
Most of the men had heard by then that the money being sent from London and Jamaica to house the prisoners had slowed to a trickle. With no firm offer yet from the government of Sierra Leone to accept them and their families, the men walked the trails looking for the cabin where military officials said a few families would soon be offered housing.
The first two families released from prison and driven by mule wagon out to the bluff never learned what happened to the family from Virginia that had lived there. But with the almanac predicting a heavy snowstorm within the week, they set about gathering dried grass and mud and fieldstones to repair the roof, chink the gaps in the logs, and mend the chimney. The men and women had their freedom. But they were facing a winter on their own in a cold, unfamiliar place. To them, this oddly built cabin seemed a present from God.
With the fever threatening another baby, villagers in 1918 have a different view of the dogtrot cabin. After hearing that the infant suffering inside the dwelling was not smothered but died on its own, they want nothing more to do with the cabin. Fearful that it is harboring bad air that might kill another baby, they chase out the families living there and set the cabin ablaze.
But what had their actions accomplished, the villagers wonder one afternoon in June, when word spreads that little Kath Ella Sebolt, who lives at 68 Dempsey Road, has developed the fever.
By now seven babies have died.
Fearing her daughter might be the eighth child to die of the fever, Kath Ella Sebolt’s mother, Shirley, goes in search of the handmade dolls she had purchased the previous winter. All ten of the dolls made by the neighborhood leatherworker were imitations of the Lucky Beatrice doll that had been fought over by a platoon of fathers in a pistol-shooting contest at the most recent Pictou County Exposition. What can it hurt, Shirley Sebolt figures, to slide her daughter’s doll under the bed where her daughter suffers?
That evening Kath Ella’s fever breaks. The next morning Shirley carries the doll to a house down the road. The next afternoon, similar dolls are slipped under other beds all across the village.
“Could be the fever just tired itself out,” George Sebolt tells a neighbor visiting with the news that his previously ailing infant has sucked down a full bottle of milk. “And maybe the nurses are bringing better medicine.”
“No,” Shirley insists. “That lucky doll under the bed did the trick.”
© Africaville by Jeffrey Colvin Amistad Books/HarperOne
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Jeffrey Colvin, Cameron Awkward-Rich, Saskia Sarginson, Iona Grey, and more—that are publishing this week.
Africaville by Jeffrey Colvin
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Africaville: “Inspired by Africville, a neighborhood in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Colvin’s intriguing and memorable debut shines a light on a little-known black experience: the freed slaves from the Caribbean and U.S. who established a community in Canada in the 1800s. This family saga extends from 1918 to 1992 and focuses on descendants of the Sebolt and Platt families, who are joined when Omar Platt has an affair with Kath Ella Sebolt in 1936 right before his accidental death. She gives birth to a son and leaves Halifax for Montreal to further her education, meeting her future husband there, a white man who adopts baby Omar, renaming him Etienne. Etienne moves to Alabama in the 1960s, passes for white, marries a white woman, and ignores the black side of his family to such an extent that his own son, Warner, doesn’t find out about his black heritage until after his father’s death. Colvin expertly weaves in the subject of owning one’s heritage as Warner comes to terms with his Canadian past and the tragedies that dogged the Sebolts and Platts. The book covers much territory—the black experience in a small enclave in Canada and Etienne’s and Warner’s grappling with their racial identity—and sometimes these varying plots feel like they belong in two different books, making for a novel that feels diffuse. Nevertheless, this is a penetrating, fresh look at the indomitable spirit of black pioneers and their descendants.”
Dispatch by Cameron Awkward-Rich
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Dispatch: “Cave Canem–fellow and Lambda Literary Award–finalist Awkward-Rich (Sympathetic Little Monster) holds self (‘the pith of me,’) assuredly at the surface of his powerful second collection. Imagination emerges as a strategy for black trans survival: ‘if I have to I’ll shape a window/ to the universe adjacent calm/ my blackened heart.’ Weighed down by the ‘brutal choreography’ of violence against black, queer, and trans bodies, the poet reestablishes buoyancy through will and formidable artistry: ‘now I have a choice/ repair a world or build/ a new one inside my body.’ In a linked series of poems that share the title ‘[Black Feeling],’ the poet wakes ‘alone in the manic dark/ head in [his] hands ringing// &ringing, faithful/ goddamned blood alarm’ or rides, anonymous, on a bus through the city, ‘circling like animals, like prey.’ ‘Either way,’ a refrain reminds, ‘there you are in the room with your body.’ In countless rooms, poetry plays out the ‘perfect skein/ of my living, brazen/ misplaced song’: ‘I think gunflower & here’s a field. Here’s a room/ where every bullet planted blooms,’ and ‘here’s a room/ where everything you’ve lost is washed ashore.’ In these poems of bracing clarity, national violence is unflinchingly and meaningfully confronted.”
Gatekeeper by Patrick Johnson
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Gatekeeper: “In this impressive and formally versatile debut, Johnson places the lyric in dialogue with a host of nonpoetic forms, among them diagrams, numbered lists, and maps. ‘It’s different in the lab; dissection is bloodless,’ he warns early in the collection. Johnson frames beauty and transcendence as a source of authority equal to the language of formal scientific inquiry. ‘Speak from a place of reversibilities,’ he advises, as though describing the poems’ own provocative movements between types of discourse. Johnson’s strength lies in his ability to reflect on his own unexpected juxtapositions and wild associative leaps: ‘The dream has not only shown me history in reverse but somehow changed it,’ he writes. Johnson calls attention to his own agency in inhabiting language, ‘In this moment I realize I have a level of control,’ framing his practice as a poetics of intervention. The work is filled with self-aware poems like this one, which reflect on their own philosophical underpinnings, and Johnson’s formal experimentation compliments the poems, involving and implicating the reader in their critique of linguistic hierarchies. ‘The individual becomes invisible,’ he observes, positioning the reader as collaborator and coconspirator in this thought-provoking collection.”
The Wonderful by Saskia Sarginson
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Wonderful: “Sarginson (The Other Me) crafts an unusual, bittersweet coming-of-age novel that’s also a fascinating mystery steeped in Cold War history. Ruby thought she had left her lonely, emotionally desolate childhood in Norfolk, England, behind when she married Todd, a dashing American fighter pilot. In 1957, however, Todd receives a new posting at a U.S. airbase in England, close to where Ruby grew up, and they move there with their 12-year-old twins, Hedy and Christopher. Hedy is tomboyish and brave, often sticking up for her fragile, dreamy brother, who avoids his painful scoliosis (and equally painful back brace) by escaping into an imaginary science fiction universe. Life on the base is lonely and claustrophobic—as Christopher claims to hear screams and see mysterious lights, and as Todd’s behavior grows increasingly erratic, the family arrives at a breaking point that leaves Hedy on her own, contending with profound losses. Over the following 20 years, Hedy gradually grasps—and then confronts—the lies and misperceptions that, she comes to realize, characterized her childhood. Sarginson effectively interrogates the power of storytelling to engender catharsis and healing but also to deceive others and destroy relationships. Portions of the early sections are presented from Ruby’s and Christopher’s points of view, but as the narrative develops, it becomes Hedy’s story of reclaiming the truth and redefining the past. Set against a historical backdrop that will surprise many readers, Sarginson’s novel movingly captures the private and at times painful evolution of a resilient and inventive protagonist.”
The Cupped Field by Deirdre O’Connor
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Cupped Field: “Readers will need to quiet themselves as they lean into the hushed subtlety of O’Connor’s formally precise second collection (after Before the Blue Hour). The book reflects a sensibility of belatedness: ‘What is the word for not having been/ in the room, for missing the turn?’ Elsewhere, a car-struck doe lies dying, “awash… in glass and fur,” while the poem resolves with Dickinson-ian imagery: ‘the ocean// closing over, its great rolling horses/ corralled, a finger of sun/ holding the horizon down.’ In such moments, the poet calls into question the very conditions that make possible the tranquility from which emotion is recollected: ‘this now,/ no, this now,/ which, when I write it down,/ becomes this snow,// this snow, a way of covering things,/ the ethical problem,/ privilege of saying, I am here,/ in this calm place,// while elsewhere girls are being stacked/ in trucks.’ And yet, the contours of such privilege remain merely suggested, however apologetic (‘as if my special/ self-knowledge should translate into something’). Readers will find a poet who masterfully serves the elegiac mode she favors: ‘the mystery within trumping/ the mystery without.'”
The Glittering Hour by Iona Grey
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Glittering Hour: “A nine-year-old child pieces together clues to her mother’s wild past in this slow-building but dramatic historical tale of love lost and familial secrets uncovered from Grey (Letters to the Lost). In 1936 England, Alice Carew is sent to live with austere grandparents after her parents leave for Burma. Her only entertainment is her correspondence with her mother, Selina, who sends her clues to a treasure hunt that gradually reveals the story of Selina’s life before Alice was born. In 1925, Selina Lennox was one of the ‘Bright Young People’ whose outrageous behavior often featured in gossip columns. Though Selina’s parents urged her to settle down with staid former soldier Rupert Carew, bohemian artist Lawrence Weston captured her heart. Told in a series of extended flashbacks, their romance is vividly drawn and heart-wrenching. Together, Alice and the reader come to understand that Alice’s origins are not what they seem—but that’s not the only secret the family is keeping. The novel’s final twist is a devastating blow that more than makes up for some plodding plotting during the buildup. This sweeping history is sure to be a tearjerker.”
We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month—if you need more reading inspiration to close out 2019, check out our Second-Half Preview. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!
The Story of a Goat by Perumal Murugan (translated by N. Kalyan Raman): National Book Award nominee Murugan returns with an allegorical novel from the perspective of Poonachi, a helpless and rare black goat. When taken in by a poor farming family, Poonachi discovers the world is far more precious, uncertain, and dangerous than she could have ever dreamed. Kirkus’ starred review calls the novel “an affecting modern fable reflecting Murugan’s enchanting capacity to make a simple story resonate on many levels.” (Carolyn)
Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer: Not all writers can make you feel human emotions about ectoplasmic goo, but not all writers are Jeff VanderMeer. In his latest spin-off from Borne and The Strange Bird, VanderMeer again invites us to the hallucinatory ruins of an unnamed City, beshadowed by the all-powerful Company, and rife with all manners of mysterious characters. Fish, foxes, and madmen, Oh my. (Nick M.)
Migrating to Prison by César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández: García Hernández, a University of Denver law professor and immigration lawyer, offers a powerful critique of immigration dentention. In exploring the intersection of the immigration system and criminal justice, historian Aviva Chomsky says: “García Hernández brings a sharp legal eye to showing how our immigration system has become so twisted that we take for granted the outrageous.” (Carolyn)
Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo (translated by Charlotte Coombe): García Robayo’s first English translation is comprised of two novellas—Waiting for a Hurricane and Sexual Education—and Worse Things, her Casa de las Américas Prize award-winning short story collection. Publishers Weekly’s starred review calls the collection a “gorgeous, blackly humorous” glimpse into the lives of Colombians home and abroad. (Carolyn)
Africaville by Jeffrey Colvin: In his long-awaited debut, Colvin’s triptych debut follows three generations of the Sebolt family from the 1930s through the 1980s. In a small Novia Scotia town settled by their freed ancestors, the Sebolts must contend with family history, racial discrimination, identity and the idea of home. Publishers Weekly called the debut “a penetrating, fresh look at the indomitable spirit of black pioneers and their descendants.” (Carolyn)
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid: Reid’s debut novel follows the complicated relationship between Emira, a 25-year-old black babysitter, and Alix, her white employer. When Emira is accused of stealing the boy she nannies by a grocery store security guard, their lives are thrown into turmoil stoked by secrets, racism, and obsession. Kirkus’ starred review calls the novel “charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.” (Carolyn)
The Heart is a Full-Wild Beast by John L’Heureux: Compiled in the twilight of his life, the late writer’s posthumous collection features both new and previously published stories exploring tragedy, joy, doubt, and faith. Kirkus’ starred review calls the stories “moral tales full of love and irony written by a master.” (Carolyn)
This list of 10 writers to watch features the authors of five translated works—from the French, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish. Even the American authors’ books have a distinctly international flavor, with a collection riffing on Turkish history, a Cold War intrigue, and a sweeping novel about a historically black community in Nova Scotia.
1. Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Turkish Delights
“As a creative writing teacher, I read so many short stories,” says Ayşe Papatya Bucak, a professor at Florida Atlantic University. “Nothing seems original to me unless it’s pretty out-there, so I was trying at least to do stories I hadn’t seen before.”
The result is Bucak’s debut collection, The Trojan War Museum (Norton, Aug.), which spins sly, inventive stories from Turkish history. “Her work is historical and contemporary, real and imagined, a blend of myth and fact,” says her agent, Julie Barer.
Alane Mason, Bucak’s editor, praises the “freshness and power of the prose—never a word wasted or a risk shied away from.”
The title story imagines a series of museums dedicated the Trojan War, some curated by the Greek gods and some of which are horrifyingly immersive. “I wanted to write a story that had multiple stories in it, like the layers of Troy, and where the setting performed the narrative structure,” Bucak, 48, explains.
Other stories animate colorful 19th-century figures—wrestler Yusuf Ismail, diplomat and art collector Khalil Bey—and grapple with their Orientalist depictions in the West.
Bucak, whose father is Turkish and whose mother is American, attended Princeton University and studied with novelist Russell Banks before working in publishing for several years. “I learned pivotal lessons as an undergrad, but then it took me a really long time to execute them,” she says. “Writing is like a lot of things—you have to learn over and over.”
Though Bucak was initially cautious, writing about her father’s homeland opened up new possibilities. “The only Turk I knew for most of my life was my dad, so I wondered if I was entitled to write about Turkey,” she says. “It really took me until my 30s to realize, ‘Oh, I’m mixed!’ That let me write about Turkey the way I experience it.”
2. Jeffrey Colvin: Sister Cities
“I can still remember segregation in the Alabama education system,” says Jeffrey Colvin, 61, who grew up in Tuscaloosa, Ala. A former Marine who holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University and now lives in New York City, Colvin was working on series of stories set in and around his racially divided hometown when he learned about Africville, a black community in Halifax, Canada, “that no longer existed, wiped out during a thing called urban renewal.” He thought to incorporate his Alabama stories into a larger narrative about Africville, first settled in the 18th century by freed slaves and exiled Jamaicans. The idea developed into his debut novel, Africaville (Amistad, Dec.).
“I’ve been wrestling with how to write about the South in my own way,” Colvin says. “This allowed me to talk about the South, but also stand apart from it and think about how it connects to the larger world.”
Opening in 1918 during a fever epidemic, the novel relates the ordeals of the Sebolt family. “I was in awe that Jeffrey sustained that balance of a shadow—literal and metaphorical—always looming over the Sebolt family,” says Colvin’s editor, Patrik Bass. “And yet there’s a resilience—rooted in a sense of home—that takes them, and readers, to other places,” he adds.
“Once I started reading, I was instantly drawn in by his story of a family and the town that both defines and confines them,” says Colvin’s agent, Ayesha Pande.
Race is similarly defining and confining for the Sebolts, one of whom passes as white after moving to Alabama. “One of the things I find fascinating is the way in which people cast off their past,” Colvin says.
Colvin cut his novel down significantly, sometimes painfully, over the various revisions. Laughing, he paraphrases James Baldwin: “You don’t get the novel you want, you get the novel you got.”
3. Jean-Baptiste Del Amo: Nostalgie de la Boue
“Mine wasn’t a family of readers, and I never expected to write books,” says Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, who grew up in southwest France. When he completed a draft of what would become his first novel, 2008’s Une Education Libertine, he had no connections to the Parisian publishing world and a miniscule postage budget to work with. “I didn’t have enough money to send the book to more than four publishers,” he says.
Del Amo chose wisely; two weeks later, he received a positive response from the venerable Éditions Gallimard. “My life changed completely,” he recalls.
Animalia (Grove, Sept.), Del Amo’s fourth novel, his first to be translated into English, is a century-spanning, mud-splashed epic about a clan of hardscrabble pig farmers in a small French village. “I wanted to tell a story about family and how violence can be transmitted from one generation to the next,” Del Amo, who is 37 and lives in Paris, explains. “I could use pigs and breeding as a metaphor for the human condition.”
In the book, Del Amo mixes lyrical passages of the French countryside with merciless descriptions of the sights, smells, and barbarism of industrial pig rearing. “The first half of the novel is like a landscape painting and the second half has a more documentary feel,” says his editor, Peter Blackstock.
“I want the reader to be physically involved,” Del Amo says. “Sense is the best way to bring the reader into my universe.”
“Jean-Baptiste’s hypnotic, poetic and sometimes terrifyingly visceral prose shimmers and quivers on the page,” adds his translator, Frank Wynne.
Cruelty, toward humans and animals, is the novel’s central theme. Since writing the book, Del Amo has taken a more activist stance on animal rights. Animalia, though, was not written to be a political statement. “The book led me to the activism, and not the contrary,” he says.
4. Juan José Millás: Domestic Help
Juan José Millás’s From the Shadows (Bellevue, Aug.) features one of the most memorable closets since C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In the book, Damián, a middle-aged, recently unemployed handyman, fashions himself a cubby hole behind the antique wardrobe in a family’s home.
“He is a sort of modern Robinson Crusoe, trapped on an island that turns out to be a closet,” Millás says of his handy, ghostly protagonist. “He in fact controls the movements of the family, which gives him a feeling of power that he had never possessed.”
When the house is empty, Damián leaves his redoubt to tidy it up. Millás, 73, says he shares his protagonist’s Zen-like approach to cleaning: “It’s one of my favorite activities. As I polish the cups and glasses, I enter a special state of consciousness, from which I understand the world and its problems better.”
A strange character, Damián stages an imaginary talk show, of which he is the star, in his head. “The contrast between his reality—the closet—and fantasy—the set—seemed to me to be very symbolic of the isolation in which people live and the hunger for fame to which they aspire,” Millás says.
From the Shadows, translated by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn, is Millás’s first novel to be published in North America. (Two works were pubbed in the U.K., but both are out of print.) Millás lives in Madrid and is a columnist for the newspaper El País, contributing “hybrid pieces” called articuentos: “They are hybrids because they have the appearance of a journalistic column, but they hide a short story inside them,” he explains.
Millás’s editor, Erika Goldman, says she was captivated by his “whimsy and the logic of his imagination” and praises his “lively, mordant social satire that gives us what we look for in the best of international literature: insight into another world that deepens our understanding of our own.”
5. Hiroko Oyamada: Corporate Bestiary
Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory (New Directions, Oct.) is an oneiric satire of corporate life in contemporary Japan. In the novel, three employees—a document shredder, a copy editor, and a scientist who classifies the moss growing on a factory’s massive campus—struggle to make sense of their company’s opaque mission.
“Even the smallest pond has its own ecosystem,” Oyamada says. “The same holds true for any workplace.”
After graduating from Hiroshima University with a degree in Japanese literature, Oyamada worked as a temp at a sprawling car factory with a massive staff. “Just being there in the middle of it all left me feeling anxious,” she says. One day, she started writing on the clock. “At first, it was practically a diary, but soon it became something much closer to a novel.”
Oyamada, 35, explores the unsettling parallel between the employees and the eerie creatures roaming the company’s grounds, each of which has adapted to corporate life and the facilities. This fantastical animal element was inspired by a surreal moment from her factory job. “I looked up and saw a woman by one of the printers, holding a giant black bird by its wings,” she recalls. “When I looked back, what I saw wasn’t a bird at all. It was a part for the printer—maybe a toner cartridge. Still, the image of that bird in the basement stuck with me.”
David Boyd, who translated The Factory, says, “Every time I go back to Oyamada’s writing, I find something new—something major that changes the entire story.”
Oyamada’s tale conveys the economic insecurity felt by a generation of Japanese. “I finished the book in 2010—a time when young people were working as hard as they could in exchange for woefully low wages,” she explains. “These deplorable conditions have become so normal that no one even talks about them anymore. What may have immediately struck some readers a decade ago as comically awful working conditions may now seem less terrible and more tolerable.”
6. Kimberly King Parsons: Lone Stars
Frustrated by her progress on a novel, Kimberly King Parsons says that she started “cheating by writing these really fun, illicit short stories”—a form that has always appealed to her. “There’s something about the compression that does it for me in a way that most novels don’t.”
Those stories coalesced into Black Light (Vintage, Aug.), Parsons’s debut collection. They are set in Texas, where she was born and lived until she attended Columbia’s fiction MFA program. “It’s kind of ridiculous, but it took my agent to tell me that they all took place there,” says Parsons, who is 40 and currently lives in Portland, Ore.
That agent, Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, says she was struck by Parsons’s “Texan-twanging voice” and how “despite shades of sharp-tongued truth-telling, feral desperation, white-hot rage, and often giddy narcotic abandon, the stories also somehow capture the magic, warmth, and enchantment of hope.”
“I think the bed is the place I can write the most comfortably for the longest amount of time,” Parsons says. But despite her Proustian writing habits, the tales hum with a jittery energy.
“Her unique sentence structure makes you want to stop dead in your tracks and listen, the way an unusual guitar hook does,” says Parsons’s editor, Margaux Weisman.
The collection features iridescent characters “trying to get at what’s underneath real life,” Parsons says. “There’s a lot of game playing in these stories, whether it’s children or whether it’s adults behaving badly to get to a place where they can feel that glow.”
One such game takes place when two married colleagues call out sick and spend the day in a seedy motel. “I personally love hotels,” Parsons says. “There’s something magical to me about how it becomes a stage and what happens in that room is potentially performative.”
7. Lara Prescott: Hot off the Cold War Presses
One of Lara Prescott’s prized possessions is a CIA-printed copy of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, whose publication history is the subject of her debut, The Secrets We Kept (Knopf, Sept.). “It’s a tiny second or third edition printed on Bible stock and small enough to fit in your pocket to conceal,” she says.
Prescott’s novel focuses on the role that women agents played in the CIA’s effort to secure, publish, and distribute the U.S.S.R.-banned novel behind the Iron Curtain in the late 1950s. “It seemed like a novel while I was reading all these declassified documents on CIA.gov,” Prescott says. Her protagonists are a young typist in the CIA typist pool and a glamorous woman skilled at extracting secrets from powerful men.
The story immediately grabbed her agents, Jamie Chambliss and Jeff Kleinman, who describe the novel as “A Gentleman in Moscow meets Hidden Figures.”
While researching the novel, Prescott, 37, realized that she “just couldn’t write from the Western perspective” and decided to chronicle the difficult life of Pasternak’s mistress and muse, Olga, twice sent to the gulag because of her lover’s subversive novel.
Prescott—who lives in Austin, Tex., where she received her MFA in creative writing at the Michener Center—studied political science and international relations at American University. Before turning to fiction, she was a communications writer for various political campaigns. “I didn’t have the fortitude or the underlying passion for being next to power,” she says.
Prescott’s tale also weaves in the Lavender Scare, the government’s Cold War–era persecution of gay and lesbian federal workers. “Though the CIA was promoting freedom through these works of art, at the same time they were persecuting their own employees,” she says. “Censorship and persecution exist on both sides.”
8. Veronica Raimo: Utopia and Its Discontents
Set on the fictional island of Miden, Veronica Raimo’s first novel to appear in English, The Girl at the Door (Black Cat, Oct.), recounts a sexual abuse allegation that upends the lives of a professor and his pregnant girlfriend.
Raimo’s editor, Elisabeth Schmitz, likens the novel to Kristen Roupenian’s “infamous” short story “Cat Person” in that it “considers a narrative other than a clear-cut perpetrator vs. victim one in a story of sexual transgression,” she says.
The professor and his girlfriend narrate in alternating chapters as a citizen committee determines whether they can remain on the utopian island. As she worked on the novel, Raimo became more drawn to the girlfriend’s experience. “I thought it would be more interesting to have this woman, neither the victim nor the perpetrator, forced to live this conflict from an external point of view,” she explains.
For years, Raimo, 41, bounced between her hometown of Rome and Berlin, which she first visited on a graduate scholarship to study East German cinema. “You can feel the tension between a society like Germany, which is richer and works better and is more progressive, and Italy’s,” Raimo says. “I needed the conflict that you experience every day in Rome.”
The darkly ironic tale pokes fun at bureaucratic procedures regulating sexual misconduct and desire, even as it honors “the inner truth of someone feeling that he or she was abused,” says Raimo, who is currently working on Italian translations of Octavia E. Butler and Ray Bradbury. “You can’t really have a protocol for love, even in a society that has a protocol for everything.”
9. Karina Sainz Borgo: Survivor’s Guilt
“Sometimes I think I have been writing this novel my whole life,” says Karina Sainz Borgo, a Venezuelan journalist living in Barcelona. In It Would Be Night in Caracas (HarperVia, Oct.), Adelaida mourns the death of her mother while fighting to survive in a Caracas beset with paramilitary marauders and debilitating inflation.
“I’m trying to explain how one of the most important countries of the region became a very primitive society,” Sainz Borgo says. “Dictatorships create differences between people, and one of those is between those who left and those who stayed.”
Sainz Borgo knows this firsthand, having left Venezuela 13 years ago at age 24. “I wanted to write about why I feel guilty because I’m no longer there.”
Capturing Adelaida’s shifting voice challenged Sainz Borgo’s translator, Elizabeth Bryer. “Sometimes her utterances are staccato in nature, truncated as they are by grief,” she says. “At other times her voice is all energetic resilience, fueled by her determination to survive.”
Adelaida’s mother’s death is emblematic of Venezuela’s collapse, Sainz Borgo explains. “It was supposed to be a mother country for all these people, but it didn’t work.”
Sainz Borgo’s editor, Juan Milà, acquired the novel for the new HarperVia imprint focused on translated fiction. “It had everything,” he says—“a gripping voice and plot as well as a deep emotional intelligence that allows us to connect with the human stories in newspapers and on television.”
Sainz Borgo stresses, though, that the novel is not necessarily a tale specific to Venezuela. “Many have said that this is a topical novel, but I do not say ‘Venezuela’ very much,” she says. “I was trying to maintain the universalist nature.”
10. Lila Savage: Written with Care
Lila Savage didn’t write any fiction until her 30s, when she started a novel based on her experience as a care worker. “I was interested in exploring the intimacy that develops between the caregiver and the family,” says Savage, who grew up in the Twin Cities and now lives in San Francisco. “I became very close with so many people, but I also had to start protecting myself emotionally.”
Savage eventually quit care work to focus on writing her debut novel, Say Say Say (Knopf, July). “The work that I did offered a lot of emotional reward, but it’s also tedious and stressful,” she says. Savage, 38, was accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and later secured a Wallace Stegner Fellowship. “For folks from professional backgrounds like mine, it makes such a big difference to have funding to write.”
In Say Say Say, Ella, a young queer woman, cares for a rapidly declining woman—the novel’s title comes from one of her verbal tics—and develops an intense bond with her patient’s dutiful, undemonstrative husband. In portraying his male stoicism, Savage interrogates what she describes as the “cultural expectations for masculinity and the belief that caregiving is women’s work.”
“The novel takes on decline and grief with tremendous courage, honesty, and insight,” says Savage’s editor, Robin Desser. “Lila writes with a delicate restraint that belies how hard this book hits.”
Savage’s agent, Chris Parris-Lamb, hadn’t seen a novel on the subject, despite the fact that caregiving is “one of the most common, and fastest-growing, professions in the country.” He adds, “It felt like the sort of novel Alice Munro might write, if Alice Munro were a queer millennial who wrote novels and had perhaps read some affect theory.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.