Northwood: A Novella

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Maryse Meijer Sketches the Figure of Cruelty in ‘Northwood’

Most books are an experience, some books act as precious objects, but occasionally—when many stars and aesthetics align—a book can be both. Maryse Meijer’s Northwood enters that slim, murky category of journey and sculpture. Here is what you will notice about it first: It is physically, texturally gorgeous to see and to touch. Two distorted figures ooze across the bright red cover in a disturbing series of bulbous movements. These impressionistic bodies are both avoidant and entwined, in a fight or an embrace. The pages are black, the text is white, and the forms of the poems vary. Sometimes Meijer scatters the lines across the page, ostracizing each individual word. Sometimes there are fat chunks of prose crowded near the top of the page, the words hunched together in fear. You’ll want to rub your hands on the smooth covers, you’ll want to conspicuously leave this book lying around your desk. Friends will be drawn to it, coworkers will covertly flip through it.

The book’s artful appearance melds with the voice of the protagonist, a lonely artist who spends a year in a secluded cabin in the woods. She studies the figure, and her favorite figure happens to be an older man turned fairy tale villain whom she embraces with her whole body. Upon first seeing him, the anxious and self-destructive protagonist thinks he’s “older than any man I’d ever thought was beautiful, your beauty the first thing that hurt…”

A warning: The man is physically abusive. Meijer sketches the man’s cruelty as a figure, examining every aspect of that abuse, including its allure. The book studies the appeal of punishment for a person who feels they deserve pain; it examines the wrongheaded and sickly appeal of deep self-hate that once made you pick your acne or pull out your eyelashes in moments of stress.

Of course, the text often sharply veers from allure into ugliness. Instead of purely romanticizing a man who loves by hitting—which, of course, would be a mistake—the book also reacts to its subject with deep disgust. The poems overflow with bodily fluids: Blood is just about everywhere, crows shit all over streams, and “the sink/is streaked with bile.” There are also nagging anxieties about family members who might discover the affair; there is a concerned and clueless mother in the mix and a couple of spouses linger at the corners of the narrative, poking their heads in on occasion.

The only caveat is that the book falls short of fully realizing one of those spouses. At one point, a prince charming barrels into a story in the form of an unassuming husband. He first appears gracelessly, almost as a throwaway line: “There’s your husband now, asking you if there’s an extra jar of hot sauce somewhere he can’t find.” The protagonist loves him, but their relationship delves into darkness during one particularly sad night. After that evening, the husband fades into the background of the story, like wallpaper. Does the book dismiss him because he actually leaves? Does it reject him because he never mattered in the first place? Does the protagonist hate him for being a man who just wants to be a Nice Guy, does she hate him for not offering violence to validate her worst feelings about herself? Regardless, Meijer’s protagonist will drag you down into her most hideous, most beautiful pathos and ultimately, all of that outweighs anything about the guy who can’t find the hot sauce.

One last note: Perhaps the best part of this book is Meijer’s ability to add new dimensions to ancient cliches. She handles “once upon a time” imagery with a careful eye for cruelty, for weirdness. She so breathtakingly captures “the fox fingering his bride— / the dragon striking his tail on the stone.”  To indulge in a couple cliches in response: This book is a page turner; you won’t be able to put it down; you’ll read it all in one go.

A Year in Reading: Steph Opitz

Longtime listener, first-time caller. I’m excited to be here talking about my Year in Reading. This was the first full year in almost a decade that I didn’t have a monthly column in Marie Claire magazine to write about forthcoming books. As a result, my reading had less structure than usual. I put down a lot of books that didn’t do it for me, and shuffled and reshuffled my to-be-read pile to my heart’s content. It’s been liberating. But, a new restraint has also entered the scene. My toddler has recently become a book connoisseur. He often hijacks the book I’m reading for himself or replaces it with something he’d prefer to have me read—which is more often than not Bao Phi and illustrator Thi Bui’s A Different Pond, author and illustrator Brian Floca’s Locomotive, or Jane Yolan and illustrator John Schoenherr’s Owl Moon. I’m grateful to the authors and illustrators for providing rich text and complex art that keeps us both rapt after multiple readings.

Before I get to the adult titles I read this year, I’ll start with a confession. When I read poet phenom Carrie Fountain’s young adult debut I’m Not Missing and novelist Marisha Pessl’s Neverworld Wake, I actually didn’t know either was YA. When I got to the end of both, I was like, Huh, I wonder if they had any conversations about billing this as YA? Seems like it could go either way—fans of Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles know what I’m talking about—with a teen protagonist going through some real adult shit. Which is to say, if you balk at the YA dubbing you’re missing out. I like to think of a YA designation as a kind of PG-13 designation; it doesn’t mean it’s only for teens, it just means that it’s not inappropriate for teens. As case in point, a transformative book I read earlier this year, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, is essential. Every high schooler in the country should be required to read it, and all adults retroactively should, too.

Now, onto the adult books. A book that made me emotional as hell: I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell. Maggie O’Farrell beautifully flays the moments in her own life that danced with true danger, and asks, What could happen? What did happen? Am I ok? Depending on if you’re a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty person, my life has had a lot of unlucky brushes or I’m one of the luckiest people you’ve met. So this particular collection poked at a lot of my most sensitive thoughts. I’d recommend this book to everyone who loved Wild by Cheryl Strayed, as this, too, is a penned head nod at the real and invisible scars women carry.

I was lucky to travel a bit this year, and it’s important you know that I don’t believe in vacation reading as a separate genre. Whatever book I might choose to read at the beach, is a beach read. Some of my ““beach”” reading included some amazing LGBTQ titles like John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Chelsey Johnson’s Stray City, and, the exciting new king of the footnote (I can’t, in good conscious, celebrate David Foster Wallace anymore), Jordy Rosenberg with Confessions of the Fox. On one particular trip, my husband, our four closest friends, and I went on spring break. Without any of our children present, we relished in the unencumbered time to do whatever we wanted—floating in the ocean for hours, sleeping in, happy hours, or reading at a speed that didn’t suggest a child might cut short the reading time at any moment. The only book I ended up reading on this trip, slowly, engrossed by it the way it should be was There, There by Tommy Orange. This book is stunning and made me literally gasp at the end.

I’m an audiobook junkie. I drive a decent amount—commuting to and from work and daycare—so that makes up a significant part of my listening. But I’m not precious about how much time I have. I just get started, even if it’s only a 10-minute drive; it adds up, naysayers! When I’m hooked, I end up putting in headphones and listening while I cook, or while I do laundry. I’ll even uncharacteristically make up errands and chores to keep listening. Some particularly wonderful books that I enjoyed on audio this year are Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (one could argue audiobook is the preferred format for this book as the Scottish accents make all the difference), Rumaan Alam’s That Kind of Mother, Luis Alberto Urrea’s House of Broken Angels, My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, Less by Andrew Sean Greer. Less is one of the more hyped books in the past few years (I guess a Pulitzer Prize under the belt does that?) but it’s well worth the praise, just stick with it! I’m the queen of ignoring hype for no good reason except for the sake of it. I’m working on it. Which is to say, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee took me a year to get to, a year that I could’ve been living with that book in my brain! I’m glad I rectified it. Circe, too, by Madeline Miller. The description didn’t grab me, and I can’t remember what ultimately made me read it, but that book literally has everything. For these lapses, my New Year’s Resolution is to consider widespread acclaim more carefully, so as not to delay reading some great books.

Perks of my job include being able to sweet talk my way into very early copies of some books. I was able to finagle Miriam Toews and Susan Choi’s forthcoming books, Women Talking and Trust Exercise. And Maryse Meijer’s Northwood (which is now available). All left me dizzy with their strength of voice and inventive forms, dying to find folks who had also had the early preview to hash them out with. JFC, these women can write. I was so deeply affected by all three that I have the chills just typing this out. Peter Geye’s latest novel, Northernmost, doesn’t come out till 2020, so, sorry, sorry, sorry to bring it up now but it’s sexy, thrilling, and Minnesotan—this Minnesotan never gets to say all those words in the same sentence so I’ll beg your pardon for that very early peek. I also recently finished Dani Shapiro’s latest memoir, out in January, Inheritance. Dani’s ability to write in the middle of a moment is unparalleled and this book is no exception; in it she has very recently learned her father is not her biological father. I’m actively wondering if Ancestry.com is going to start giving her a cut of the inevitable sales boost post publication.

Do you watch Midsomer Murders? My dad and I love to watch that show together. If you’re a fan, Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz seems like a good book to tell you to read. I struggle to explain the details because I hate to prep people for a plot twist, but this one is [chef’s kiss]. I hadn’t previously deliberately read many mysteries or thrillers, despite my penchant for them in movies and TV. So this year I dabbled, and I’ll give a shout out to Mira Grant whose book Into the Drowning Deep scared me so effectively and thoroughly I may never get into the ocean again.

Other books that made deep impressions on me this year: Karen Tei Yamishita’s Letters to Memory, Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon, Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything, Neal Thompson’s Kickflip Boys, Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know, and Kim Fu’s The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore (as a Fu megafan, I was thrilled and satiated to read her latest). In Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It, the title story is so realistic that I still feel sad for the protagonist and her deep misreading of an encounter.

While I’m wrapping up and wondering what book(s) I’m forgetting here, the book I spent the most time with this year and am better for is Ada Limón’s The Carrying. Ada’s work is a gift. I will fight anyone who says they don’t want to read it because they’re not a poetry person (and by “fight,” I mean direct you to your local indie or library to flip through the pages and convert you).

On deck? I’m chomping at the bit for early copies of Catherine Chung’s The Tenth Muse and Mira Jacob’s Good Talk, both out next year. I’m also reading all the titles of folks coming to Wordplay, May 11-12 in Minneapolis (we’ll be releasing the full line-up of authors on January 17). And, meanwhile, I’m considering becoming a person who buys lottery tickets so I can get a producer credit on Dan Sheenan’s Restless Souls, a book that is so gorgeously cinematic it boggles the mind that it has not yet been made into a movie.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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November Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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. Find more November titles at our Great Second-Half Preview, and let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!
NOVEMBER
All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy: This is Roy’s latest offering after a powerful showing in Sleeping on Jupiter, which was longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2015. This novel centers around Myshkin, a boy whose life is changed when his mother elopes—no, vanishes—with a German man who appears naked at a river near their house one day and insists he has come for her after first meeting her in Bali. The novel follows the anamnesis of what happened, and his ruminations on its effect on his life. Already published in Britain, the novel has been called “elegiac,” compelling, and powerful, among other things. Conceived during a time Roy spent in Bali—at a festival where I had the pleasure of meeting her in 2015—this is an affecting novel. Readers should look for a conversation between Roy and me on this site around publication date. (Chigozie)

Evening in Paradise by Lucia Berlin: Can you remember a better short story collection in recent years than Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women? I can’t. Maybe once a week I think about that dentist, ripping his own teeth out in front of his granddaughter. Now, Berlin’s estate is back with even more stories, this time all previously uncompiled. In the case of a less talented writer, I’d be worried about publishers scraping the barrel. But with Berlin, there are surely unplucked molars. (Nick M.) 

Insurrecto by Gina Apostol: A story that takes across time and place in the Philippines, from the American occupation to the Duterte era, by the winner of the PEN Open Book Award for Gun Dealer’s Daughter. Publishers Weekly calls the novel a “pyrotechnical marvel” and named it one of the best books of 2018. (And don’t miss Apostol’s astute essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books on Francine Prose and textual appropriation.) (Lydia)

 

The End of the End of the Earth by Jonathan Franzen: Today Franzen is best known as a novelist—even a “Great American Novelist”—but it’s worth noting that he first appeared on many readers’ radar with his 1996 Harper’s essay “Perchance to Dream” about the difficulties of writing fiction in an age of images. Franzen’s essays, like his novels, can be a mixed bag, but he is a man perennially interested in interesting things that others overlook, such as, in this book, the global devastation of seabirds by predators and climate change. (Michael)

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: As the title makes clear, the Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite’s first novel is a dark comedy of sibling rivalry. The beautiful Ayoola leads a charmed life, and thanks to the cleanup efforts of her older sister, Korede, she suffers no repercussions from killing a string of boyfriends. Korede’s loyalty is tested, however, when a man close to her heart asks out her sister. Film producers are already getting in on the fun, as Working Title has optioned what the publisher calls a “hand grenade of a novel.” (Matt)

Those Who Knew by Idra Novey: Following up her debut novel, Ways to Disappear, Novey’s latest tells the story of a woman who suspects a senator’s hand in the death of a young woman on an unnamed island. The great Rebecca Traister says the book “speaks with uncommon prescience to the swirl around us. Novey writes, with acuity and depth, about questions of silence, power, and complicity. The universe she has created is imagined, and all too real.” (Lydia)

Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants by Mathias Énard (translated by Charlotte Mandell): From the author of the brilliant, Prix Goncourt-winning Compass, a work of historical fiction that follows Michelangelo to the Ottoman Empire, where he is considering a commission from the Sultan to build a bridge across the Golden Horn. The novel promises to continue Énard’s deep, humanistic explorations of the historical and ongoing connections between Europe and Asia, Islamdom and Christendom. (Lydia)

The April 3rd Incident by Yu Hua (translated by Allan H. Barr): A collection of his best early stories from a pioneer in China’s 1980 avant-garde literary movement, renowned for approaching realist subject matters through unconventional techniques. In his writings, reality is punctured and estranged, leading up to a new look at things familiar. Yu Hua is one of the best acclaimed contemporary Chinese authors. His previous works include China in Ten WordsBrothers, and the stunning To Live. (Jianan)

The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem: Charles Heist lives in a trailer in the desert outside L.A. and keeps his pet opossum in a desk drawer. Phoebe Siegler is a sarcastic motormouth looking for a friend’s missing daughter. Together, they explore California’s sun-blasted Inland Empire, searching for the girl among warring encampments of hippies and vagabonds living off the grid. In other words, we’re in Lethemland, where characters have implausible last names, genre tropes are turned inside out, and no detective is complete without a pet opossum.

The Patch by John McPhee: McPhee’s seventh collection of essays is finely curated, as expected for an essayist who lives and breathes structure. Essays on the sporting life fill the first part; the second includes shorter, previously uncollected pieces. The collection’s titular essay is an elegiac classic, which begins with the pursuit of chain pickerel in New Hampshire but soon becomes an essay about his dying father. McPhee flawlessly moves from gravity to levity, as in his writing about the Hershey chocolate factory. Such pieces are tastes of his willingness to let the world around him just be and to marvel at mysteries of all variety: “Pools and pools and pools of chocolate—fifty-thousand-pound, ninety-thousand-pound, Olympic-length pools of chocolate—in the conching rooms…Slip a little spatula in there and see how it tastes. Waxy? Claggy? Gritty? Mild? Taste it soft. That is the way to get the flavor.” One wishes John McPhee would write about everything, his words an introduction to all of life’s flavors. (Nick R.)

Useful Phrases for Immigrants by May-lee Chai: Winner of the Doris Bakwin Award selected by Tayari Jones, Chai’s collection comprises eight stories detailing life in a globalized world. Edward P. Jones called Useful Phrases “a splendid gem of a story collection…Complementing the vivid characters, the reader has the gift of language―‘a wind so treacherous it had its own name,’ ‘summer days stretched taffy slow’….Chai’s work is a grand event.” (Lydia)

A Stranger’s Pose by Emmanuel Iduma: From Cassava Republic Press, a new Nigerian publishing powerhouse that recently opened up a U.S. office, comes a collection of travel essays describing the New York-residing, Nigerian-born Iduma’s peregrinations through over twenty African cities (read an excerpt from the collection here at the site). “I want this book to occupy the space between home and disapora,” Iduma narrates in a lovely trailer for the book. The collection also features a foreword by Teju Cole. (Lydia)

 

The Naked Woman by Armonía Somers (translated by Kit Maude): First published 50 years ago, this is Somers’ (1914–1994) first work translated into English. The novella follows one woman’s feminist awakening and the ways her transformation leads a rural village to ruin with violent desire. About the novel, Carmen Maria Machado wrote: “I am so grateful that a new generation will be able to read this surreal, nightmarish book about women’s struggle for autonomy—and how that struggle is (always, inevitably) met with violence.” (Carolyn)

Death and Other Holidays by Marci Vogel: Winner of the inaugural Miami Book Fair/de Groot Prize for Best Novella, Vogel’s debut follows April, the 27-year-old narrator, as she grieves her stepfather’s death over the course of one year. In a starred review, Kirkus called it “a moving and graceful novella of overcoming sorrow.” (Carolyn)

 

In/Half by Jasmin B. Frelih (translated by Jason Blake): First published in 2013 in Slovenian, Frelih’s debut novel won the 2016 European Union Prize for Literature. Set twenty-five years in the future, the experimental, post-modern novel follows three millennials as they navigate a crumbling world and attempt to find their place in an unrecognizable world. Publisher’s Weekly wrote the novel “sustains its ghostly, ethereal tone and will be appreciated by readers looking for a mind-bending puzzle.” (Carolyn)

Northwood by Maryse Meijer:  A genre-bending novella written in short, formally-transgressive passages. Imbued with myths, fairy tales, and horror, the book follows a young woman who flees to the woods to pursue her artwork and what happens when she falls in love with a violent, married man. Samantha Hunt writes “Meijer has made her own form, something new and wide-open, something as blissful and broken as the language of lovesickness itself.” (Carolyn)

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