Arlene McKanic

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What is a man? And, still more important, what is love? These are the questions posed by Salar Abdoh’s latest novel, A Nearby Country Called Love. Manhood and the search for love bedevil Abdoh’s dispirited protagonist, Issa. Deported from the United States after years working a deadening hotel job, Issa has returned to his childhood neighborhood in Tehran, Iran. He never knew his mother, and his artistic gay brother died young of AIDS, followed quickly by his macho father. Though Issa loved them, he struggled to understand his brother, and his father’s determination to make real men out of both of them was damaging. Even after his father’s passing, a culture of crushing patriarchy overshadows Issa’s life: The novel opens with Issa and his friend Nasser ineffectively attempting to avenge a woman who found her husband so intolerable that she burned herself to death.

Into this violent, hypermasculine society, Abdoh introduces characters who quietly insist on being themselves, allowing Issa to see different, less rigid ways of being. They include Mehran, the gay man who becomes tough guy Nasser’s improbable lover; Mehran’s roommate, a trans man; and Babacar, a Senegalese man who’s always late for prayers but wants to become a Shia cleric. There’s also Issa’s formidable Turkish stepmother (who has a man’s name) and her equally formidable daughter, a doctor whose estranged husband torments her until he learns not to. Then, there’s Hayat, the young woman whose poetry Issa fell so in love with that he sojourned to Lebanon to meet her, not even knowing her real name.

When Issa and Hayat finally meet, she’s . . . not what he imagined. More trouble ensues. But Issa, a supremely loving, compassionate and accepting spirit (his very name means Jesus) fails to understand that he is already surrounded by the love he seeks. In Abdoh’s sad, hilarious, big-hearted book, the nearby country called love is the very place where Issa stands.

Salar Abdoh introduces characters who quietly insist on being themselves in a violent, hypermasculine community in Tehran, allowing his protagonist Issa to see different, less rigid ways of being.
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Some of the most fascinating novels explore the tensions between traditional ways of life and the lure of more modern ways of being. This is what roils the plot in Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s second novel, A Spell of Good Things. For at least two of its main characters, teenager Ẹniọlá and fledgling doctor Wuraọlá, the tension is all but intolerable.

The story begins in a southwestern state in present-day Nigeria, nearly a year before an election that will usher a corrupt (or even criminal) politician into the governorship. Schools are lousy; students, including Ẹniọlá and his sister, are flogged if their parents don’t pay their school fees. Hospitals are even worse; more than one patient dies in the hospital where Wuraọlá works because of a lack of simple antivirals. There is no safety net, and inequality is atrocious. Ẹniọlá, his mother and sister must beg in the street. The children’s father, fired from his job, is in such a state of despair that he won’t get out of bed. On the other hand, Wuraọlá’s family is well-off enough to pay for her education and throw a lavish party to celebrate her mother’s birthday.

Yet both impoverished Ẹniọlá and financially comfortable Wuraọlá feel hogtied by the traditions of the somewhat matriarchal society in which they were raised. Deference to elders and those in authority is so absolute that Ẹniọlá’s parents don’t even consider going to the school and insisting that the teachers stop beating their kids. Wuraọlá’s profession as a doctor isn’t what warms the cockles of her family’s hearts the most; it’s that she’s getting married before she’s 30.

Ẹniọlá and Wuraọlá are destined to meet, and they do so in the most innocent and pedestrian of ways. But after that first encounter, the events that follow reveal the profound irony of the novel’s title.

Adébáyọ̀ (Stay With Me) has a sprightly writing style that’s pleasurably at odds with the devastating story she tells. She captures the almost musical speech patterns of her characters and doesn’t trouble to translate snatches of Nigeria’s many languages. The novel’s cast is large, but each character is distinct; you won’t confuse Ẹniọlá’s mother with Wuraọlá’s, even though they’re quite alike. Both suffer, and so do their families. 

A Spell of Good Things is a wonderfully written, tragic book.

Ayobami Adebayo has a sprightly writing style that’s pleasurably at odds with the devastating story she tells in A Spell of Good Things.
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No doubt you’ve read a good number of books in which you know the protagonist is in trouble, even though they sort of don’t. They may be with the wrong person, or in the wrong place, or working for the wrong people in the wrong business. Rafael Frumkin’s second novel, Confidence, is not only one of those books but also features all of the above.

When the novel opens, Ezra Green is in prison for being a flimflam man, but he’s still peddling the same snake oil as he was on the outside. The only difference is that now he’s doing it for cigarettes and ramen noodles as opposed to millions, nay, billions of dollars.

Ezra, the son of working-class parents, is larcenous from an early age. Small in stature, with terrible eyesight, teenage Ezra is sent (on scholarship) to a boot camp usually attended by rich bad boys. There he meets and falls in love with handsome, smooth-talking and completely amoral Orson Ortman. He is the train wreck you want to warn Ezra against, the miscreant who makes all the red flags start waving. It may be a bit on the nose, but Ezra’s blind spots aren’t limited to his vision.

Once out of the camp, the boys quickly learn how to separate rich and gullible people, especially women, from their money. They start small and end up concocting the mother of all scams: NuLife, a fake spiritual healing company that’s facilitated by the Bliss-Mini, a machine with bright lights that you clamp on your head. How it works is anyone’s guess, but it makes Ezra and Orson multimillionaires in their 20s and transforms Orson into a cult leader. All the while, Ezra pines for him with pitiable desperation.

Author of The Comedown, Frumkin is superb at dissecting all manner of malfeasance and corruption. Ezra doesn’t blink when he has his assistants cook the books, default on loans (Deutsche Bank, anyone?), defraud customers and shareholders and slime those who threaten to out the company as a boondoggle. In one hilariously ghastly scene, a man whose idea was stolen by Orson shows up in NuLife’s boardroom, threatening to sue like the Winklevoss twins but “dressed in the hoodie and jeans of the Zuckerbergian douchebag.” Even a military coup in South America doesn’t bother Ezra, as long as the bucks keep coming in and Orson is happy.

In a world where well-heeled heels are arrested for cryptocurrency scams, squillionaires gleefully trash their own vanity projects and masters of the universe disgrace themselves over and over, Confidence’s arrival is beyond timely.

In a world where well-heeled heels are arrested for cryptocurrency scams, squillionaires gleefully trash their own vanity projects and masters of the universe disgrace themselves over and over, Confidence's arrival is beyond timely.
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It seems that everything in Kate Morton’s captivating novel Homecoming leads us back to a statement made by a character in the 2021 film The Lost Daughter: “Motherhood is a crushing responsibility.” In Morton’s world, even the longing for motherhood can be a crushing responsibility, one that can be passed along to the next generation, and the next.

The secrets around the Turner-Bridges women—Nora; her daughter, Polly; and granddaughter, Jess—are real doozies. Those secrets start to emerge, tendril by tendril, after Nora suffers a fall and Jess flies from her London home to Sydney to be with her. Neither Nora nor Jess is close with Polly, and Nora has named Jess as her next of kin, rather than her daughter. Odd, but not unheard of.

As a child, Jess had free rein of Nora’s large and beautiful home, Darling House, but was forbidden from accessing the attic. She snuck up there anyway and never unearthed anything shocking. But now, as she waits for Nora to recuperate, she discovers something so terrible about their family that it upends everything she believed about herself, her mother, her grandmother and the world in general. The echoes of the event have resounded for six decades and warped the lives of the Turner-Bridges women in ways they don’t even realize. Someone even wrote a book about the calamity, though it wasn’t published in Australia.

One of the delights for readers of a mystery is picking up little crumbs of evidence along the way. As Homecoming gallops toward its close, you may think you know what’s coming, and the foreknowledge is both ghastly and thrilling. In a book like this one, there are a lot of ways the story can take a turn toward the preposterous or at least the improbable. Just one word of advice: Find a map of Australia. It’ll be a big help.

One of the delights for readers of a mystery is picking up little crumbs of evidence along the way. As Homecoming gallops toward its close, you may think you know what’s coming, and the foreknowledge is both ghastly and thrilling.
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Nothing much happens in Han Kang’s novel Greek Lessons, but the author’s artistry is such that you keep on reading, whether for the beautiful writing or for the beautiful pain of the strange couple at the story’s core.

First published in South Korea in 2011 and set mostly in Seoul, Greek Lessons is the story of two damaged people. One is a man, a professor of ancient Greek who is slowly losing his vision. The other is a woman taking his class. She’s a writer and former teacher who has either abandoned her power of speech or whose speech has left her; she recalls Liv Ullmann’s character in Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film, Persona, an actor who suddenly goes mute in the middle of a performance and decides to stay that way.

Near-blindness and muteness seem to be physical manifestations of Kang’s characters’ excruciating loneliness. At the end of the day, each goes home to nearly empty apartments on nearly empty streets. The relationships they do have with other people are fraught. The woman is divorced. Her ex-husband thinks she’s “too highly strung and that this was a bad influence” on their son, so she lost custody of the boy. The Greek professor lived much of his earlier life in Germany, where he and his family stood out and were sometimes discriminated against for being East Asian.

“Why ancient Greek?” a reader might ask. The woman tells herself she’s studying it because it’s so different from Korean that it might help her reclaim language itself; ancient Greek lacks the traumatic baggage that caused her to go silent in the first place. Still, her speech does not return. She is so speechless that her teacher starts to believe she is deaf as well as mute.

Then, one night the man breaks his glasses. Helpless without them, he needs an emergency optician. The woman can help.

Beautifully translated by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won, Greek Lessons conjures a mood that calls to mind the Korean word ho, which is that time just after the sun sets and just before it rises. To go Bergmanesque again, it’s the hour of the wolf, when people experience the most anguish. Though the woman and her teacher are full of sorrow, their sadness doesn’t stop them from appreciating and even seeking small moments of beauty. This gives Kang’s slender book much of its power.

Han Kang’s Greek Lessons conjures a mood that calls to mind the Korean word ho, which is that time just after the sun sets and just before it rises.
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The second novel from Abraham Verghese, author of the unforgettable Cutting for Stone (2009), is a masterpiece. Put it on your bookcase next to A Passage to India by E.M. Forster or anything by the brave and brilliant Salman Rushdie. Indeed, put it next to any great novel of your choice.

Sprawling, passionate, tragic and comedic at turns, The Covenant of Water follows a family from 1900 to 1977 in an Indian region that eventually becomes the beautiful state of Kerala. Among the interesting things about this family is that they’re Christians among Hindus and Muslims, and once a generation, a family member dies by drowning. This tragic recurrence isn’t all that weird when you consider that their home is surrounded by water, and every year the region is all but washed away by the monsoon. Yet for this family, the drownings have taken on a near-mystical significance. Big Ammachi, the family matriarch, calls it the “Condition.”

Speaking of Big Ammachi, her story begins a few hours before her wedding. Normally a character’s wedding day wouldn’t fill the reader with dread, but in this case the bride is 12 years old. At this age she is known as Mariamma, and she is to marry a 40-year-old widowed landowner whom she’s never met. Though Mariamma’s mother is closer to this gentleman in age, she’s not eligible to marry him because she’s a widow, and a widow in this society is considered less than useless. Such is the dread hand of patriarchy in action.

But Verghese, probably the best doctor-writer since Anton Chekhov, upends all of our expectations, not just this time but again and again. The marriage of Mariamma and the thamb’ran—the boss—turns out to be a happy one. He is a gentle, stoic giant who scrupulously avoids bodies of water, even though it may take him days to walk to a place he could have reached in a few hours by boat. Mariamma and the thamb’ran’s young son, JoJo, adore each other, and it is he who gives her the nickname of Big Ammachi, which translates to “Big Little Mama.” The name sticks throughout her life. 

Big Ammachi’s first child is born with a thyroid condition, but instead of tragedy, Baby Mol’s life is one of light, joy and innocence. The second child, Philipose, born many years later, becomes the father of Big Ammachi’s namesake. This second Mariamma becomes a doctor determined to get to the bottom of the family’s Condition.

Verghese surrounds the family with a world of unforgettable characters. There’s Shamuel, the thamb’ran’s factotum, faithful till his last day. There’s the tragic and brilliant Elsie, Philipose’s artist wife, and the Glasgow-born surgeon Digby Kilgour, who’s come to India to practice medicine and who’s taken in by the saintly Dr. Rune Orqvist after a ghastly accident. There are the residents of the lazaretto (leprosy hospital) tended to by Dr. Orqvist, and an abundance of saints, scoundrels and people who are a little bit of both. There’s even an elephant named Damodaran.

All are interconnected, like the braiding waterways of Kerala. The Covenant of Water, as they say, is a lot. You won’t want it to end.

Abraham Verghese, probably the best doctor-writer since Anton Chekhov, upends all of our expectations again and again in his long awaited follow-up to Cutting for Stone.
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Have you ever read a book that you could dance along to, as if it were a song? Nicole Cuffy’s engaging novel, Dances, is one of those books. The author (and her 22-year-old protagonist, Celine “Cece” Cordell) loves terms like grand plié, grand battement, dégagé, double saut de basque, entrechat six and chassé développé. If you’ve been to the ballet, you’ve seen these avian, gravity-defying moves, even if you don’t know what they’re called. Perfectly executed, they take your breath away.

Here’s the rub: The human body wasn’t meant to move like this, at least not regularly. Ballet dancers know this, and some seem to revel in the pain their art causes them. According to author and former ballerina Alice Robb, for some dancers that first bleeding toenail caused by their pointe shoe is a rite of passage. And to keep a tortured body fighting fit, you can’t even eat like a normal human being.

One thing we learn about Cece is that she doesn’t valorize pain, whether physical or emotional. She’ll accept the former to become the first Black female principal dancer of the New York City Ballet. She grew up with the latter thanks to her fractured family: her withholding mother, her neglectful father and, most of all, her brother, Paul. Indeed, Paul is the source of her greatest pain. A talented artist who introduced her to ballet and paid for her lessons when her mother wouldn’t or couldn’t, Paul vanished into drugs and despair as Cece rose to the heights.

While Cuffy captures the inevitable politics of the ballet world, they affect Cece lightly. Blessed with a snarky sense of humor, she’s smart, humble and kindhearted. Most people wish Cece well, and more than a few love her, including her Russian-born mentor, Kazimir Volkov. Cece is sort of the Suzanne Farrell to his George Balanchine. Kaz’s wife dislikes Cece, but only because she thinks they’re having an affair. (They’re not.) 

Cece has fans, companies want her endorsement, and glossy magazines want to interview her. Besides her mother’s, the only voices of doubt in Cece’s life are the ones she hears in her own head. It’s true that most ballerinas don’t look like her, and the art form wasn’t created for bodies as curvy and powerful as hers. But in the end, her thoughts always return to Paul. When she forces her body to perform and ignores the pain, she does it for him, wherever he is. And when she dances, we want to dance with her. There’s no higher praise for a book like Dances.

When Nicole Cuffy’s heroine dances, we want to dance with her. There’s no higher praise for a book like Dances.
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There are people who swear they can hear the voices of the departed. The dead want their stories told, demand justice for past doings or even offer encouragement to the listener. Lottie Rebecca Lee, the eventual protagonist of Zelda Lockhart’s powerful and hopeful novel Trinity, has heard all three. Three generations go by before Lottie incarnates, which partially explains the book’s title.

The story begins in 1939 in Sampson, Mississippi, where Black people live only a few steps up from slavery. Old Deddy, a 62-year-old Black sharecropper, enters into a contract to marry the 12-year-old daughter of his white boss in exchange for a parcel of land that the boss really has no intention of letting him own. That Old Deddy is a victim of such injustice doesn’t make him a saint; he beats his wife and sons as hard as he works. His son Bennie is gentler but still uses a switch on his own son just to let him know who’s in charge. Both Old Deddy’s and Bennie’s wives become pregnant with girls who would have housed Lottie Rebecca’s soul, but the pregnancies are lost. And so she is born as the daughter of Bennie’s son, traumatized Vietnam War veteran B.J. To break the cycle of familial violence, B.J. closes himself off from his wife and daughter even as he loves them.

Being the vehicle of the ancestors makes Lottie Rebecca a strange and uneasy child. Like Alia Atreides in Frank Herbert’s Dune, she seems to have been born with the knowledge of many lives that came before hers. Such knowledge is so oppressive that it causes screaming fits that Lottie’s family doesn’t understand. Yet she is buoyed by love, especially the love of her wise, gentle, Afrocentric mother, Sheila. When Lottie is a young woman, Sheila takes her on a pilgrimage to Ghana and the castle from which Africans were shipped off to be slaves in the Americas. It’s a place where the voices may ease up.

The author of Fifth Born, Fifth Born II: The Hundredth Turtle and Cold Running Creek, Lockhart explores how pain and injustice are passed down, and how that pain can ease and injustice can be reversed. Sometimes, though, it takes the whispers of the ancestors to make it happen.

Zelda Lockhart explores how pain and injustice are passed down and how they can be reversed. Sometimes it takes the whispers of the ancestors to make it happen.
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Time travel narratives are so ubiquitous in our culture that we all must have, at some point, considered what it would be like to go back in time. Not just to remember, but to actually go back—to observe our parents when they were young, to take fresh note of textures and colors and shapes and situations and emotions we didn’t notice or understand when we were children. In Edan Lepucki’s novel Time’s Mouth, a grandmother and granddaughter share this ability, which is as much an affliction as it is a blessing.

Born in 1938, Sharon begins to “transport” when she’s a teenager, shortly after the death of her despised, abusive father. She leaves home, takes on the name Ursa and moves into a creaky mansion hidden away in a redwood forest. There she comes to govern a weird hippie commune populated by broken women, each given the honorific of “mama,” and their children.

The children’s lives swing between a sort of indentured servitude and a not-so-benign neglect. With the exception of Ursa’s son, Ray, none of the children are allowed to go to school or see a doctor, lest their existence be discovered. But Ray’s privilege is Ursa’s mistake. His knowledge of the outside world lets him see how twisted this village of mamas is. He and his secret girlfriend, Cherry, escape, but Cherry leaves him when their daughter, Opal, is just a baby. Inevitably, Opal, who inherits her grandmother’s fantastic gift, wants to know why.

This gift is tangled up with each woman’s experiences of motherhood and daughterhood, going back generations. Ursa leaves behind her own mother who refused to protect her, then later transports to reclaim Ray, and Opal uses her powers to learn more about her own absent mother. But even mothers who are present aren’t necessarily good enough, as is seen in the commune’s derelict mamas. 

Ursa is Latin for “bear,” and mama bears are famous for being fiercely protective of their cubs. But Lepucki’s Ursa is more fierce than protective. She is, to be blunt, a psychopath. She has no use for the nonservile; her love is conditional, if not transactional; and if she’s thwarted, she reacts with mind-bending violence.

The bestselling author of Woman No. 17 and California, Lepucki displays a real talent for giving readers a new perspective—whether on the passions of motherhood in particular, or on the nature of parenthood in general—and emphasizes the power of real love (and a bit of New Agey therapy) to heal.

In her third novel, Edan Lepucki displays a real talent for giving readers a new perspective—whether on the passions of motherhood in particular, or on the nature of parenthood in general—and emphasizes the power of real love (and a bit of New Agey therapy) to heal.
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Happiness Falls is proof that a thriller doesn’t have to feature private eyes, secret agents, ticking time bombs and exotic locales to keep the reader spellbound. Angie Kim’s suspenseful second novel after Miracle Creek follows a family that lives in a quiet and even bucolic neighborhood near Washington, D.C. They try to stay out of trouble. But trouble comes to them.

The mom, Hannah, is Korean American and an academic. She’s married to Adam, who’s white and a stay-at-home dad. His last name is Parson, hers is Park, and their three kids bear a portmanteau of the two: Parkson. Mia and John, 20 years old, are fraternal twins. The youngest child, 14-year-old Eugene, is diagnosed with autism and mosaic Angelman syndrome (AS), “which means he can’t talk, has motor difficulties, and . . . has an unusually happy demeanor with frequent smiles and laughter.” One day, Eugene comes home upset, pushes his sister out of the way and runs up to his room, where he jumps and vocalizes for hours. Later, Mia finds blood beneath his fingernails. Their dad, who took Eugene to the park that day, is nowhere to be found.

At first the Parksons believe that Adam got lost, and he’ll return. But as the hours drag on and he doesn’t show up, analytical Mia goes into Sherlock mode. (Or Vulcan mode—the Parksons are huge Trekkies.) As narrator, Mia devotes pages to possible scenarios, and adds footnotes to nearly every chapter. The family realizes that waiting 48 hours before calling the police about a missing person is a dangerous myth, and soon the cops are involved. The lead officer’s name is, of course, Janus. On the one hand, she wants to help the Parksons. On the other hand, she’s all but sure that Eugene killed his father and can’t wait to clap the traumatized boy in handcuffs.

Calling a book unputdownable is a cliche, but it has been a while since this reviewer fought off sleep just so she could read one or two more pages. Did Eugene actually kill his father? Why? Is he as noncommunicative as everyone thinks he is? Not only will these and other questions swirl around your brain, but you’ll also come to love the Parksons, especially tetchy, brilliant Mia. You love them for the fierceness of their love for each other, and for their determination, which becomes your own, to get to the bottom of this.

Angie Kim’s suspenseful follow-up to Miracle Creek follows a family that lives in a quiet and even bucolic neighborhood near Washington, D.C. They try to stay out of trouble. But trouble comes to them.
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The protagonist of David Diop’s Beyond the Door of No Return is Michel Adanson, a real life 18th-century French botanist. In this story, beautifully translated from French by Sam Taylor, Michel bequeaths a journal telling the tale of a secret and forbidden love to the daughter he both doted on and neglected. Whether the object of his passion felt the same is uncertain—she probably didn’t—and this is where much of Diop’s novel derives its power.

As a young man, Michel goes to Senegal to study the country’s flora and fauna, and spy, a little, for the Senegal Concession, which traffics in West African commodities, including slaves. The book’s title refers to Gorée Island and its ghastly holding pens where people were kept like livestock before being forced onto ships and taken away forever to the Americas. After a couple of years in Senegal a story reaches the young Frencfhman that can’t be true.

It seems that a young woman who was sold into slavery in America has somehow returned, even though she was believed to be dead. This obsesses Michel to the point where he drops his studies and sets out to find her. After being laid low by a fever, he meets Maram and falls passionately in love with her—or thinks he does.

Diop, winner of the 2021 International Booker Prize for At Night All Blood Is Black, is such a skilled and subtle writer that he won’t let us forget that Michel is a privileged white man despite all his sympathy for and even identification with his Black hosts. Though most of the story is told through Michel’s eyes, even the minor characters are memorable. Through Taylor’s translations, Diop lets us see the condescension of Michel’s better known contemporaries; the arrogant cruelty of the men who run the Senegal Concession; and the perfidy and shame of the man who caused Maram to flee her village. Diop also makes us love Ndiak, Michel’s wonderfully cocky teenaged companion, and we come to respect both the resourceful Maram and the proud and bitter Madeleine, whose portrait reminds the elderly Michel of Maram so much that he tries, pathetically, to court her. Beyond the Door of No Return is an engrossing work from a powerful and humane writer.

Beyond the Door of No Return is an engrossing work from a powerful and humane writer, David Diop, winner of the International Booker Prize.
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To remember is not just to recall a thing. Remembering can be a way of putting things back together, in the way that dis-membering is to take them apart. Kai Thomas’ stellar novel, In the Upper Country, is all about this sort of re-membering. It’s inspired by the true stories of formerly enslaved and freeborn people (Black, Indigenous and some white folks) who built havens in Canada in the years just before the American Civil War. In a place where people have actual autonomy, what is remembered are not just memories but also the workings of relationships—the practice of hewing and maintaining bonds with family, friends and nature itself.

The story’s narrator is Lensinda Martin, a freeborn Black woman and one of the few people in the town of Dunmore who can read and write well enough to publish articles in the abolitionist newspaper. She’s also a healer, so one evening in July 1859, she’s called to assist a man who’s been shot on a farm. He’s dead by the time she gets there, and it turns out he was a slave hunter from the United States. Emboldened by the atrocious Fugitive Slave Act, he traveled all the way to Canada to kidnap a formerly enslaved woman named Cash and return her to captivity in Kentucky. Instead, the old woman shot him. 

Much of the rest of the book follows a series of exchanges between Lensinda and the now-imprisoned Cash, who agrees to tell her tale only if Lensinda reads aloud the stories from other former slaves that were transcribed by abolitionists—a quid pro quo a la The Silence of the Lambs. Cash hopes her story will make it clear that she acted in self-defense and convince the powers that be that she has earned her freedom.

What makes Thomas’ sprawling novel stand out is his focus on the alliances that formed between Indigenous and Black communities as far back as the French and Indian War, as there was much to be learned in their mutual striving to protect themselves and keep their land from being stolen by white colonizers. As Lensinda reads tales that involve Cash’s husband, an Indigenous man, and other loved ones who were torn from her, Cash is made whole again. Whatever the court decides, this very old woman can die in peace.

Written with great power and a beautifully heightened eloquence that calls to mind the exhortations of the old abolitionists, In the Upper Country is, incredibly, Thomas’ first novel. What an auspicious debut it is.

Kai Thomas’ debut novel is written with great power and a beautifully heightened eloquence that calls to mind the exhortations of the old abolitionists.
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The folks in How It Went, whom Wendell Berry writes about so beautifully, may remind readers of hobbits. They are neither small nor hairy footed, but they are kind and hardworking, and their Shire, the land around Port William, Kentucky, is part of them and they are part of the land. They have names like Jayber Crow, Fatty Moneyworth and Art and Mart Rowanberry. There’s even a couple of ne’er-do-wells called Dingus and Les, but they’re more out of a Paul Henning sitcom than J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium.

Berry’s book is divided into 13 lovingly written chapters. Some are short stories that have previously appeared in such publications as The Sewanee Review, while others are more like vignettes. Together, they create a tale that gently unwinds and doubles back on itself, not so much like a river but more like a flowering vine. 

The protagonist and sometimes narrator is Andy Catlett. Though we learn that he’s looking back on a long life, the book begins on the day World War II ends, when he has just turned 11. Over the course of the book, we see him as a teenager, then an old man, then a boy again and then a young man. 

Berry’s prose—in How It Went and just about everything else he’s written over his long career—is imbued with compassion. People have their dark sides. Men drink too much or harbor long resentments. Some people, like Andy’s grandma, may be unhappy, but discord is never dwelled upon. Even the loss of Andy’s hand in a harvesting machine is handled with Berry’s customary sensitivity: Another writer might’ve cast this incident as gruesome, but Berry focuses less on the accident than on how it affects Andy’s family and his self-image, which is bound up in his ability to work.

For the folks in Port William, work is everything, whether it’s making hay, handling a team of mules or building a barbed wire fence. Work is not only noble and necessary but also beautiful. Berry shares Tolkien’s disdain for industries that despoil the earth. In a hilarious scene, somebody dares to drive a motorized tractor through Andy’s grandfather’s property, and the old man nearly attacks it with his cane.

A book full of such gentleness, wisdom and humility seems preposterous in this day and age. It’s also something of a miracle. We are lucky, in such times, to still have a writer like Wendell Berry.

Taken together, the 13 chapters in Wendell Berry’s How It Went create a tale that gently unwinds and doubles back on itself, not so much like a river but more like a flowering vine.

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