Arlene McKanic

At some point while reading James Han Mattson’s novel Reprieve, you’ll think, “This can’t be real. This better not be real.” On its surface, Reprieve is about four ordinary people who venture into a haunted house for the chance of a monetary reward. You could say it’s a story adjacent to The Haunting of Hill House, but even more disturbing. 

Quigley House in Lincoln, Nebraska, is a full-contact escape room, in which staff are allowed to physically engage with contestants. A group of participants enters and passes through several “cells” in the old mansion, collecting a number of envelopes in the allotted time and then moving to the next cell. If things get too intense, a member of the group can shout, “Reprieve!” at which point the game and its torment ends, though no one wins the prize money. It’s all perfectly safe, according to John, the man who runs the haunted house.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Leave the lights on! We picked seven books for Halloween reading, rated from slightly spooky to totally terrifying.

Unlike Hill House, Quigley House is not a nefarious entity, but something or someone within it is. Is it John, or perhaps one of the actors hired to play ghouls and freaks? Maybe it’s the folks responsible for the house’s ghastly special effects, if they are indeed special effects. Or is it someone among the latest group of thrill-seekers who have taken on the challenge of this grisly obstacle course?

Local college student Bryan is the leader of this group of contestants. Jaidee, his roommate, is an entitled Thai student who developed a crush on his English teacher, Victor, and followed him all the way to Nebraska. Victor and his fiancée, Jane, round out the foursome. We also meet Kendra, Bryan’s cousin and an avid fan of horror, who works for John. And though he’s not a member of the group, we also learn about Leonard, whose first action toward the woman he’s attracted to is to mow her down (accidentally or on purpose?) with a shopping cart. 

There are many ways to look at a book with so many flavors of madness. It could be a study of the effects of thwarted desire on people who are basically incapable of empathy, which we see in Jaidee and Leonard. John goes out of his way to befriend Kendra, to get her to enlist Bryan to endure a whole lot of trauma for a chance to win what, in the end, isn’t a whole lot of money. After all, there aren’t that many African Americans in Lincoln, and Quigley House needs the press that would follow Brian’s win.

As the book’s horrifying events unfold, Reprieve can be read as a commentary on, or even an allegory of, American racism. Are we fighting to succeed in a fun house whose rewards aren’t worth the pain? As a study of systems of power at their most perverse, Reprieve is a horror story, certainly, but it’s not as scary as it is deeply disturbing.

At some point while reading James Han Mattson’s harrowing novel, you’ll think, “This can’t be real. This better not be real.”

Somewhere near the end of Colson Whitehead’s tragicomic Harlem Shuffle, I found myself giggling in spite of myself. What was happening on the page was horrible, but it was hilarious. It was hilarious in the way that the comeuppance of the white supremacist clowns at the end of “Breaking Bad” was hilarious. The clowns in Whitehead’s story probably didn’t deserve their fate quite as much, but when they underestimated who they were dealing with, their fate was sort of sealed.

Indeed, like “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire,” Harlem Shuffle acknowledges a sense of morality and an ethical code that may be strange to those of us who aren’t crooks or cynics. Whitehead’s Ray Carney is one of those rare people who can walk the line between crooked and straight and live to tell the tale. By day, he’s a genial Harlem furniture salesman. By night, now and then, he fences “gently used items.” He is a genuinely devoted family man, not just to his smart, sensible wife and adorable kids but also to his cousin and childhood bestie, Freddie. Everyone knows a Freddie. He’s the perennial problem; he’s the one who gets you into the trouble you can’t even imagine. Yet you can’t quit Freddie, because he’s charming and he’s handsome and he’s stupid, and most of all, he’s blood.

Like Dante leading us through the levels of hell, Whitehead presents the reader with the levels of rottenness in early to mid-1960s New York City. There are heists and stickups and beat downs, as well as the hypocrisy of the Black upper crust who think Carney is too dark-skinned to join their club. There’s the tiresome regularity of racist police violence and the protection money paid to the cops and local hoods with lovely monikers like Miami Joe, Cheap Brucie, Yea Big and Louie the Turtle. Downtown, the rottenness is carried out in pristine office towers built by rich white folks who own not only the buildings but also the machinery of the city itself. Carney gets caught up in all of it thanks to a smidgeon of criminal DNA he inherited from his dad and, inevitably, Freddie’s fecklessness.

At the end we see the chasm from which the World Trade Center’s twin towers will rise, the fruit of a deal between more compromised New York mucky mucks. Sic transit gloria mundi, says the author. Thus passes worldly glory. Harlem Shuffle is yet another Colson Whitehead masterpiece.

Like Dante leading us through the levels of hell, Colson Whitehead exposes the levels of rottenness in New York City.

YZ Chin’s Edge Case is one of the first great novels to examine the grinding effect of U.S. anti-immigration policies during the Trump administration.

Edwina and her husband, Marlin, are in the U.S. on H-1B work visas. Both are from Malaysia; she is ethnic Chinese, and he is Chinese Indian. A tester at a New York City tech startup, Edwina is the only woman—and what seems like the only minority employee—among men so entitled, they can’t even see their racism and misogyny.

Software engineer Marlin was planning to get his green card (which isn’t green, by the way), become a citizen and then sponsor his parents to come to the United States. But this will never happen, as Marlin’s beloved father dies early in the book. This calamity unhinges Marlin, and he leaves Edwina. In the aftermath, she struggles to understand his disappearance via messages to an unseen therapist-in-training.

Compounding Edwina’s anguish over Marlin’s abandonment are her anxieties about her immigration status, her looks and daily racial insults. These barbs are too overt to be called microaggressions, and they come not just from her co-workers but also from police. (They accuse Edwina of drinking booze in the open when she’s sipping tea from a cup.) She remembers when dark-skinned Marlin was pulled out of line at the airport and hustled into an office for reasons no one knows. These affronts carry an extra cargo of anxiety that goes beyond the usual hurt of racism, since Edwina knows that if she or Marlin puts a foot wrong, they could be deported.

Chin, the author of the story collection Though I Get Home, is superb at describing the tumult of a woman being psychologically knocked about like a pachinko ball. Every chapter bears witness to Edwina’s pain, befuddlement and sheer exhaustion, while also revealing her snarky sense of humor, resourcefulness, tenaciousness and capacity for love. Edge Case shows what can happen to ordinary people when they’re caught up in systems beyond their control.

A woman is psychologically knocked about like a pachinko ball in YZ Chin's superbly tumultuous debut novel.

Remember the smoke monster from “Lost”? It appears that he’s alive and well and living in Violet Kupersmith’s debut novel, Build Your House Around My Body. Add in two-headed cobras, hungry ghosts, body-hopping and body horror (both the more ordinary kind that involves explosive emesis and incontinence, and the kind that involves eldritch distortions), then throw in Vietnam’s history as a chew toy of empires, and you have a small part of what goes on in this kaleidoscopic book.

On its surface, Build Your House Around My Body concerns Winnie Nguyen, a Vietnamese American woman who’s come to Vietnam to teach and to find herself. One day, she disappears. Every chapter heading refers to her vanishing; one chapter is set 62 years before her disappearance, while another’s events occur the day after. It’s as if the workings of the cosmos depend on the fate of this messed up, seemingly insignificant young woman.

And how messed up she is, despite her longing to be good. When she is told that good Vietnamese girls don’t drink coffee, she never touches it again. But Winnie just can’t make her life work. She exists in a state of squalor, both internally and externally, reflecting the condition of Saigon’s noisome open-air markets, sleazy sex motels and creepy karaoke bars and beer joints.

Kupersmith’s grasp of her story’s secondary characters is as firm as her grasp of Winnie. There’s the gentle and befuddled Long and his estranged brother, Tan, both in love with a combative girl named Binh. There are Winnie’s ridiculous fellow teachers at the Achievement! International Language Academy. There are fortunetellers and shape-shifters, pepper and rubber plantation tycoons, and a lady who may or may not be a paraplegic who sells fake lottery tickets.

It would have been easy for a book with so much going on to collapse into incoherence, but it’s an engaging read the whole way through. Build Your House Around My Body is an unsettling and powerful work.

Remember the smoke monster from “Lost”? It appears that he’s alive and well and living in Violet Kupersmith’s debut novel.

Did you know that the mother of Johannes Kepler, the 17th-century German scientist best known for his laws of planetary motion, was accused of being a witch? Rivka Galchen’s Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch is the fictionalized story of Katharina Kepler, who was accused of this crime at the same time her son was struggling to get his astronomical theories written and accepted.

Katharina is an easy target for the preposterous charge of witchcraft. She’s considered a widow, since her feckless husband hared off to join a war—any war would do, and there were a number going on at the time—when their children were young. Katharina does not suffer fools, and she refers to her enemies by such nicknames as the Cabbage, the Werewolf and the False Unicorn. She’s a bit of a busybody who doesn’t hesitate to press advice and herbal remedies on people who may or may not want them. And while she’s not a highborn lady, she owns property that some folks would like to get their hands on.

But she’s also tenderhearted and capable of great devotion. One of the first things we learn about her is her affection for her cow, Chamomile. When the powers that be finally come for Katharina, the moment is wrenching.

Most contemporary stories about witch hunts take a swipe at the patriarchy, and Galchen’s novel does, too. To plead her case, Katharina needs a male legal guardian, even though she’s a mature woman of sound mind and body. Guardianship is provided by Simon, her town’s somewhat forlorn saddler, and then by the put-upon Johannes.

Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances (2008), scrutinizes the corrosiveness of town gossip as the tales about Frau Kepler grow more and more ridiculous: She scratched a young girl she passed in the road; she rode a goat or a calf or some beast backward, then killed and ate it; and a mere glance from her will cause people to sicken and livestock to go mad and die. It doesn’t help that Katharina’s illustrious son has been excommunicated by the Lutheran church.

Written with a surprising sense of humor for such a grim topic, Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch shows what happens when a crowd is taken over by delusion, bigotry and grievance.

Rivka Galchen brings a surprising sense of humor to the grim topic of 17th-century witchcraft accusations.

Some books leave you with a feeling for which there are no words, or at least no words in English that you know of. Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts is one of those books. The feeling closest to what is evoked by this beautifully crafted novel is a stroll during the blue hour on the first warm evening of spring. (Surely there’s a word for that in German.)

Whereabouts is narrated by a middle-aged woman who lives in a country that is much like Italy—and likely is, as the novel was written in Italian and translated by the author. The woman is unmarried and has no children. She has loads of friends and a satisfying enough career in academia. Her father died suddenly when she was young. She had a contentious relationship with her mother, who is alive but fading, and now their relationship has mellowed a bit. The narrator is neither depressed nor ecstatically happy. She tends to regard everything she sees with a cool, pleasurable equanimity. Even the most shocking kerfuffle in the novel (which we won’t reveal here) passes like a storm cloud. 

One of the many joys of this little book, besides Lahiri’s usual gorgeous writing, is that there’s almost no plot. The chapters are short, some less than a page, with headers like “In Spring,” “At the Register,” “At My House.” They are all about the narrator watching, listening and thinking, whether about a favorite stationery shop suddenly turned into a luggage store, how some old flame has aged (and how she ever could have loved him in the first place) or the intimacy of a manicure.

Another lovely thing about the book is that you don’t even have to read its chapters in order. The novel is like a contemporary orarium, a collection of private devotions to read for insight and comfort before going to bed. Whereabouts is even physically small, just the size for a purse or a roomy pocket, to pull out and enjoy when you have a moment. It is a jewel of a book.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel is like a contemporary orarium, a collection of private devotions to read for insight and comfort before going to bed.

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