Kevin Chen’s dark and eerie novel opens with a question: “Where are you from?” This seemingly simple question reverberates throughout Ghost Town, and though its many characters are all desperate for an answer, satisfaction eludes them. Watching them try—as they tumble through their lives and wrestle with their complicated relationships to both home and family—makes for a rich and layered reading experience.
Ghost Town centers on the Chen family. Patriarch Cliff makes a living as a small-time merchant in a rural Taiwanese town. Cliff and his wife, Cicada, are disappointed by the births of their five daughters before finally having two sons. Keith, the youngest, becomes a writer and eventually leaves Taiwan for Germany, hungry to get out from under the weight of familial expectations. He falls in love with a German man, whom he eventually murders.
The novel opens with Keith’s return home after years in jail. His homecoming coincides with the Ghost Festival, a time when spirits visit the world of the living, who in turn make offerings to honor the ghosts and ease their suffering. Several chapters are narrated by ghosts, but they’re not just characters. Their presence permeates the book as a constant humming backdrop—the ghosts of the dead and the might-have-been, the ghosts of inherited trauma and domestic violence, the ghosts of memory.
It’s a dramatic setup, but the first two-thirds of Ghost Town are deliciously slow, lingering in the details and inviting readers into the characters’ internal lives. Keith muses for pages about the changes to the swimming pool where he learned to swim. Betty, his sister who now lives in Taipei, remembers a bookshop she frequented as a child. Middle sister Belinda describes her rich husband’s domestic abuse with chilling detachment. This attention to the ongoing drama and minuate of the family’s life causes the larger mystery—why Keith murdered his boyfriend—to recede into the background.
The final third contains the kind of grand revelations that can sometimes feel overwrought, especially after such a slow, meandering journey through memory and loss. But Chen sets it up masterfully enough that, instead, the ending feels inevitable.
Winner of both the Taiwan Literature Award and the Golden Tripod Award (one of the highest honors in Taiwanese publishing), Ghost Town is full of gauzy prose and dark imagery. Darryl Sterk’s translation has a dreamlike quality, and it’s clear how much care he took to render the nuances of the original Taiwanese into English. This isn’t an easy read, but like a ghost, it lingers.
This dark and eerie novel isn’t an easy read, but like a ghost, it lingers.
Comics artist Kate Beaton, creator of the award-winning satirical webcomic “Hark! A Vagrant,” demonstrates her remarkable range and storytelling prowess with her debut graphic memoir, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands. With strong prose and striking art, she captures the complexities of a place often defined by stark binaries: the Alberta oil sands, one of the world’s largest deposits of crude oil.
In 2005, 21-year-old Beaton’s goal is to pay off the student loans for her arts degree, so she leaves her beloved home on Cape Breton, a small island off the coast of Nova Scotia, for a job in oil mining. Over the next several years, she works as a warehouse attendant in the town of Fort McMurray, as well as at various temporary work camps owned by several oil companies.
Beaton recounts her experiences—often harrowing, sometimes poignant—with dazzling clarity. She’s one of only a few women in an industry dominated by men, and misogyny, sexual harassment and sexual violence occur nearly every day. In scene after scene, she depicts men laughing over sexist jokes and demeaning the women they work with, and bosses dismissing her concerns.
And yet, without once making excuses for any of this behavior, Beaton honors the humanity of the oil workers. She illuminates the larger contexts of work camps, including labor exploitation and corporate greed, toxic masculinity and a lack of mental health resources. She puts everything, good and bad, into the book: moments of connection with men from the eastern provinces, bleak humor, environmental destruction, stark natural beauty, her own feelings of complicity and homesickness, and the oil companies’ blatant disregard for the Indigenous communities in which they operate.
Beaton’s art conveys the inherent strangeness of living and working in such isolated places, giving Ducks a sense of loneliness that words alone can’t express. Her talent for drawing people, and especially facial expressions, adds layers of emotional depth to every scene. She depicts her own face, and the faces of her many co-workers, in moments of fear, pain, anger, exhaustion, despair, pride and laughter. Meanwhile, her illustrations of massive mining machinery make these people seem small and insignificant.
It is no small task to convey the messy truth of a place in words and drawings, to tell a story that is at once intimate and sweeping, and to resist simplification. “You can’t just paint one picture,” Beaton tells a female co-worker during a moving conversation about the impossibility of summing up the oil sands for an online article. In Ducks, she paints a thousand pictures. It’s a powerful account of the ongoing harm of patriarchal violence, and an equally powerful testament to what is possible when we pay attention, seek out each other’s humanity and honor the hard truths alongside the beautiful.
Kate Beaton's graphic memoir is a powerful account of the ongoing harm of patriarchal violence, and an equally powerful testament to what is possible when we pay attention, seek out each other's humanity and honor the hard truths alongside the beautiful.
What does it mean to write a novel in a world defined by the violence of colonization and white supremacy—a world that can’t be saved with mere words? What does it mean to want to write a novel at all, especially as you doubt yourself and recognize the contradictions in your desires and intentions? And what does it mean to be a queer Indigenous man living through these questions and their consequences?
These are the quandaries at the heart of Cree poet Billy-Ray Belcourt’s extraordinary debut novel. A Minor Chorus is a slim, sparse book with a breathtaking structure, a genre-defying blend of fiction, critical theory and oral history that holds seemingly endless layers of stories in its mere 176 pages.
Belcourt’s unnamed narrator is a 20-something queer Cree man fed up with the overt and insidious racism of the academic realm. He abandons his dissertation, leaves his Ph.D. program and returns to his hometown in northern Alberta, Canada, to write a novel. While there, he speaks with various people from his past: an old classmate, a closeted gay elder and his great-aunt. Between these conversations, he recounts childhood memories of his cousin, another Cree man who’s just been arrested on a drug charge.
It’s hard to describe just how moving and unusual this novel is. It is intensely interior, sometimes dizzyingly so. The narrator is a scholar who constantly analyzes his own experiences, philosophizing and interrogating, but he’s painfully aware of the limits of academic thought. This tension sizzles and spits at the center of the book, and while the narrator never resolves that tension, he begins to dissect the rigid binaries between living in the world and thinking about it, creating experience and feeling it.
Belcourt crafts sentences like only a poet can, each one precise and shimmering. He writes with ferocious intensity and beauty about Grindr hookups, queer Indigenous friendship, police violence, the open wounds of Canada’s residential schools, loneliness and longing. The narrator frequently invokes the work of other poets and writers—Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Roland Barthes, Carl Phillips—and in doing so, firmly places himself in a lineage of struggle and resistance, artistic rigor and poetic thought.
A Minor Chorus is a feat of technical brilliance, a novel that questions the worth of writing even as it asserts its own value. It is a slippery, scholarly work, rooted in the layered complexity of Indigenous life. Belcourt has established himself as one of Canada’s leading contemporary poets. Now, with his first work of fiction, he cements his place as both writer and world builder, his words creating portals from the past and present into the queer Indigenous future.
A Minor Chorus is a feat of technical brilliance, a novel that questions the worth of writing even as it asserts its own value.
In 2005, in order to pay off her student loans, Kate Beaton left her home in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, to work on the Alberta oil sands, a vast region in Canada that contains one of the largest deposits of crude oil in the world. During this time, Beaton began writing “Hark! A Vagrant,” a witty, irreverent webcomic about history, literary figures and her own life. The beloved series has been collected into two bestselling books, Hark! A Vagrant and Step Aside, Pops.
Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, Beaton’s first full-length graphic memoir, is a beautiful and nuanced account of her time working in the town of Fort McMurray, as well as at various temporary work camps owned by several oil companies. It directly addresses the sexual harassment and violence that she and others experienced in the oil sands, as well as the toxic masculinity that permeates the work camps.
We talked with Beaton about the difficulties of capturing the sometimes contradictory realities of such a complicated place.
You started posting “Hark! A Vagrant” 15 years ago. How have you changed as a writer and artist since then? I’ve changed a lot. I was only 23 when I started making things that would be “Hark! A Vagrant.” I had gone through a lot in some ways, but I was very young and inexperienced, and I look at some of my old work and cringe at it, but this is the same for almost anyone making things in the public eye. Everyone is a young fool for a while, and the world changes around you, and you get older and hopefully not more foolish but the other way around.
Right now I’m 38, and it has been a long time since I was a fresh face on the comics scene. I’m more like the wallpaper or a worn-out chair, but I like being that. No one is surprised I’m here.
How did writing those comics affect your life in the work camps? Did you have any sense of how your career would unfold? After I had comics in my life, working in the camps got easier, because I had this thing that was just for me. Before I had that, I lost myself. It was just work and people chipping away at you in a certain way. Then I had comics and I’d go home to my little camp room after work and draw them and put them online, and here I was in a work camp in the oil sands, very alone in many ways, and I was connecting to people who saw me for who I was through my work. I felt like myself. And I didn’t want to give that up or lose that.
As the book begins, you write about the tension between loving your home in Cape Breton and needing to leave it to find work. During your time in the oil sands, some of the most poignant, powerful moments—both good and bad—are the interactions you have with people from Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Cape Breton. Talk to me about how you feel about these places. Do you see this memoir as being about Cape Breton as well as about Alberta? It makes sense that it is. Cape Breton has always exported workers. They leave for where the work is, and they leave together. To Boston, Sudbury, Windsor, Alberta—not always, but often you see it. And when they do, there is a shared history and a connection that is always happening.
My grandfather went out on harvest trains in the 1930s, from Nova Scotia to the prairies. There were 1,200 people on the train, he said, and there was one car for schoolteachers. Women. Along the way, the men smashed up the train and looted. “They were full of the devil,” he said. How do you think that car of women felt with those 1,200 men? I know how they felt.
You think your story is new, you think you have something new to say, but really it is all something you are born into. My mother’s family all went to work in the car factories of Windsor, and they would come visit in the summer. And I would watch my aunts go crying into the car to go back and Grandma go silently back into the house with her private sorrow, and I would know that’s going to be me someday—or rather, that this is the choice I will have to make, to stay or to go wherever the work is.
When it really was time for me to go, Alberta was where the work was, and I went. I thought nothing of it at all. And I had no idea, none at all, what I was doing. Then you come home and talk to your relatives about what happened when they left, and they all say the same thing: “We had no idea what we were doing.” “I’ve never been so cold.” “I’ve never been so lonely.” “Thank god I knew this other person from home.”
One of the many remarkable things about your memoir is its nuance: You write so honestly about a complicated place. As many readers will likely not have given oil mining much thought beyond “necessary jobs” or “climate destruction,” what do you hope they take away from reading Ducks? Nuance is not a bad thing to take away. I think it is a book about empathy—however you want to take that, and whomever or whatever you think that comment is about. Then that is what it is about.
You convey so much emotion through your characters” facial expressions, images of massive equipment and views of the surrounding landscape, both natural and human. What’s your drawing process like when bringing scenes from your memory to the page? Oh, I had a lot of visual references. I can’t just draw an excavator from memory! But I knew what I was looking for in references—that was memory. You see those images again, and you can really smell it and feel it, being out there. I just wanted people to feel like they were there.
There are so many people in the book—by my count, over 40 named characters! What are the challenges or joys of drawing so many different people? The challenge was that I drew a lot of people the same! And my editors made me go back and change some of them because people were getting confused—haha! But when you have a bunch of guys in hard hats, safety glasses and safety vests, they do start looking alike. So that was challenging for sure. I was mostly concerned that I didn’t mess up on any of them and make people confused.
Since your time in Alberta, you’ve lived all over Canada, as well as in New York. Now that you’re back in Cape Breton, how does it feel to be home? It feels natural. I liked being away in those places. I think it was a healthy thing. I learned a lot from being in cities like Toronto and New York. But I always felt like a peg on a board there too, like a thing that didn’t fit in the picture. Here, I feel like part of the painting.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 21-year-old self who has just arrived in Alberta? What would you say to other young women thinking about working in the oil sands? My advice would be that you can actually ask for better money or apply for a better job. Someone told me that I wasn’t allowed to do either in the first year that I was there, and I believed them. And even the second year that I was there, I didn’t challenge the money that I was being paid, and I was in one of the lowest-paid tiers of people on site. I just didn’t know any better. And we are not really raised to know better or to ask for more when other people have no problem doing that.
Photo of Kate Beaton by Stephen Rankin Photography.
The award-winning comics artist solidifies her reputation for storytelling prowess and remarkable range.
In his third novel, Brooklyn-based Cuban translator and author Ernesto Mestre-Reed delves into Fidel Castro-era Cuba in a beguiling, meandering story that unfolds in dense and dizzying prose. Though challenging at times, Sacrificio is an invitation to slow down and pay attention. The rewards are plentiful for readers willing to give themselves over to a narrative that twists through Havana’s streets, churches, hotels, backyard restaurants and many secrets.
In the mid-1990s, Rafa, a Cuban teenager from the countryside, makes his way to Havana, where he finds a job at a tiny restaurant run by middle-aged Cecilia and her two sons. Rafa falls in love with the older son, Nicolás, though his intimate conversations with the younger son, Renato, have a more profound effect on Rafa’s life.
In the aftermath of Nicolás’ death, Renato goes missing from the state-run “AIDS sanitarium” where he’s been sent, and Rafa sets out to find him. He soon becomes entangled in a complicated web of government agents, counterrevolutionaries and the mysterious workings of a secret city-within-the-city. He discovers the brothers’ connection to “los injected ones,” a group of radical counterrevolutionaries determined to overthrow the Castro government via a delusional plan to spread HIV across the island.
That’s a lot of plot, but it’s only the beginning, as Sacrificio is Dickensian in both scope and feel. Observant Rafa narrates in the first person, but he is long-winded and unreliable, often drifting into discursive stories told to him by others. The historical backdrop—including the 1997 hotel bombings throughout Havana and Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba—looms large, and these events have cosmic consequences. Rafa recounts his own involvement with mild detachment, like someone looking back on experiences they’re not yet sure how to interpret. Fear, betrayal, longing, confusion, love, the desire for justice, the need to be seen, despair and determination—these emotions run beneath Rafa’s surface, ready to be excavated by attentive readers.
Contemporary literature often feels like it’s moving as fast as contemporary society, as if our culture of instant gratification has changed not only the way we read but also the way we write. While there’s certainly a place for that kind of literature, Sacrificio is a reminder that other kinds of books are worthwhile as well: slow stories, disorienting yet compelling books that require work, old-school dramas that nevertheless speak to the fraught complexities of our current political reality.
For readers willing to give themselves over to a narrative that twists and turns through Havana's streets, churches, hotels, backyard restaurants and many secrets, the rewards of Sacrificio are plentiful.
Perhaps it’s too soon to say which books we’ll look back on in 50 years as the ones that defined a generation, but Sarah Thankam Mathews’ debut, a close-to-perfect coming-of-age romp, is surely a contender. Bitingly funny and sweetly earnest, it’s one of those rare novels that feels just like life, its characters so specific in their desires and experiences that you’re sure you’ve met them—or maybe you’re about to. Yet Mathews also captures some unnamable, essential thing about being a 20-something struggling through work and love and late-stage capitalism in the United States in the mid-2000s. In the manner of books that stay with you forever, All This Could Be Different is a singular story that extends beyond itself.
At 22, Sneha graduates from college into a tanked economy. She immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager, but her parents have since returned to India, leaving Sneha alone. She lands an entry-level job at a consulting firm in Milwaukee and starts fresh in a new city, where she encounters financial successes and catastrophes, makes friends and falls into a heady romance. She relates these experiences in an unforgettable narrative voice: dryly funny, self-analytical, a little sarcastic and full of heart.
Though Sneha is preoccupied with her girlfriend for much of the book, this is actually a story about friendship. Sneha’s new friend Tig, a slightly older Black genderfluid lesbian, tells her that friendship takes a lot of work, and over the course of the novel, we get to see Sneha and Tig do that work. It’s breathtaking to witness this slow and painful process. Over dinners and phone calls and meltdowns, long drives and impromptu parties, Sneha, whose past traumas have made her unwilling to trust others, who longs for love even as she shies away from it, learns what true intimacy requires: to see and be seen.
Lives are made up of so many ordinary moments, so many conflicting emotions, so many messes—some world-shattering, some mundane. It’s all here in this funny, vibrant, heartbreaking book: the ache of new love and the pleasures of good food, what it’s like having money and what it’s like losing it, microaggressions and casual racism and radical politics. There are drunken mistakes, childhood wounds, good sex, bad sex, the American dream, queer love, an explotitive economy and the bite of Midwestern winters. And of course, the pressures and expectations of being a first-generation Asian American immigrant.
Through it all, there’s the steady pulse of friendship and the quiet work of building a family—all the beautiful details that unfold along one woman’s journey to wholeness and home.
Bitingly funny and sweetly earnest, Sarah Thankam Mathews’ debut is one of those rare novels that feels just like life.
Although each of the 12 linked tales in Morgan Talty’s debut collection captures a particular moment, relationship or experience, together they give Night of the Living Rez the heft, movement and complexity of a novel.
All of the stories are narrated in the first person by David, a Penobscot man living on a reservation in Maine. About half the stories occur during David’s childhood and adolescence; in the other half, he’s a young man in his 20s, passing the time drinking and smoking with his friend Fellis, struggling with the effects of opioid addiction and longing for a place to belong in a confusing world.
There is so much beauty in these stories, but also heaviness, including sexual assault, inherited trauma and violence toward Indigenous people. Talty writes truthfully and openly about the challenges faced by David and his family but never reduces any of them to their pain. David and the people around him—his mother, his stepdad, his sister and Fellis—are real and flawed. They try their best and make mistakes; they get in fights and let one another down. They also look out for one another, express their affection through food and laughter, tell stories and share ceremonies. Funny and direct, David is a brilliant observer of these ordinary yet specific lives. He’s the perfect guide to the constellation of relationships, history and culture that defines the reservation he calls home.
What’s most remarkable about the collection is the way Talty carefully guides readers to the book’s climax. Each story reveals something new about David; small details from one story become life-changing events in another. In this way, the stories in Night of the Living Rez build on themselves the way a life builds: messily, unpredictably, with love and heartache and never quite in the way you expect.
The stories in Night of the Living Rez build on themselves the way a life builds: messily, unpredictably, with beauty and heartache and never quite in the way you expect.
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan allows the reader no time to pause or get situated within her debut novel, Big Girl; once you’re in, you’re in. It unfurls in one long stream of messy, painful, big Black girlhood, and this intense interiority gives the novel a breathless, almost unbearable momentum.
Though Sullivan writes every character, even minor ones, with seemingly effortless depth, Big Girl stays relentlessly focused on its protagonist, Malaya. The novel never zooms too far afield, never meanders into subplots or backstory, never leaves Malaya’s emotional interior for more than a moment. In the hands of a less talented writer, this closeness could slip into tedium. Sullivan turns it into something miraculous.
Malaya is a fat Black girl growing up in Harlem in the 1980s and ’90s. For her mother and grandmother, Malaya’s weight is her defining characteristic, a problem to be solved. She grows up swathed in her mother’s shame, learning to count calories, hide her desires, hate her body and strive toward thinness as the ultimate ideal. As she enters her teen years and her body becomes more unruly, it gets harder and harder for Malaya to locate herself in the cacophony of voices telling her how she should look, think and be. She finds some solace in the music of rap artists like Biggie Smalls and with her small group of Black friends. But it’s not until she faces her first catastrophic loss that she’s finally able to see—and love—herself on her own terms.
This is a painful book about body shaming, fatphobia, patriarchal violence, white beauty standards, familial trauma and the male gaze. It’s about how much work and courage it takes to live in the world as a Black girl, a fat girl, a woman, a human with a body that doesn’t do what bodies are “supposed” to do. No matter where Malaya is—her own kitchen; her preppy, mostly white high school; the streets of Harlem—her body is on display. She can’t escape the ways people see her and treat her, and Sullivan brilliantly captures this endless, exhausting trauma of being looked at but never seen.
Big Girl is also full of moments of tenderness, joy and even hilarity, especially in the scenes between Malaya and her father, and in her relationship with her best friend, Shaniece. As Malaya slowly comes into her own, she learns to live loudly and take up space, to embrace her size, name her hungers and claim her desires. Sullivan’s novel is expansive and exuberant, loud and fierce, a celebratory, redemptive coming-of-age story.
In her fierce debut novel, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan captures the exhausting trauma of being looked at but never seen, and the courage it takes to live loudly and take up space.
Joseph Han’s beautifully strange debut novel, Nuclear Family, is full of ghosts and spirits, real and metaphorical. At first it seems to be a relatively straightforward intergenerational saga about a Korean family in Hawaii, but soon the inventiveness of Han’s storytelling becomes apparent, and readers are submerged in a world where nothing is quite as it seems.
Hoping for a fresh start away from his family, 20-something Jacob Cho takes a job teaching English in Seoul. Not long after his arrival, he attempts to cross the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, and is taken into custody. Back in Hawaii, his family is consumed with worry. His parents are struggling to keep their restaurant in business, while his sister, Grace, spends more and more of her time getting high.
None of them know that Jacob has been possessed by the ghost of his dead grandfather, Tae-woo, who is desperate to get across the DMZ to reunite with the family he left behind during the war. In Jacob, Tae-woo sees his best chance to get across the wall that has kept him—and countless others—separated from those they love, even in death.
Through this literal possession of a young man by a sly and grieving grandfather, Han tells a moving and specific story about more symbolic possessions—how violence possesses bodies, how history possesses the present and how a person’s stories remain alive in their descendants, even if those stories go unspoken.
Events unfold through a dizzying array of voices: Jacob, Grace and their parents; Tae-woo and his fellow ghosts; Jacob’s other grandparents; and a kind of Greek chorus of local Hawaiians, both Native and immigrant families. Han zooms in and out, moving between perspectives, times and places. These quick shifts in tone and voice can be disorienting, but they also give the novel its momentum.
Nuclear Family is about the trauma of living with invented borders, about dispossession and exile, and about the unhealed wounds of war that are felt across generations. Han’s characters—both dead and alive—are haunted by the past, even as they seek to escape it. Darkly funny, delightfully surprising and with a sprinkling of unusual formatting that reveals hidden subplots, Han’s debut bears witness to the brutal realities of war and imperialism while honoring the many kinds of magic that exist in the world.
Darkly funny and delightfully surprising, Joseph Han's debut novel, Nuclear Family, explores the trauma of invented borders through the possession of a young man by the ghost of his sly and grieving grandfather.
Longtime fans of Nina LaCour’s teen novels will be enchanted by the quietly powerful Yerba Buena, her first book for adult readers. It unfolds without any fanfare through a series of intimate and brilliantly observed details about growing up and into yourself. From one seemingly ordinary scene to the next, the relentless momentum of our imperfect, chaotic lives pulses through LaCour’s prose.
At 16, Sara is desperate to flee her small hometown on Northern California’s Russian River and get far away from her difficult childhood, her drug-dealing father and memories of her dead mother. When her girlfriend dies suddenly, Sara seizes the first opportunity to run. Pushing aside the traumas of her past, she begins to make a life for herself in Los Angeles.
Emilie is an LA native struggling with more nebulous challenges. She’s not sure what she wants, so she flits from major to major in college, and then from job to job. She doesn’t feel at ease in her family, as she’s still grieving the loss of the closeness she used to share with her sister.
Emilie and Sara meet at a restaurant where Sara tends bar and Emilie arranges flowers. They spend one meaningful night together, but it’s a long time before they connect again.
Yerba Buena is not a simple romance. It’s a layered story about the process of learning to love yourself, of holding onto and letting go of painful history, and of building your own home. Along the way, LaCour captures all the aches and hurts and betrayals and sensual delights of being in your 20s. Emilie and Sara get tangled in messy relationships—romantic, platonic and familial. They make impulsive choices as well as smart ones. They yearn for each other, but they aren’t ready for each other, and so they return, again and again, to their own lives, tumbling forward, muddling through, making mistakes and starting again.
LaCour’s prose has a soft, flowing quality and a lushness that readers of her previous books will recognize. She’s adept at describing the things that matter most to her protagonists: the colors of a flower arrangement, the quality of light on a wooden floor, a facial expression, the taste of a beloved gumbo recipe. She’s even better at describing tumultuous emotional landscapes. Sara and Emilie are such fully realized characters that by the end of the novel, you will feel as though you’ve spent time with cherished friends.
Bursting with emotionally resonant moments and vivid details of LA neighborhoods, Yerba Buena is a remarkable story of queer love and childhood trauma, addiction and forgiveness, family legacies and new beginnings.
In her first novel for adult readers, Nina LaCour captures all the aches and hurts and betrayals and sensual delights of being in your 20s.
At its heart, Vauhini Vara’s twisty, thoughtful debut novel, The Immortal King Rao, is a fascinating alternate history and eerily plausible imagined future of the internet—and the tech corporations that have shaped it. With a sureness to her prose and a sharp eye for the tiny details that shape human lives, Vara, who has worked as a Wall Street Journal technology reporter and as a business editor for The New Yorker, combines three distinct storylines into a genre-bending, kaleidoscopic spiral of a tale.
Though the entire novel is narrated by Athena, the 17-year-old daughter of the most successful tech genius the world has ever seen, it shifts among three timelines. In a small village in 1950s India, King Rao, who will eventually become the most powerful man in the world, longs for a sense of belonging while growing up on his Dalit family’s sprawling coconut plantation. In 1970s Seattle, newly arrived in the U.S. for graduate school, King invents the device that will change the world forever: the Coconut computer. And in some unspecified near-future, a single corporation holds sway over the world’s citizens, who are referred to as Shareholders, and an all-powerful Board of Directors has expanded to replace all world governments. Within this imagined future, Athena recounts the events that led to her being imprisoned for her father’s murder.
This future is effortlessly believable, with irreversible global warming known as “Hothouse Earth,” capitalism running rampant, an unstoppable megacorp similar to an Apple-Google hybrid, and a mysterious computer algorithm controlling all aspects of public and private life. Yet for all its brilliant scope, The Immortal King Rao is also an intimate character study, offering an unflinching, close-up look at the complicated bonds of families.
There are no simple relationships in this book, and few moral absolutes. King is a ruthless, larger-than-life genius, but he’s also a scared, confused kid, a doting father and a lonely 20-something adrift in an unfamiliar world. As Athena pores over her memories of King—and parses through his memoirs, gifted directly to her brain through his final invention—she begins to understand all of these interlocking and sometimes contradictory pieces of him. What emerges is a remarkably tender and continually unpredictable story about familial and romantic love, ambition and greed, alienation and revolution, and one man’s unquenchable desire to leave a lasting mark on the world.
Satirical and heartbreaking, packed with historical detail and flawless dystopian world building, The Immortal King Rao is a striking multigenerational epic that tackles—and offers a surprising answer to—that age-old question: What are we here for?
In her striking multigenerational epic, Vauhini Vara combines three distinct stories into a genre-bending, kaleidoscopic spiral of a tale.
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