Mark Bernheim

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“Tradition!” booms Tevye the Milkman in Fiddler on the Roof as he explains how his community has survived for centuries in czarist Russia. Traditions remind us of who we are, Tevye insists. Meanwhile, in Shirley Jackson’s iconic story “The Lottery,” residents of a small town annually stone one person to death to honor a “tradition” they don’t even pretend to understand.

Traditions may have the power to guide us, but clarity of purpose can quickly turn opaque if an outdated custom goes unquestioned for too long. This concern is at the heart of Nigerian American author Tomi Obaro’s rich novel, Dele Weds Destiny, a moving story of three college friends who reunite at a wedding in Lagos in 2015, three decades after they last saw each other.

The bride, independent and ambitious future doctor Destiny, is the only daughter of Funmi, the wealthiest of the three friends. After rebounding from a relationship with a revolutionary, Funmi married a shady military figure. Now she has everything that money can buy but also lives an empty existence, with no emotional security outside of controlling her daughter. There’s an utter lack of communication between Funmi and Destiny, who finds her fiancé, Dele, to be bland and privileged. Throughout the novel, Destiny suffers in silence, allowing herself to be manipulated while waging a kind of passive strike against the elaborate wedding traditions her mother obsesses over.

Enitan, the brainiest of the three friends, escaped her oppressive Christian mother by marrying Charles, an American Peace Corps volunteer. He came from a white New England family and, with an exoticized image of Africa that he absorbed from reading Ernest Hemingway, taught at the women’s university, where he met and seduced Enitan. Enitan and Charles moved to New York, their marriage failed, and she raised their daughter, Remi, alone. Enitan brings now-19-year-old Remi to Nigeria for the lavish wedding.

Zainab is the final member of the trio. She’s an empowered writer and bookish dreamer, a clever Hausa Muslim woman who entered into an ill-advised marriage with an older academic colleague. Her partner is now bedridden and needs Zainab’s constant care.

These women know each other well, so readers won’t encounter any shocking revelations or buried secrets. Rather, Enitan, Funmi and Zainab reunite with old sorrows as they reflect upon the heady days of the 1980s, when student unrest shaped their lives for decades to come.

Along with the women’s pasts, Dele Weds Destiny offers a memorable portrait of a country that has long been divided between a Christian south and a Muslim north. The vividly rendered wedding weekend is split as well, with a secular Nigerian wedding preceding a Christian “white wedding,” which is held in a church and considered the “official ceremony.” The novel is pure sterling when describing the traditional Nigerian celebration. No guest list is needed; everyone is welcome, and hundreds, if not more, will attend. They’ll feast on delicious cuisine and shower the new couple with money. They’ll wear their finest in the tradition of aso-ebi, in which the couple chooses a brightly colored cloth from which their guests make elaborate dresses, suits and robes for the ceremony, as well as gèlè, huge headdresses in matching material.

The climactic wedding in the novel’s final pages delivers just what readers hope for in terms of surprises, and it’s well worth the wait. There are no fiddlers on roofs, but old traditions bounce and jolt along to great energy and expense, eventually falling away to herald new traditions as well as a new Destiny.

The nature of tradition is at the heart of Tomi Obaro’s rich novel about three college friends who reunite at a wedding in Lagos after three decades apart.
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In her second novel, Rachel Barenbaum (A Bend in the Stars) presents a 450-page epic spanning Philadelphia, Berlin, Moscow and the doomed nuclear reactor at Chernobyl. At times, the novel is experimental, mixing imaginative science fiction with history, family drama, romance and political intrigue in a narrative structure as complex as the science in its backdrop. The story could’ve easily been told in graphic form (and indeed, comics play a large part in the story) and would make quite a film.

Atomic Anna moves among three generations of Soviet and American women, beginning at the moment when the Chernobyl reactor misfires on April 26, 1986. Scientist Anna Berkova, who seems to be asleep at the scene of the disaster, is caught in a time-travel ripple that sends her hurtling into the future. Anna’s genius-level scientific knowledge allows her to recognize the future world’s capabilities for devising a way of reversing time and remedying the man-made disaster in Chernobyl, but she is also given a horrifying look into the future.

In a parallel storyline—and there are many—Anna’s daughter, Molly, is on an odyssey through time, sent by Anna to 1950s Philadelphia as part of the exodus of Russian Jews fleeing the repressive Soviet system. Molly has no scientific abilities but is a born artist, and in a graphic series titled “Atomic Anna,” she tells a story based on the experiences of her mother and other researchers working on the nuclear program. Molly becomes a “wasted child” of the ’60s, falling prey to alcohol and drug abuse. She eventually gives birth to a gifted daughter, Raisa, who inherits her grandmother’s enormous scientific genius. 

Anna is a constant presence throughout the book. She constructs an actual time machine that enables her to journey between lives and decades in a frantic race to stop destruction and hold the generations of her family together. As her female descendants careen through time and space and across continents, deep and abiding love for family connections sustains them all.

Atomic Anna ultimately offers a utopian vision of salvation, but it does require slow and careful reading to get there. Big chunks of the novel fit together and then split apart. Hold on tight, as the space-time ride is challenging.

In light of recent events, namely Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and occupation of the infamous Chernobyl nuclear site, there will be some evaluation of Atomic Anna for its “timeliness.” But readers should keep in mind the words of 19th-century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne that, long ago, provided a template for reading Barenbaum’s innovative book. Hawthorne’s preface to The House of Seven Gables (1851) famously set up the distinction between “novels,” which depict probable true events from the “ordinary” human experience, and “romances,” which “present the truth under circumstances . . . of the writer’s own choosing or creation.” Romances were Hawthorne’s aim, as his stories intended to reveal universal truths through crafted circumstances and an intensified atmosphere—often symbolic, and always beyond the ordinary.

Just as the romance of epic literature is timeless, Atomic Anna’s demonstration of what may be learned about the human heart is also outside of time, and certainly beyond the ordinary.

Hold on tight, as the space-time ride in Rachel Barenbaum’s second novel is far beyond the ordinary.
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In his experimentally structured debut novel, Velorio, Xavier Navarro Aquino makes important points about Puerto Rico, its history as a commonwealth of the United States and the catastrophic aftereffects of Hurricane Maria, which decimated the island in September 2017.

The Spanish word velorio signifies a wake or funeral, a moment of mourning but also recognition of what has been lost. There’s a pun in this translation to English, with wake also meaning the aftermath of a storm, or the turbulent waters behind a fast-moving ship. The wake of Hurricane Maria—a storm so powerful and its effects so catastrophic that Maria has been retired from the circulation of names used by the National Weather Service—provides the energy for this remarkable, mythic novel, populated by a memorable cast.

Maria was one of the most intense storms ever recorded on American territory and the deadliest since 1998. In some areas, floodwaters rose up to 6 feet in 30 minutes, eventually exceeding 15 feet in total, destroying 80% of the crops on the island and an estimated 18 million coffee trees. Months later, half of the population still did not have electricity or potable water. Billions of dollars in aid remained undistributed off-island. In this traumatic aftermath, the Puerto Rican people were rendered largely immobile.

Velorio is far from immobile, taking readers on a painful journey across the devastated island. Aquino addresses the situation using a wide range of voices and narrative styles. Drama is high as survivors fight to rebuild what they can salvage from the fury of nature and the incompetence of the powers that be.

The novel, dedicated to “the thousands lost and the unaccounted,” introduces the survivors individually, including Camila, who digs her sister Marisol’s drowned body out from the mud and clings to it as it decays, a symbol for the island itself. Carrying Marisol’s body, Camila gravitates toward a haven called Memoria, where gangs of young people are trying to reconstitute a society based on authoritarian symbols and gestures. Their leader, Urayoan, dresses homeless boys in red castoffs pulled from the dead, builds a hellish tower to concentrate his power and oversees the looting of what little is left.

Animals are skinned and butchered, all manner of outrages are performed, and “ghosts of people, ghosts of men, ghosts of women” are everywhere. The foundations of Memoria inevitably collapse like a fever dream, set afire by those who desperately escape it. Maria, “the monstrua,” has gutted the island, and demagogue Urayoan’s dream of a new Utopia will be shaken in turn.

Amid scenes of carnage and dialogue that incorporates Spanish idioms and Puerto Rican slang, the novel includes large swaths of poetry written by a visionary secondary character named Cheo. Some of the poems are only drafts, unfinished and abandoned. “It’s my poetry and that’s what keeps us alive,” he tells the younger gang members. In this way, Velorio pays homage to Nobel Prize-winning Caribbean author Derek Walcott, whose Homeric epic, Omeros, brought recognition to poets of the region. Extensive passages of Cheo’s work give the sense of a life raft bobbing along, battered by the monstrous storm: “Are we culprits to our fate / And live by our names? / And that is empire. / And that is violence.”

Xavier Navarro Aquino’s debut novel takes readers on a painful journey across Puerto Rico, as survivors of Hurricane Maria fight to regain what they can.

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