Michael Magras

Listen to a 9-year-old, and you could learn a lot about the world. That’s the benefit that Swiv’s absent father would derive if he were to read the letter that constitutes Fight Night, Miriam Toews’ brilliant new book, in which she triumphs over a tough assignment: to write an entire novel in the voice of a child.

Assignments are nothing new to Swiv. As she relays to her father in this letter, she’s been kicked out of her school near Toronto because of her “lashing out tone” after an incident during Choice Time. Now she’s at home with her actor mother and grandmother, and Swiv and Grandma swap homework assignments. For example, Swiv instructs Grandma to compose a letter to Gord, the baby that Mom is carrying.

Toews gives Swiv a voice that is sophisticated, childlike and utterly believable. Readers can see where Swiv gets her pugnaciousness: Mom has been known to rail against capitalism and get into arguments with clerks at tasteful card shops. Mom has reasons to be on edge, however. She’s dealing not only with a pregnancy and an absent husband but also with backstage experiences that have instilled distrust in her profession.

Then there’s Grandma, a free spirit who speaks in what Swiv calls a secret language and is passionate about Toronto Raptors basketball. Her joie de vivre, however, belies a dark history that Toews slowly reveals as the story progresses. 

The novel features a supporting cast of men that allows Toews to comment on examples of the patriarchy at work, from Grandma’s religious older brothers, who packed her off to Nebraska to get a husband and study the Bible after their father died, to directors who subject Mom to callous treatment. This material could have been strident, but the wonder of Fight Night is that it’s a warmhearted and inventive portrait of women who have learned to fight against adversity. “You play hard to the end, Swiv,” Grandma tells her as they watch the Raptors on TV. “To the buzzer. There is no alternative.” You could learn a lot from grandmothers, too.

Miriam Toews’ Fight Night is a wonder, a warmhearted and inventive portrait of women who never back down.

You never know what a person might be going through. A famous novelist may be plagued by insecurity. A childhood friend who grew up in a manor house may have epilepsy. Good fortune isn’t always the panacea some would believe.

Sally Rooney (Normal People) knows this well. Her first two novels were laser-sharp investigations into the lives of characters in their 20s and early 30s. She continues this work in her third book, Beautiful World, Where Are You, an ambitious novel that deepens her earlier themes.

As with Rooney’s debut, Conversations With Friends, the new book focuses on a quartet of characters. Alice is a novelist with mixed feelings about her early success. She says of her public persona, “I hate her with all my energy,” animosity that leads to a spell in a psychiatric hospital.

After years in New York, she moves to Dublin and meets Felix, who works in a warehouse. She invites him to Rome for an event promoting the Italian translation of her book. Their relationship deepens but not without tension over the imbalances between them.

Meanwhile, Alice’s university friend Eileen has become a low-paid editorial assistant. She has rediscovered feelings for Simon, who grew up in the aforementioned manor house and is deeply religious.

Throughout the book, Alice and Eileen exchange long emails. Interspersed among them are disquisitions on socialism versus capitalism, political conservatism and whether the nature of beauty can survive in a social-media era.

Unlike Rooney’s previous novels, parts of this one feel self-consciously artsy, with a chapter-long backstory and paragraphs that run for many pages. But on the way to its heartfelt destination, this flight is still smooth despite brief, mild turbulence. Rooney writes with uncommon perceptiveness, and her ability to find deeper meaning in small details, such as knowing how a friend takes his coffee, remains unparalleled.

Beautiful World, Where Are You is a brutally honest portrait of flawed characters determined to prove “that the most ordinary thing about human beings is not violence or greed but love and care.”

Sally Rooney writes with uncommon perceptiveness, and her ability to find deeper meaning in small details remains unparalleled.

Just as the protagonist of Lorna Mott Comes Home returns to the United States after 18 years in France, author Diane Johnson returns to fiction 13 years after her last novel, Lulu in Marrakech. But while Johnson’s reemergence will be welcome news to fans of her leisurely writing style, the reception to Lorna Mott’s San Francisco homecoming varies among the book’s characters.

Art historian Lorna lands stateside at the time of “the handsome new president, Obama.” She has left her second husband, Armand-Loup, and his “wild infidelity” back in their French town of Pont-les-Puits. As Johnson memorably shows, the U.S. has changed during Lorna’s absence. Astronomical property prices and increased homelessness are two of many manifestations of a widening wealth chasm.

Lorna’s three grown kids from her first marriage are also different. Divorced Peggy makes crafts such as personalized dog collars to make ends meet. Ex-hippie Hams and his pregnant wife, Misty, struggle financially. Curt had “a thriving software enterprise” until a bike accident put him in a five-month coma. He’s now in Southeast Asia, trying to find himself. Complicating the picture further are Lorna’s first husband, Ran; his wife, Amy, “a Silicon Valley millionairess”; and their daughter, 15-year-old Gilda, who gets pregnant by a Stanford-bound 20-year-old.

Sound complicated? It is, but delightfully so, and that’s before an unusual complexity: In Pont-les-Puits, mudslides dislodge the bones of people interred in a cemetery, including those of an American painter. French authorities have named Lorna as the painter’s next of kin and would like for her to pay for his reinterment.

Lorna Mott Comes Home takes time to develop its characters, much like the works of Henry James and Edith Wharton, the comedy-of-manners forebears to whom Johnson is often compared. But admirers will savor the ease with which Johnson moves from one storyline to the next. 

Early in the novel, Lorna gives a poorly received lecture on medieval tapestries that had “a romantic history of being lost, hidden, forgotten through the centuries.” That’s the poignant essence of this novel. Like those tapestries, a life is fragile and vulnerable to being forgotten, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful.

Diane Johnson’s return to American fiction, 13 years after her last novel, will be welcome news to fans of her leisurely writing style.

Of the many questions one might ask after a tragedy, one of the likeliest is: What if? What if the victims had been elsewhere on the day of the disaster? That’s the question Francis Spufford addresses in his graceful second novel, Light Perpetual.

The story begins with a devastating fictional variation on an actual event. On a Saturday in 1944, “an eager crowd of women” comes to a Woolworths in the English town of Bexford to see a wartime novelty: a shipment of shiny new saucepans. Everyone is having fun until a V-2 warhead crashes through the ceiling and “in a ten-thousandth of a second” sends plaster and bricks and roof tiles everywhere. Among the dead are five children.

But what if the bomb had landed farther away? Spufford imagines the lives those five children might have led, starting in 1949, when each would have been 10 years old, and revisits them every 15 years. The result is a clever commentary on the changes in Western society as seen through Spufford’s characters. There’s Alec, who works as a newspaper compositor before desktop publishing threatens his profession; Vern, a wannabe real estate mogul who isn’t averse to shady dealings; Jo, who tries to forge a music career in a male-dominated era; her sister, Val, who falls for a skinhead; and Ben, who grapples with schizophrenia and its repercussions.

Light Perpetual derives considerable power from dramatizing the experiences its characters missed: the chance to build and lose a fortune, to see one’s dreams realized or else rerouted toward more modest achievements, or just to hold a loved one’s hand. Spufford shrewdly reminds readers that tragedy deprives the world of not only noble people but also scoundrels, and this fact is part of the fabric of history.

Late in the novel, Jo says of her attempts to become a recording star, “But none of it worked out! None of it went anywhere,” to which her son replies, “That doesn’t mean it wasn’t any good.” That’s the biggest message of this book: A road might lead to a dead end, but the journey could still be worthwhile.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Featuring vibrant characters, all of whom have rich interior lives, Francis Spufford’s novel is perfect for audio.

The biggest message of Francis Spufford’s second novel is that a road might lead to a dead end, but the journey could still be worthwhile.

Readers of Helen Oyeyemi’s latest mind-teaser will know they’re in for an unusual experience when the novel’s narrator, a 38-year-old hypnotist, begins the story by describing a set of Czech days-of-the-week underwear, a gift from a former boyfriend. And that’s before the narrator boards a train for a “non-honeymoon honeymoon” with his current love and their pet mongoose. Such is the uncommonly inventive setup of Peaces.

Otto Shin is one half of “a starry-eyed young couple” and has happily adopted the surname of his partner, Xavier. As the novel begins, they and their mongoose have boarded a sleeper train called The Lucky Day at their local station “in deepest Kent.” The ride was a gift from Xavier’s aunt. But, in one of the novel’s many engagingly bizarre flourishes, Otto and Xavier don’t quite know where they’re going. Even more curious: When Xavier calls his aunt from the train to check in on her, she says she’s in the company of someone named Yuri. Yuri claims to be a friend of Xavier’s, but Xavier doesn’t know who he is.

That’s just the start of the book’s many complications. Soon Otto and Xavier meet the train’s owner, Ava Kapoor, a theremin player who lives full time on The Lucky Day and has her own pet mongoose. Ava is days away from collecting an inheritance, but a series of events threatens her bounty. Among the characters that deepen the plot are a composer named Karel, who wrote a piece Ava used to play; Karel’s mysterious son, Přem; and a doctor assigned to assess Ava’s state of mind.

The story’s second half is convoluted, and Oyeyemi tends to overwrite, as when she describes a photo of a “fainting couch upholstered in brocade the color of Darjeeling tea in the fourth minute of brewing.” But fans of the British writer’s previous work, such as the PEN award-winning What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, will enjoy this novel’s surreal twists and imaginative scenarios. Peaces is like the work of a hypnotist: Those open to its allure will inevitably fall under its thrall.

Helen Oyeyemi’s latest is like the work of a hypnotist: Those open to its allure will inevitably fall under its thrall.

Anyone who has read Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpieces knows that, in his works, little is as it first appears. Situations are not quite as his unreliable narrators believe. First-person protagonists speak in formal prose that sounds not quite right. And his later works are wonderfully unclassifiable—not quite detective fiction or dystopian sagas but borrowing from these forms while veering into original terrain.

He continues his genre-twisting ways with Klara and the Sun, a return to the dystopian tenor of Never Let Me Go that, like that work, explores whether science could—or should—manipulate the future.

Klara is an AF, an Artificial Friend available for purchase. Like Stevens the butler in The Remains of the Day, she speaks in quirky locutions such as “I was able to bring several speculations together.” She and other AFs are on display in a store, where the prime real estate is the front window. The advantages of that position include access to the Sun, from which AFs derive “nourishment.”

A teenager named Josie, suffering from an unspecified illness, insists that her Mother purchase Klara. What follows is the story of Josie’s home life and Klara’s role in the family’s affairs. Among them are the Mother’s trauma from the death of another daughter, a young man sweet on Josie and, most provocatively, the issue of whether science can correct injustices wrought by illness or one’s station in life.

Ishiguro is an expert at slowly doling out information to build tension. The wonder of this book is that he incorporates many elements, from environmental damage to genetic testing, without the story seeming heavy-handed.

But the predominant theme in Klara and the Sun is loneliness. “Humans, in their wish to escape loneliness,” Klara says, “made maneuvers that were very complex and hard to fathom.” As Ishiguro notes in this brilliant book, each person has their own Sun, a source that gives them strength, and feels enervated when the source leaves them in shadow.

Kazuo Ishiguro continues his genre-twisting ways with Klara and the Sun, a return to the dystopian tenor of Never Let Me Go that, like that work, explores whether science could—or should—manipulate the future.

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