Omar El Akkad

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Amid the chaos of the Tiananmen Square massacre, a woman named Su Lan gives birth. Her husband is nowhere to be found; perhaps he has been rounded up or killed. She and her newborn daughter are alone. This aloneness, as well as its mutations and consequences, will stalk both mother and daughter for the rest of their lives—a gaping negative space of family, country and history. 

So begins Meng Jin’s spectacular and emotionally polyphonic first novel, Little Gods, which in the first few pages may feel like a story centered on Tiananmen but quickly and in the most satisfying way transforms into a meditation on ambition, love and time. In a particularly brilliant act of alchemy, the novel finds new ways to dissect the geopolitical significance of China’s explosive 1980s through the complicated nature of the story’s relationships.

In alternating points of view, Little Gods’ five central narrators slowly piece together what happened to Su Lan, her husband and the life she left behind when she moved to the United States from China to study physics. For the most part, the story is told by or to Liya, Su Lan’s daughter, who returns to China after her mother’s death to try and unearth the past that Su Lan so successfully kept hidden. The narrative is complex without ever being convoluted, and Jin, a Kundiman Fellow who was born in Shanghai and now lives in San Francisco, holds the various strands together flawlessly.

Su Lan is a difficult and singular character of immense depth. What makes Little Gods extraordinary is the way it examines not only the trajectory of its characters’ lives but also their emotional motivations, the reasons why people do what they do and long for what they long for.

 In mining these motivations, Jin produces many of the book’s most beautiful and resonant passages—such as when Liya, nearing the end of her search for her father, thinks, “So badly I wanted to be untethered, because to be untethered meant to be undefined, to have a body rinsed of meaning. I didn’t want my feet tied up in history.”

That Jin has managed to craft such an intimate, emotionally complex story is an awesome achievement. That she managed to do it in her debut novel, doubly so.

That Meng Jin has managed to craft such an intimate, emotionally complex story is an awesome achievement. That she managed to do it in her debut novel, doubly so.
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Dictatorships cannot abide desire. That visceral human gravitation, the movement of the marrow in the direction of want, is the antithesis of totalitarianism. To express it—and especially to express it in a manner the gatekeepers of mainstream society deem aberrant—is to express a dangerous, powerful kind of freedom. 

Freedom—its presence and absence, the longing for it—colors every page of Carolina De Robertis’ masterful, passionate and at times painful new novel. Cantoras tells the story of five women who must navigate a society in the grips of overwhelming oppression, at a time when being a woman who loves other women carries a sentence of at best ostracization and at worst obliteration.

Cantoras begins in late-1970s Uruguay, a country under the control of a merciless military government. Seeking refuge from the oppressive atmosphere of the capital, five women travel to an isolated coastal village called Cabo Polonio. It soon becomes a haven where the women can live as they wish, to be lovers, friends, confidants—to be free. So liberating is this place that the women decide to pool their money and buy a small home there. 

From that first visit to Cabo Polonio, De Robertis unfurls the stories of each of the women’s lives—their hopes, their secret pasts, the suffering they’ve been made to endure by a society in which living openly is more often than not a dangerous pipe dream. The novel covers some 35 years, frequently changing focus from one character to another and yet at all times retaining a powerful sense of intimacy. Each of De Robertis’ central characters is of incredible emotional depth. 

Cantoras is at its most powerful when dissecting consequences of desire. Several of the central characters are subjected to horrific violence at the hands of the military dictatorship, but they are also sometimes subjected to violence at the hands of their relatives, people who cannot accept them as they are, who want desperately to “fix” them. In this atmosphere of repression, Romina, one of the five women, thinks, “the path into the forbidden was in fact wide open right in front of you . . . stepping onto it could be a kind of rightness, a vitality more powerful than fear.”

The bond the five women form—the way they orbit, attract and repel, take solace and find strength in one another—is the most moving part of Cantoras. By the end of the novel, there is a sense that the reader has done more than simply peer in on the lives of strangers, that instead they have experienced something organic and deeply human—a dangerous, powerful kind of freedom.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Carolina De Robertis on Cantoras.

Dictatorships cannot abide desire. That visceral human gravitation, the movement of the marrow in the direction of want, is the antithesis of totalitarianism. To express it—and especially to express it in a manner the gatekeepers of mainstream society deem aberrant—is to express a dangerous, powerful kind of freedom.  Freedom—its presence and absence, the longing for […]
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A Pure Heart grapples with the question of how to be many things at once—a condition that afflicts everyone but requires only some to justify their complexities.

Rajia Hassib’s novel follows the divergent lives of two Egyptian sisters, Rose and Gameela Gubran. Rose, an Egyptologist, falls for an American journalist and moves with him to New York. Gameela remains in Egypt, embraces Islam and marries a much older man. The story begins in the aftermath of Gameela’s death due to a suicide bombing during the chaotic years following Egypt’s failed revolution. Slowly, Hassib charts the events leading up to this conclusion, working her way backward through a series of intertwined lives in both Egypt and America. 

Hassib is especially talented at rendering the small details of daily Egyptian life—not in some exoticized fashion but rather as a foundation on which to lay the wide variety of experiences, ideologies and aspirations of the country’s citizenry. These details, found throughout the book, shine. A description of habitual lateness, for example: “What are a few minutes here or there in a country that’s been around for seven thousand years?” There is some hand-holding—not a single Arabic phrase or idiom goes unexplained for the benefit of the Western reader—but for the most part, it works.

What’s most impressive about A Pure Heart isn’t the central tension—how Gameela’s death comes about—but rather the novel’s meditation on the nature of multiple identities. Both sisters struggle to find their places in the world amid their sometimes-warring allegiances to different nations, different professional and personal aspirations and different views of religion. There is a tenderness and honesty in the way Hassib describes the relationship between the two women, and it is in this relationship that the novel is most nuanced.

Rajia Hassib’s novel follows the divergent lives of two Egyptian sisters, Rose and Gameela Gubran. Rose, an Egyptologist, falls for an American journalist and moves with him to New York. Gameela remains in Egypt, embraces Islam and marries a much older man. The story begins in the aftermath of Gameela’s death due to a suicide bombing during the chaotic years following Egypt’s failed revolution. Slowly, Hassib charts the events leading up to this conclusion, working her way backward through a series of intertwined lives in both Egypt and America. 

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For the first quarter of Oscar Cásares’ quiet, deeply human novel, the reader can be forgiven for believing that the story is a thriller of sorts—a cops-and-robbers narrative about smugglers and federal agents along America’s southern border. Instead, Where We Come From does something altogether different. What begins as a story about Nina, a Mexican-American woman who does a “favor” for her housekeeper by letting smugglers house their human cargo on her property, slowly transforms into a story about the meaning of family and home.

Eventually the smugglers are forced to disband, but one person remains: a small boy, stranded many miles away from his father to the north and his mother to the south. The child, Daniel, comes to befriend Nina’s godson, Orly. Even as Daniel is forced to hide away for fear of deportation, the children form a bond, and much of the novel centers on that bond.

There are many moments of quiet power in Cásares’ story. Among them are short asides in which the fates of minor characters are explained—the small fortunes and misfortunes of their lives—even as these characters pass inconspicuously through the narrative. The novel’s depiction of children’s daily lives is particularly well done, especially that of Orly, who is forced to navigate a world full of adults who either seem to trust him but not care for him, or care for him but not trust him.

Where We Come From is not the kinetic, suspenseful novel its opening pages will make many readers believe it is. This is a good thing. It moves instead at a slow, deliberate pace, much more concerned with what it means to make a life in a place where so many systems and institutions are designed to make you feel precarious and, in some way, permanently unrooted.

For the first quarter of Oscar Cásares’ quiet, deeply human novel, the reader can be forgiven for believing that the story is a thriller of sorts—a cops-and-robbers narrative about smugglers and federal agents along America’s southern border. Instead, Where We Come From does something altogether different. What begins as a story about Nina, a Mexican--American woman who does a “favor” for her housekeeper by letting smugglers house their human cargo on her property, slowly transforms into a story about the meaning of family and home.

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Early in Namwali Serpell’s brilliant and many-layered debut novel, a turn-of-the-century British colonialist named Percy Clark wanders through the corner of what was then called Northwest Rhodesia (and is now the nation of Zambia) and complains: “I do seem plagued by the unpunishable crimes of others.” It is, in a sense, a fitting slogan for the many ruinous aftereffects of colonialism, except here it is spoken by an agent and beneficiary of the colonizer.

So begins The Old Drift, an expansive yet intricate novel that bends, inverts and at times ignores conventions of time and place. Part historical fiction, part futurism, part fantasy, Serpell’s hundred-year saga of three families and their intertwined fortunes is as unique as it is ambitious. And in just about every way, it succeeds.

The story begins in 1904, when an unlikely incident (Percy accidentally rips a patch of hair off another man’s head) sets off a chain of events that reverberates through the decades. From there, Serpell introduces a cast of characters that ranges from the everyday to the fantastical. The book chronicles the interwoven lives of three families, cast against the creation of Zambia itself.

There is a timeless quality to Serpell’s storytelling—or perhaps a sense that her novel moves almost independent of time. What starts as a story steeped in real colonial history eventually moves into the present and beyond—an invented near-future. In clumsier hands this complex, sprawling, century-spanning book might have easily folded in on itself, a victim of its scale and scope. Instead, The Old Drift holds together, its many strands diverging and converging in strange but undeniable rhythm.

It’s difficult not to pigeonhole the novel into a particular literary school—namely, that of the descendants of Gabriel García Márquez and the magical realists. Less than 100 pages into the story, for example, the reader meets a girl covered head to toe in hair. Another character cries endless tears. There are, throughout the book, myriad moments in which Serpell utilizes the improbable, the impossible, the unreal, to get at something profoundly human. And for all the ways it subverts and reinvents convention, The Old Drift is a very human book, deeply concerned with that most virulent strain of history: the unpunishable crimes of others.

Part historical fiction, part futurism, part fantasy, Namwali Serpell’s hundred-year saga of three families and their intertwined fortunes is as unique as it is ambitious. And in just about every way, it succeeds.

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Many Western readers will find Khaled Khalifa’s new novel unbearably grim. A story about three Syrian siblings’ quixotic quest to bury their dead father—a story whose central narrative marker of chronological progression is a man’s decomposing corpse—is not light reading. Nor does Khalifa feel obliged to provide his readers with much in the way of hope or even momentary relief. Death Is Hard Work moves in a way similar to the war it chronicles—mercilessly over the bones of its victims.

Like Khalifa’s previous novel, the masterpiece No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, Death Is Hard Work traces the familial connections of a Syrian clan caught up in the country’s brutal tide of repression and fear. The novel charts the efforts of Bolbol, Hussein and Fatima to transport their father’s body back to his home village, so as to bury him in accordance with his final wishes. No sooner do the siblings pile into a rickety van than they find themselves mired in a never-ending series of military checkpoints—some manned by regime soldiers, others by members of the resistance, still others by foreign extremists looking to cash in on the chaos of Syria’s civil war. 

Frequently and without warning, the novel strays from the present-day narrative into the histories, dreams and frustrations of its central characters. The result is something at the intersection of Faulkner and Kafka, a modern-day As I Lay Dying passed through the lens of maddening bureaucracy, hypocrisy and slaughter.

Readers looking for optimism or resolution need look elsewhere. Readers who want an unflinching account of one of recent history’s bloodiest civil wars will find in Khalifa’s latest work a story superficially colored by the many manifestations of death, but chiefly concerned with what a miraculous, Herculean thing it is to simply live.

 

This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

b>Death Is Hard Work traces the familial connections of a Syrian clan caught up in the country’s brutal tide of repression and fear. The novel charts the efforts of Bolbol, Hussein and Fatima to transport their father’s body back to his home village, so as to bury him in accordance with his final wishes.
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BookPage starred review, January 2019

In so much of American history—or in so much of America’s interpretation of its own history—there is an air of pulp fiction. In retellings of the lives and doings of grand, almost mythological figures who shaped this country, the real and fantastical commingle, overlap, become inseparable. It is this fundamental inseparability that makes Jerome Charyn’s novel about the life and times of Theodore Roosevelt so much fun to read.

With its dimestore-comic cover design, The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King is presented as a kind of pulp pastiche of the 26th president’s thoroughly inimitable life. The book, which begins with Roosevelt’s childhood and follows him to the cusp of his presidency, leans hard on the real (and in many cases, likely inflated) events of the man’s life. But it is also a surprisingly poignant assessment of smaller, more universally human moments.

Two-thirds of the novel is set during the early and middle years of Roosevelt’s life—the years he fought in the sewer-dirty wars of New York City politics. Here, Charyn does his most impressive scene-setting work, placing the reader in the heart of late 19th-century Manhattan. The sense of place and the fundamentally ugly nature of big-city politics are consistent and convincing. By focusing on this part of Roosevelt’s life, rather than his Rough Rider days or his time as president, the bulk of the book works very well, and makes for a much more kinetic and less well-worn story.

Charyn has a gift for the unexpected, both linguistically and narratively: A snake wraps itself around a boy’s arm “like a living bandage,” and President McKinley has “the soft, sunken heart of a chocolate éclair.” The most emotionally resonant relationship in the book is between Roosevelt and Josephine, his pet mountain lion.

Deftly, Charyn interweaves what is real and invented about Roosevelt’s life, and the result is at once surprising and very entertaining.

 

This article was originally published in the January 2019 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

In so much of American history—or in so much of America’s interpretation of its own history—there is an air of pulp fiction. In retellings of the lives and doings of grand, almost mythological figures who shaped this country, the real and fantastical commingle, overlap, become inseparable. It is this fundamental inseparability that makes Jerome Charyn’s novel about the life and times of Theodore Roosevelt so much fun to read.

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Happiness is an amorphous thing, a kind of fog about which it is easier to speak peripherally—the pursuit of happiness, the idea of happiness, the absence of happiness. In Tell the Machine Goodnight, author Katie Williams considers a future in which the ingredients of happiness have not only been identified but also commodified.

Set a couple of decades from now, the novel centers on Pearl, a technician working for Apricity, the hot tech corporation of the day. Apricity designs oracles—machines that, given a sample of the user’s DNA, return a number of recommendations to improve the user’s life, to make them happier. The recommendations can be ambiguous or downright cryptic: “Eat tangerines”; “Wrap yourself in softest fabric”; “Tell someone.” More often than not, the connection between doing these things and experiencing greater happiness is unclear, but Pearl’s clients almost always follow the machine’s instructions. And they almost always report feeling satisfied with the results.

The Apricity construct is clever and flexible enough to support the weight of the narrative. Williams does an admirable job of weaving myriad characters’ stories together, with the Apricity machine as the intersection at which all the tales meet. Some of the characters treat the machine with unwavering reverence, others with outright disdain. Its recommendations are used as clues, divine prophecy and the basis for performance art.

But the novel is at its best when it pushes the technology to the background and turns instead to the emotional mechanics of happiness. Williams is a deft observer of small human details, and in moments when she pinpoints these details, the story shines.

For all its imaginative and speculative power, Tell the Machine Goodnight is not a particularly futuristic book. Its primary concern is something so fundamentally human that it transcends time—our insatiable need to feel better, to decipher whatever happiness means.

 

This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Happiness is an amorphous thing, a kind of fog about which it is easier to speak peripherally—the pursuit of happiness, the idea of happiness, the absence of happiness. In Tell the Machine Goodnight, author Katie Williams considers a future in which the ingredients of happiness have not only been identified but also commodified.

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Among the many things the violence of war obliterates, perhaps the most malicious is history. Now in its seventh year, the civil war that has turned Syria into the site of one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises has also corseted one of the oldest societies on earth into a kind of perpetual infancy. Syria, it sometimes seems, only began to exist seven years ago, as a place defined only by its current calamity.

In many ways, The Map of Salt and Stars is at once a testament to the brutality of the current Syrian conflict and a reverent ode to ancient Arabian history. Syrian-American writer Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar has crafted an audacious debut, ambitious and sprawling in both time and space.

The book follows the story of Nour, a Syrian-American girl living in New York. In 2011, after Nour loses her father to cancer, her mother decides to move the family back to Homs to be close to their extended family. But Nour’s arrival coincides with Syria’s slide into civil war. Amid grotesque violence, Nour is made a refugee, a traveler through Syria’s neighboring lands.

Almost a thousand years earlier, another girl’s story unfolds. Rawiya, seeking a better life for her mother, disguises herself as a boy and joins a legendary cartographer on a quest to map the known world.

The two stories unfold side by side, split by time but joined by a common geography. Because the modern part of Joukhadar’s narrative carries the urgency of the present tense, but the ancient half reads like an old Arabian fairy tale, the dual story structure is at first jarring. But soon the book finds its pace, and the intertwining tales complement each other in ways a single narrative could not. A swooping bird of prey that threatens to devour the ancient story’s traveling companions finds its modern-day analogy in the form of Syrian fighter planes dropping bombs on besieged cities.

There is a heartfelt quality to the story, evident in the meticulous historical research that must have gone into the creation of the ancient part of the book. The Map of Salt and Stars presents an Arab world in full possession of its immense historical and cultural biography, marred by its modern tragedies but not exclusively defined by them.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

In many ways, The Map of Salt and Stars is at once a testament to the brutality of the current Syrian conflict and a reverent ode to ancient Arabian history. Syrian-American writer Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar has crafted an audacious debut, ambitious and sprawling in both time and space.

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Given the fractures that mark the history of the United States and the many immigrants who call this nation home, it’s not particularly surprising that so much of American storytelling gravitates toward the familial, seeks shelter in that blood-bound country within the country. What has been said best about American life in the realm of fiction has often been said through the prism of the American family.

It is squarely through the door of the familial that Luis Alberto Urrea’s dizzying new novel, The House of Broken Angels, enters the pantheon and takes its rightful place alongside the best contemporary accounting of what it means to belong in this country of endless otherness.

The novel takes place both in chronological time and in violation of it. It follows the de la Cruz clan, “an American family, which happens to be from Mexico.” The family’s eldest, Mamá América, has died. Her son, the family patriarch Miguel Angel de la Cruz, is also dying, but he attempts to ward off death long enough to organize back-to-back family gatherings: his mother’s funeral and his own final birthday party. The narrative—sometimes bittersweet, sometimes uproarious—swoops between these two events and the personal histories of their attendees.

Urrea writes in exhilarating but controlled slashes, wielding a machete that cuts like a scalpel. Every page comes alive with scent, taste and, perhaps most movingly, touch. The novel’s most affecting characters are passing through the tail end of life. They carry the burden of a shared history, and in this way their smallest, most delicate interactions—the brush of a hand, the sight of scarred and sagging skin—are alive with the weight of all that once was. The House of Broken Angels is about a quintessentially American family, a family that came north looking for heaven but found that “heaven was a blueprint.” But it’s also about what it means to look back on a life and, with total honesty, take stock.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Urrea for The House of Broken Angels.

This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

BookPage Top Pick in Fiction, March 2018
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If poetry is emotion rendered incendiary, then Forugh Farrokhzad was made of fire. For the sin of revolutionary frankness in a time of deep, patriarchal conservatism, Iran’s modernist icon suffered greatly—accused of immorality, forbidden from seeing her child, even confined for a time to an “asylum.” Decades after her death in 1967, she continued to pay a price—the hard-line Islamist government that eventually took over Iran would go on to ban much of her work. A printing press that refused to stop publishing her poems was burned to the ground.

Forugh’s life—short, tragic but marked by poetic genius—forms the basis for Jasmin Darznik’s vivid first novel. Iranian-born Darznik traces Forugh’s tumultuous 32 years and, through them, the story of midcentury Persian society. Effectively a fictionalized biography, Song of a Captive Bird is an unsparing account of the necessity and consequences of speaking out.

From the book’s opening scene—a brutal account of Forugh’s subjection to a so-called “virginity test”—the novel details the myriad ways in which a young female poet attempting to pierce the heart of a male-led art form is made to suffer indignities for her audacity. At first ignored, then condemned, then made a public spectacle for her poems, in particular those in which she explores themes of desire and sexuality, Forugh’s story is as relevant today as it was during her lifetime.

Writing from a place of deep reverence for her central character, Darznik crafts a sensory experience, an Iran whose sights and sounds and scents feel neither superficial nor trivially exotic. The result is a well-honed novel about the meaning of rebellion—what happens when a poet of singular talent decides “that it’s shame, not sin, that’s unholy.”

 

This article was originally published in the February 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

If poetry is emotion rendered incendiary, then Forugh Farrokhzad was made of fire. For the sin of revolutionary frankness in a time of deep, patriarchal conservatism, Iran’s modernist icon suffered greatly—accused of immorality, forbidden from seeing her child, even confined for a time to an “asylum.” Decades after her death in 1967, she continued to pay a price—the hard-line Islamist government that eventually took over Iran would go on to ban much of her work. A printing press that refused to stop publishing her poems was burned to the ground.

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