2022 National Book Award winners

Review by

Christian mystics are a point of obsession for the hero of Tess Gunty’s debut novel. “They were spectacularly unusual,” Blandine gushes early in The Rabbit Hutch. They loved suffering, she says. “Mad for it.”

She’s especially interested in Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess, polymath, composer and doctor who constantly played up her femininity to make herself less of a threat to male members of the clergy. As the novel opens, we learn that Blandine, inspired by her 12th-century hero, will “exit her body.” 

But before readers fall in step with Blandine’s miraculous, possibly ominous ascension, Gunty first draws us into the years leading up to this event, and into the world of the Rabbit Hutch (officially called La Lapinière Affordable Housing Complex), an apartment building in Vacca Vale, Indiana.

A Midwestern crossroads that’s limping along after the collapse of the Zorn Automobiles empire, Vacca Vale is a fictional stand-in for South Bend. In a matter of decades, Midwestern gloom has slipped into doom, and like many small towns, Vacca Vale (which is Latin for “goodbye, cow!”) has been earmarked for a heavily marketed “revitalization plan,” which everyone knows translates to “demolishing your town’s one great thing and replacing it with luxury condos.”

Blandine is our guiding light as we navigate this darkening mood. A former foster kid who’s now living in the Rabbit Hutch with three roommates, Blandine is a daring, defiant young woman who’s searching for divinity with scorching ferocity. Despite her persistence, she has not gone unscathed: She dropped out of high school after a complicated, crushing relationship with her charismatic theater teacher, and Gunty’s navigation of this trauma is one of the novel’s quietest strengths. Blandine’s experience is nothing less than a catastrophe hemmed in on all sides by the forces of normalization. After all, as she points out, a 17-year-old girl is considered to be within the age of consent by the state of Indiana.

Blandine is the core of The Rabbit Hutch, but if she were a cathedral, her two flying buttresses would be Joan and Moses. Joan, a lonely older woman who also lives in the Rabbit Hutch, is employed by an obituary website. Her job is to delete comments that disparage the dead, so she must remove a response from Moses on his mother’s obituary. (“THIS WHOLE #OBITUARY IS A BOLD-FACED LIE,” his comment begins.) To punish Joan for this act of censorship, Moses flies to Vacca Vale to exact his special form of retribution: He will cover himself from head to toe in the goo found in glow sticks, break into Joan’s apartment and dance around in the dark to frighten her. 

Alongside these three characters, we hear from a bunch of additional folks, and as Gunty introduces each new voice, she makes storytelling seem like the most fun a person can have. She draws us along with rapturous glee while layering her symbolism so thick that the story should, by all rights, drown in it. But The Rabbit Hutch never loses focus thanks to Blandine, who has a kind of literary superpower: She’s aware of her place in the story, points out Gunty’s metaphors, arches a brow at the symbols and has something to say about all of it. This isn’t to suggest that the novel’s fourth wall is broken, but it does feel wafer-thin, just as the veil between the divine and the corporeal seem as gauzy as a worn T-shirt.

“We’re all just sleepwalking,” Blandine says to Joan. “I want to wake up. That’s my dream: to wake up.” As she moves toward wakefulness, Blandine becomes no less than a bona fide contemporary mystic, cultivating her own sense of belief and solidifying her existence as vital enough to subsist. Redemption is possible, and Gunty’s novel consecrates this noble search.

Despite its doomed Midwestern setting, Tess Gunty’s debut novel makes storytelling seem like the most fun a person can have.

Sabaa Tahir’s Ember in the Ashes quartet is one of the most influential YA fantasy series of the past decade. In All My Rage, Tahir proves she’s just as skilled at contemporary realistic fiction.

All My Rage alternates between the perspectives of former best friends Salahudin and Noor. As the novel opens, both teens feel stuck in their small town of Juniper, which is surrounded by the Mojave Desert. Earlier in their senior year, Noor told Sal about the romantic feelings she’d been harboring for him, but Sal rejected her, and they haven’t spoken since.

Sal’s parents, Misbah and Toufiq, run a roadside motel that has seen better days. Misbah has been skipping treatments for her kidney disease, and Toufiq is drunk more than he’s sober. Noor’s uncle adopted her when she was 6, but he resents that raising her has meant deferring his own dream of becoming an engineer and wants her to take over running his liquor store when she graduates.

Noor’s been secretly applying to colleges and ignoring the texts from Sal’s mom asking when she’s going to visit so they can watch their favorite soap opera together again. Yet when Misbah’s health takes a turn for the worse, it’s Noor who’s in her hospital room to hear her last word: “Forgive.” Noor reconciles with Sal and the two grow closer while continuing to keep secrets from each other. As the truth comes to light, Sal and Noor must each decide what can—and should—be forgiven.

All My Rage takes the often cliched all-American trope of two young people who long to leave their small town behind and fills it with moral complexity and emotional heft. The book’s six sections each open with a stanza from “One Art,” Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle about grief and “the art of losing,” which Noor struggles to write a paper about for English class. Sal and Noor experience numerous losses, and Tahir excels at conveying how trauma and tragedy ripple outward, shaping even the lives of those who seem untouched by darkness.

Tahir explores weighty questions, such as how we can forgive someone for hurting us when they should have been protecting us, but she includes frequent moments of wry levity and solace, especially the comfort Noor finds in music and the Muslim faith she shared with Sal’s mother. All My Rage will likely make you cry, but it will definitely make you smile, too.

“If we are lost, God is like water, finding the unknowable path when we cannot,” Misbah tells Noor. Tahir’s invitation to join Sal and Noor on their search for such a path feels like a gift every step of the way.

In All My Rage, a novel about two teens desperate to leave their small town, Sabaa Tahir proves she’s just as skilled at contemporary fiction as she is at epic fantasy.

Historian Imani Perry (Looking for Lorraine) reaches new storytelling heights in the vibrant and compelling South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. In this unique blend of travelogue, memoir and cultural history, the Birmingham, Alabama, native traverses the wilderness of Appalachia, the rolling hills of Virginia, the urban corridors of Atlanta and the swampy vistas of Louisiana to explore the idiosyncrasies of the South. The book’s three sections are organized geographically, beginning with “Origin Stories” about where the South and America began and then moving deeper into the country, from “The Solidified South” in the heart of the Southeast to the “Water People” of Florida, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Alabama.

In striking prose, Perry testifies to the insidiousness of racism throughout the South and throughout history. In Wilmington, North Carolina, for example, she revisits the Wilmington race riot of 1898, in which an all-white group of Democrats overturned the town’s multiracial Republican government in a violent coup. Before the riot, “Wilmington was an integrated city in which Black people thrived,” Perry writes. “The deeds of the rioters in Wilmington were illegal. But they went unpunished because the de-facto law of the land had always been the respect of White grievance and the destruction of Black flourishing.” 

As she zooms in on the South to show its complexities in more vivid detail, Perry takes time to observe the South’s continued enactment of political and business policies that fortify segregation, poverty and racism. For example, Atlanta is often presented to the world as a shining example of racial equality and justice. It’s a city that is over 50% Black, “but the unbearable Whiteness of its being—by that I mean a very old social order grown up from plantation economies into global corporations—leaves most Black Americans vulnerable,” Perry writes.

Given that the South is still the region where the majority of Black Americans live, the question Perry asks herself is “not why did Black folks leave, but why did they stay?” The answer, she says, is that it’s home. “If everyone had departed, no one would have been left to tend the ancestors’ graves,” she writes. “Had these graves not been seen, daily, over generations, had we not been witnesses to them, I do not know how it would have been possible to sustain hope, or at least pretend to.”

South to America, in the words of the traditional spiritual, troubles the waters, calling readers to understand the complex history of race and racism in the South in order to better comprehend the true character of America.

In a vibrant blend of travelogue, memoir and cultural history, Imani Perry zooms in on the South to show its iniquity and beauty in vivid detail.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!