Top World Fiction for Fall

Ali, Sabahattin. Madonna in a Fur Coat. Other Pr. Nov. 2017. 208p. tr. from Turkish by Maureen Freely & Alexander Dawe. ISBN 9781590518809. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781590518816. F

Finally available in English, this 1943 Turkish classic from a journalist twice imprisoned for his political views limns the emotionally wrought relationship between a reserved young Turkish man and an unconventional woman artist in interwar Berlin. The novel starts somewhat slowly as a narrator introduces us to his colleague Raif Efendi, invisible at work and used badly at home. But when Raif takes over the narration, explaining that as a young man he traveled to Berlin to learn a new language and see the larger world, the story picks up speed, depth, and flair. To a naïf from the Turkish countryside, the 1920s Berlin intimately detailed here initially proves overwhelming. At an art exhibit, he is enthralled by the portrait of a woman in a fur coat, then meets and falls for artist Maria Puder herself. Maria has strong views about men and relationships that will resonate with contemporary readers, and her affair with Raif unfolds cautiously. But their long-term plans are thwarted when they fail to reconnect after Raif is called back to Turkey, and his heartbreak is moving and palpable. VERDICT Ali’s affecting story of love and loss is both timeless and grounded in its distinctive setting, with sometimes old-fashioned charm that will appeal to many readers.

Blas de Roblès, Jean-Marie. Island of Point Nemo. Open Letter. Aug. 2017. 397p. tr. from French by Hannah Chute. ISBN 9781940953625. pap. $17.95; ebk. ISBN 9781940953632. F

Interrupting friend Martial Canterel as he puffs on opium while using toy soldiers to reconstruct the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BCE, John Shylock Holmes gleefully announces that three feet have washed up on the Isle of Skye, all shod in a nonexistent brand of sneaker called Ananke, the name of an enormous diamond just stolen from Lady MacRae. Off they go on a rollicking and improbable adventure that’s both homage to and sendup of the Holmesian detective story, with a few Jules Verne–like moments thrown in. In an alternate narrative that catches up to the detective thread at the very end, the pigeon-fancying, sexually depraved Monsieur Wang rules over a French-based assembly plant for ereaders called B@bil Books. The workers we meet include luscious Charlotte, in love with colleague Fabrice; impotent ­Dieumercie Bonacieux and his increasingly desperate wife; and Arnaud, despairing over his failed French cigar factory and deeply devoted to his stroke-afflicted wife. Arnaud is one of the many people employed by Monsieur Wang to read books to the workers, which evidently makes them more productive, and despite its devil-may-care plotting and absurdist tone, this book by the protean Blas de Roblès (Where Tigers Are at Home) does celebrate books. ­VERDICT Wacky, great fun, though not for those who need things explained.

redstarCabrera Infante, Guillermo. Map Drawn by a Spy. Archipelago. Aug. 2017. 240p. tr. from Spanish by Mark Fried. ISBN 9780914671787. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 780914671794. F/MEMOIR

Distinguished Cuban author Cabrera Infante (Three Trapped Tigers) initially supported the revolution but eventually went into exile. This account of his final months in Cuba, found among his possessions after his death, could be called autobiographical fiction or fictionalized autobiography but either way is insightful and engrossing. Informed that his mother is gravely ill, the protagonist rushes home from the Cuban Embassy in Brussels to a pale, reduced Havana. Food and even water for bathing are scarce, and doctors are barely available. More tellingly, homosexuals face persecution, art and literature are being suppressed, and getting his new book published in Cuba seems unlikely; a magazine won’t even print an interview, “perhaps due to views that curiously overlapped with those of the intelligence service.” Castro has emerged as just another Latin American strongman, as loudspeakers bray revolutionary slogans. With his brother, who had been in Spain, our hero finds that he’s blocked from leaving and starts planning a way out, meanwhile plunging into the everyday affairs of family and friends and indulging in sexual liaisons, all precisely detailed in a narrative driven by dialog. VERDICT Never didactic, this slice-of-life portrait of Cuba at a crucial moment will find readers beyond Latin American enthusiasts.

Erpenbeck, Jenny. Go, Went, Gone. New Directions. Sept. 2017. 320p. tr. from German by Susan Bernofsky. ISBN 9780811225946. pap. $16.95. F

In this sobering, intellectually acute work, retired classics professor Richard lives alone in Berlin, pottering about his autumnal existence until he sees a news report featuring ten African refugees conducting a hunger strike before Berlin’s Town Hall. He’s struck by the idea that they have made themselves visible by refusing to say who they are and begins following their plight, finally visiting a facility where several have been moved after an agreement with the Senate. His motivations are initially self-serving; he wants to investigate the nature of time, “something he can probably do best in conversation with those who have fallen out of it.” But as the men speak matter-of-factly of their lives and losses, he begins to realize his ignorance, drawing closer and even inviting a man named Osarobo home to play the piano. Meanwhile, Hans Fallada Prize winner Erpenbeck (Visitation), whose East German background informs the narrative, clarifies the wrong-headedness of Europe asylum laws as she reflects on borders that can and can’t be crossed and the pain of moving beyond the surface of things. VERDICT Occasionally slow-moving but a stunning and intimate look into the refugee crisis; refreshingly, the characters don’t finally embrace sentimentally but inch toward understanding.

redstarGamboa, Santiago. Return to the Dark Valley. Europa. Sept. 2017. 424p. tr. from Spanish by Howard Curtis. ISBN 9781609454258. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9781609454265. F

“It’s good to write in the middle of a storm,” says the consul while conceding that it might not be ethical, which is why he focuses on the French poet Arthur Rimbaud in his own work. Yet Rimbaud’s story as enfolded here echoes the violence, personal and political, and the crazed idealism that permeates award-winning Colombian author Santiago’s formidable, in-your-face novel about our horribly fractured world. It follows Night Prayers, which also featured the consul, a Colombian diplomat linked to a young woman named Juana, who has just demanded that he leave Rome to meet her in Madrid. There, terrorists have taken over the Irish Embassy, threatening to cut throats if their demands aren’t met. (Santiago’s account of these West-Islamist tensions registers not as flat reportage but cut-to-the-quick storytelling.) The consul gets into trouble by intervening to protect a Colombian woman named Manuela, whose painful story of childhood abuse redeemed by her poetic gift has already been spinning through the pages. He also meets Tertullian, who sounds like a right-wing preacher, which proves that the old categories don’t hold (Tertullian adheres to the structure of radical religious belief but without God). With Juana, they travel to Colombia to right acidly etched wrongs and finally to Africa, finding apotheosis in Rimbaud’s old haunts. VERDICT An unsettling and brilliant document of contemporary life; highly recommended.

redstarGary, Romain. The Kites. New Directions. Oct. 2017. 375p. tr. from French by Miranda Richmond Mouillot. ISBN 9780811226547. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780811226554. F

Unbelievably, two-time Prix Goncourt winner Gary’s luminous last work is only now appearing in English, but it was worth the wait. Introducing us to Norman lad Ludo Fleury; his only presumably batty uncle Ambrose, the maker of magnificent kites; Lila Bronicki, the imperious Polish girl whose family has an estate nearby; and extended Bronicki family members, including German cousin Hans, Ludo’s rival for Lila’s affections, Gary chronicles a fraught love affair with the ominous buildup to World War II as a backdrop. Then he roars absorbingly into the war itself and its counterbalance, the Resistance. Ludo’s determination always to love glorious drama-queen Lila, even as her family scorns him and war’s tragedies unfold, echoes the steely certainty of local chef Marcellin Duprat, who serves Germans at his Michelin-starred restaurant during the occupation to demonstrate that French honor and standards will not bend. Gary uses limpid, accessible language (deftly translated) to deliver certain truths: memory can ground us or blind us; imagination, perhaps even a bit of craziness, is essential for survival; and we cannot easily be divided into heroes and villains. VERDICT Smart and wonderfully life-affirming; for a wide range of readers. [See “Editors’ Fall Picks,” p. 35.]

Heivoll, Gaute. Across the China Sea. Graywolf. Sept. 2017. 232p. tr. from Norwegian by Nadia Christensen. ISBN 9781555977849. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781555979768. F

This quietly affecting novel from award-winning Norwegian author Heivoll (Before I Burn) opens in 1994 with the narrator sorting through his parents’ belongings—a common enough act but in this case revelatory of an unexpected story. At the end of World War II, when he was a boy, his parents moved from Oslo to Norway’s rural south to open a home for mentally disabled individuals who could not care for themselves—three adults, including Mama’s brother Josef, and five children rescued from utter squalor. It’s an imperfect paradise; neighbors are suspicious of the disabled youth—a bus driver suggests they need leashes—and a trip to the city to sterilize the two oldest children unsettles. Still, this is a real family, sustained by warmth and caring. Then a terrible accident takes Tone, Mama leaves (at least temporarily), and as we learn some surprising truths about Tone, the narrator forges bonds with his other siblings. In the end, these ties hold, and the book culminates on a radiant note, lifted by the music the family loves. VERDICT Too few books address the plight of the mentally disabled, and Heivoll handles his assignment with grace. Good lessons on family for all readers.

redstarLagioia, Nicola. Ferocity. Europa. Oct. 2017. 464p. tr. from Italian by Anthony Shugaar. ISBN 9781609453817. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9781609453824. F

When we first meet Clara Salvemini, daughter of the corrupt, manipulative head of a formidable building empire, she is caught in glaring headlights as she stumbles bloodied and naked down the highway. Later, we’re told that that her death is a suicide, and we know something disturbing is going on. Lagioia, who won the Strega Prize for this remarkable novel, portrays a family wrecked by patriarchal stranglehold; a daughter who both defends and defies her father; and the deep rottenness of a society that bends low to power, which make this work biting social commentary as well as edge-of-seat reading. The Salvemini children include oldest Ruggero, unable to escape his father’s sway; self-indulged youngest Gioia, seemingly a child at 26; and Michele, son of his father’s mistress, uneasily integrated into the family; he’s awkward, antisocial, and closely bonded to Clara. The indelibly drawn Clara, riven by alcohol and pills, is a serial adulteress and participant in hard porn, and her mysterious death shakes her immediate world. The narrative is satisfyingly packed and textured beyond the needs of basic plot; often, two events or conversations take place simultaneously, dizzily clarifying the characters’ mental states and motivations. VERDICT A rich and readable cautionary tale for strong-minded readers.

redstarModiano, Patrick. Such Fine Boys. 208p. tr. from French by Mark Polizzoti. ISBN 9780300223347; ebk. ISBN 9780300231588.

redstarModiano, Patrick. Sundays in August. 168p. tr. from French by Damion Searls. ISBN 9780300223330; ebk. ISBN 9780300223330.

ea. vol: Yale Univ. (Margellos World Republic of Letters). Aug. 2017. pap. $16. F

Writing about the slippages of memory in cool, polished language, Nobel laureate Modiano always gives us stories we can’t quite touch, but he does it somewhat differently every time. These recently translated novels are instructive to read together. Drawing on Modiano’s boarding school experiences in the 1960s, Such Fine Boys introduces several characters recalling their lives at the prestigious but somehow creepy Valvert School outside Paris, where mostly rich children get dumped. One boy lives in a different apartment from his mother, which she’s bought for him to protect her own privacy; another simply walks out on parents who ignore him completely. The boys’ stories, which overlap to create a collective memory of their school days, are intriguing but seem to flatten out over the course of the narrative as the boys themselves amount to little; the title is bitterly ironic.

Sundays in August finds Modiano in true noir mode. The narrator meets a former acquaintance named Frédéric Villecourt on the shady side of Nice, and they talk edgily of Sylvia, whom Villecourt keeps insisting loved only him. This encounter seems tawdry and inconsequential, but tension and mystery escalate grippingly as the narrative unfolds. Sylvia had in fact run away with the narrator, wearing a storied diamond necklace called the Southern Cross, and as they hole up along the Riviera, they encounter an enigmatic couple who aren’t what they seem. What happens between Sylvia and the couple remains uncertain (precisely the point), but it creates moody and suspenseful reading. VERDICT Adventurous thriller fans will enjoy Sundays, adventurous fans of coming-of-age fiction will enjoy Boys, and fans of Modiano and literary fiction generally will enjoy both.

redstarNevo, Eshkol. Three Floors Up. Other. Oct. 2017. 288p. tr. from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston. ISBN 9781590518786. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781590518786. F

What do former Israeli officer Arnon, off-kilter mother-of-two Hani, and newly retired judge Devora Edelman have in common? They all live in the same upscale Tel Aviv apartment building, and though their lives barely touch, their stories do, as best-selling Israeli author Nevo (Neuland) explores issues of personal and parental responsibility in a smart and absorbing read. On the first floor, Arnon and wife Ayelet have been depending on elderly neighbors Herman and Ruth to babysit for older daughter Ofri, but Arnon begins suspecting Herman of abusing Ofri sexually, and his obsessiveness drives away his wife and ends up putting Herman in the hospital. On the second floor, Hani writes somewhat hysterically to a friend, chronicling her marital difficulties and explaining why she let her on-the-run brother-in-law into her house and finally her bed when her workaholic husband was away. On the third floor, Devora speaks to her dead husband, explaining how she became involved in student protests and was eventually reintroduced to their long-estranged son. Was Herman really guilty? Are Hani’s accusations about her husband reasonable? What really caused the break between the Edelmans and their son? VERDICT Nevo shows us life’s complexities in a thoroughly satisfying read.

Pyun Hye-young. The Hole. Arcade: Skyhorse. Aug. 2017. 208p. tr. from Korean by Sora Kim-Russell. ISBN 9781628727807. $22.99. F

In this exquisite psychological suspense, a best seller in multiaward winner Pyun’s native South Korea, Oghi awakens paralyzed after the car crash that killed his wife and realizes that he’s now dependent on his mother-in-law. Oghi can’t share his grief with this off-putting woman, who’s mourning the loss of her only child and in short order hires and fires a live-in caretaker and a physical therapist, eventually taking over responsibility for tending to Oghi herself. As he deals with the shame and pain of disability and dependency, Oghi reflects sadly on his troubled marriage. His father-in-life criticized him relentlessly, and though he loved his wife, he seemed not to understand her or to know how to make her happy. When she and Oghi move into a new home, they leave the lights burning to signify their bright new life, but Oghi wakes up in the middle of the night to find the house dark and wonders, “When did all that light first start to fade?” Now his mother-in-law seems intent on destroying his wife’s carefully tended garden by digging a huge hole whose purpose readers will intuit, though they won’t be exactly right. VERDICT A spooky, troubling tale, lucidly told, for literary and thriller fans alike.

Tabucchi, Antonio. For Isabel: A Mandala. Archipelago. Sept. 2017. 144p. tr. from Italian by Elizabeth Harris. ISBN 9780914671800. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780914671817. F

In this posthumous work, award-winning Italian writer Tabucchi (Tristano Dies) really does construct a mandala for Isabel, who dominates the narrative through her absence. Deceased Polish writer Tadeus Slowacki has come to Lisbon, Portugal, from the Dog Star to discover how Isabel died—reputedly in prison 30 years ago during Salazar’s regime, but the facts are hazy. Called circles, the chapters wind tighter and tighter in mandala-like fashion as Tadeus’s hunt reaches resolution. Tadeus interviews people who knew Isabel, from a school friend and a priest to her nanny, a musician friend, her guard in prison, the former head of the underground Communist organization to which she belonged, and even an animist poet who communicates with the dead. Each story leads to the next, and readers will be caught up in the narrative’s urgency as Tadeus moves toward solving the mystery of the illusive Isabel. VERDICT Tabucchi’s language is spare and lyrical, his narrative lush in history and character, and the novel ends on a quietly peaceful note that seems a fitting farewell to the author himself. For literary readers who like a mystical touch.

Barbara Hoffert is Editor, Prepub Alert, LJ

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.

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