So many books, so little time! I want to tell about my favorites of the novels I read this year. My favorite nonfiction books were the books about Russia that I discussed in my previous blog.
Kamila Shamsie, one of my favorite authors, has written another superb book. Home Fires is the story of a family who, like Shamsie, are Pakistani British. The father was a jihadist who died in American custody. He had spent his time fighting and had no connection to his children. Their mother raised them to be moderates, but she has died. One of the two sisters is quiet and scholarly. The other cares more about her brother than about anything else in the world. The brother, the only one who does not excel in school, is recruited by the so-called Islamic State. The book is complex and compelling.
Miss Burma, written by Charmaine Craig, who is part Káren, one of Myanmar’s minority peoples, is another illuminating book. It tells how Burmans, not quite the country’s majority, had abused the other peoples in the territory so much that many minorities supported the British colonialists, who treated them more fairly. Both during World War II and after the British left, the Burmans massacred other peoples. This book focuses on the history of one Káren family, especially of the daughter who loves a rebel fighter but winds up unwillingly as a token Miss Burma. The book is excellent as a novel, not to mention as background on a country that most of us know little about. Knowing that Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, an independence leader, violently oppressed minority peoples makes today’s news easier to understand.
Pachinko by Korean-American author Min Jin Lee is another book about a people whose troubles most Americans know little about: people of Korean ancestry living in Japan. Like Miss Burma, this books shows history through the story of one family. For several decades until the end of World War II, Japan controlled Korea. Some Koreans went to Japan to get an education. The Korean War also led many Koreans to leave for Japan. But Japan did not accept them as full citizens. It has been, and still is, difficult for them to be able live in areas with decent housing and to get jobs. Hence many have worked in pachinko parlors, gambling houses where gangsters held sway. That gave rise to the stereotype that Koreans are gangsters. This book is successful both in creating a moving family saga and in illustrating the history.
Lisa See has long been one of my favorite authors. Her latest book, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, is about a girl of the Yao minority in China’s Yunnan province. Harvesting and marketing tea is the people’s livelihood. Women do the hardest work, the harvesting of sharp leaves that cut their hands. Premarital sex is encouraged, but pregnancy before marriage is a life-ruining disgrace. Li-yan, the protagonist, becomes pregnant. The father has gone away to earn money so they can marry. She gives birth to her baby in secret, then takes the baby girl to an orphanage. When Li-yan comes back later to retrieve her daughter, the girl has been adopted by an American couple. The story then goes back and forth between the mother’s life and the daughter’s.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Vietnamese-American author of the brilliant novel The Sympathizer, brought out a short story collection, The Refugees. I found it not quite as dazzling as the novel, but full of moving stories of Vietnamese refugees trying to adjust to life in the United States. There’s also an interesting story about an African-American Vietnam veteran whose daughter is dedicating her life to help the Vietnamese in reparation for his fighting there.
Leila Aboulela, a woman of Egyptian-Sudanese heritage who lives in Scotland, wrote The Kindness of Enemies, a book about cultural clashes that shifts between being a historical novel and a contemporary novel. The historical tale is about the clash between Chechens and Russians; the contemporary is about a British Muslim woman’s friendship for a student of hers who is accused of terrorism. Both stories are filled with nuances, ambivalence, and possible betrayals.
A Russian novel in translation, Ludmilla Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent, is reminiscent of Tolstoy. It is the story of several intelligent boys and girls growing up in Moscow. They meet in the 1950s and maintain their friendships, but find their lives shaped by bureaucratic repression. If you like good Russian novels, do read this one.
Noted Israeli author Amos Oz has written a new book, Judas. Its protagonist is an Israeli graduate student who is fascinated by the intellectual history of how Jews have written about Jesus of Nazareth. He’s no Christian, but he thinks Jesus should be discussed as a prophet. He meets old men who were involved in the founding of Israel who regret the ways the founders treated the Palestinians. This book is very interesting, but I found the protagonist’s story of a passion for a mysterious woman pretty tedious.
Stay With Me by Nigerian author Ayobami Adebayo is a unique and moving novel. Yejide, a girl whose mother died giving birth to her, grew up in a family where her father had several wives, but none of them were motherly to her. When she’s in college, she meets Akin, and they fall in love. They marry, but are unable to have a child. Akin’s family demands that he marry a second wife so he can have children. Yejide is distraught. What happens after that is very different from what I expected. You can’t predict what’s going to happen in this unusual story.
Salt Houses, a novel by Palestinian-American author Haya Alyan, who is a poet and a psychologist, tells the story of a Palestinian family that has to move to several different countries. The family matriarch, Salma, has to leave her home after the Six-Day War. Her son becomes involved in politics and disappears. Her daughter Alia has to move to Kuwait because her husband wants to live there, though she hates the desert and feels trapped. When Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait, the family has to leave. They are scattered to Beirut, Paris, and Boston.
Emma Donohue has long been one of my favorite authors. An Irish lesbian who now lives in Canada, she has written several historical novels as well as more contemporary ones. Her latest novel, The Wonder, is set in rural Ireland in the 19th century, just a few years after the great famine. An 11-year-old girl is refusing to eat. She says that Jesus is feeding her manna from heaven. The people of her town believe that’s a miracle. To authenticate or disprove the miracle, the town’s leading people engage an English nurse and an Irish nun to watch to see whether the girl eats. The story seems extreme to some, but if you grow up as a Catholic girl who wanted to make sacrifices, as I did, the book resonates deeply.
If We Were Villains, a novel by M.L. Rio, a woman who studied Shakespeare at King’s College London and the Globe, is a must for anyone who is crazy about Shakespeare and a good read for anyone who enjoys psychological novels. It’s the story of a group of students who specialize in Shakespeare at a college that focuses on the arts. It’s comparable to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History as a fascinating study of a small group of students. The characters are obsessed with Shakespeare and tend to play out their roles in real life.