The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr. is a dazzling novel, the first about enslaved African American gay men. The two protagonists share a deep love and try to be true to each other in a plantation where the owner breeds slaves for sale. The portraits of African American women are sympathetic.
The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen is a worthy successor to his novel The Sympathizer, which is about a Vietnamese Communist who pretends to be an anti-Communist so he can spy on other Vietnamese and is sent to the United States. But the main character, an intellectual, develops many doubts. In The Committed, he is ordered to go to France, where the book sends up French intellectuals who think revolution is cool the way the previous book showed the flaws of Americans. The writing is filled with sharp humor.
Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man also looks at the complexities of war and its aftermath. It’s set in Croatia, where a clueless English couple buy a vacation home in a small town without realizing that the town was the scene of bloodshed in the 1990s war that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. But the Croatian man who helps them restore their house to its former beauty is still haunted by the war.
The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak deals with the fighting between Cypriots of Greek descent and Turkish descent and its effects on the love between a Turkish young woman and a Greek young man. But the focal point is their daughter, who has been raised in England and is traumatized by her mother’s death. She gradually learns about her parents’ past. Shafak brilliantly intersects the story with a tale showing the point of view of the fig tree they brought from Cyprus that tells how war affects creatures who aren’t human.
Abigail by Magda Szabo is the story of a Hungarian girl during World War II. Her father, a general who is secretly working against his country’s fascist government, sends her to an incredibly rigid Calvinist school in a remote area. She loathes the school’s rigidity, has difficulty making friends, and only gradually learns what is happening in the world.
How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue tells about the people of a small village in a nameless African country where an American oil company, with the collaboration of the nation’s government, has polluted the land and the water. When the people realize that the contamination is killing their children, they go to the capital to try to get help. Such things have been happening in Nigeria, and doubtless other countries as well.
Dust by Yvonne Adiambo Owuor is set in post-independence Kenya. It begins with the police shooting of a young man, Odidi, during a robbery. But we soon learn that Odidi was much more than a robber. He was brilliant and idealistic. His death shatters his father, a herdsman in dry northern Kenya, and his mother, a woman of great presence. His sister, an artist who has been living in Brazil, seeks to discover more about her brother’s life and learns about his resistance to post-colonial corruption.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a prominent Kenyan writer living in exile. His four-volume memoirs--Dreams in a Time of War, In the House of the Interpreter, Birth of a Dream Weaver, and Wrestling With the Devil--tell the story of Kenya from his life as a poor boy in a small village that the British destroyed, forcing its people to relocate in an attempt to separate them from liberation fighters, to his imprisonment for socialist views by a corrupt post-colonial government that accepted too many of false values and practices of the colonizers. I learned so much from these books.
Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah, who won this year’s Nobel Prize in literature, tells of Salim, a youth growing up in Zanzibar. He was puzzled as a child when his father moved out of their home to live in a small room in someone else’s house, where he read and stared at the walls all day. Salim eventually learns that his mother has become the mistress of a powerful man, the son of the country’s vice president. She sends Salim to his uncle in England to continue his education.
Dancing in the Mosque by Homeira Qaderi is an autobiographical novel about an Afghan woman whose family made her marry a neighbor so she wouldn’t be forced to become the wife of a Talib who is attracted to her. She and her husband spent some years in Iran, which she found incredibly liberating compared to Afghanistan. She was able to go to college and graduate school and become a writer, but her husband decided to move back to Afghanistan and everything changed. She lost custody of her young son. This book is a letter written to him.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert surprised me. I had been uninterested in Eat, Pray, Love, so I hadn’t read anything else she wrote. But this novel about a nineteenth century girl who grows up lonely on an estate outside Philadelphia and becomes an expert on mosses thrilled the naturalist in me. I was less thrilled that she is portrayed as so ugly that her hopes to love a man are all thwarted. She’s a flawed character, but she develops a theory of evolution parallel to Darwin’s. I think the characters, including her father, who made a fortune the hard way and despises most other people, are true for the times.
The lesbian novel I liked best this year is Breaking Jae by S. Renee Bess, the story of Jae, a young Black intellectual woman who is trying desperately to get a fellowship. Along the way Jae changes from being a flirt to falling in love.
I also very much enjoyed Cheryl A. Head’s series about a Black lesbian detective who starts her own firm in Detroit. Her stories are rather hard-boiled, but her detective is soft-hearted. The racially mixed detective office with a Black woman very much in charge is always interesting.
I’m fond of books about lesbian nuns, so I really liked Caren Werlinger’s novels In a Small Space and An Unlit Candle. The characters are deeply religious, so falling in love poses a dilemma for them.
One of the best nonfiction books I read this year is Hillary Holladay’s The Power of Adrienne Rich, a very detailed biography of Rich’s life and her development as a poet, with an emphasis on the life. I hadn’t realized that Rich became a renowned poet while she was still in college at Radcliffe. I learned a great deal, but I thought there was more information about some intimate relationships with women than Rich would have wanted made public.
The most amazing nonfiction book I read is Judy Batalion’s The Light of Days, a painstakingly detailed account of Jewish women’s resistance to the Holocaust in Poland. The book’s scope is incredible. Batalion follows specific young women leaders and tells what happened to them. A few survived. The depth of Batalion’s research is staggering, almost as staggering as the heroism of these young women.
I review almost every book I read on Goodreads. I’m inviting you to follow me there.