December 2022 Reading Round Up: Wild Fiction

This month, we’re celebrating wild fiction: fiction that takes you places you could never otherwise go. From Mona Awad’s Shakespearean dream world in All’s Well to Eto Mori’s limbo, these books imagine new corners of existence — and in so doing, dive deeper into what it means to be human. End the year in a dreamscape with these strange, beautiful titles.

Colorful by ETO MORI

GENRE: FICTION | Counterpoint 2021 | REVIEWED BY Esther ro

“As my dead soul leisurely drifted off to some dark place, this angel I’d never seen before suddenly appeared right in my way.”

This begins the unnamed narrator’s afterlife journey in Eto Mori’s Colorful, an unusual coming-of-age story. Guided by the angel Prapura, the dead soul comes to occupy the body of a terribly unhappy 14-year-old boy, Makoto Kobayashi, who took his own life. The narrator occupies this strange limbo, enacting a pantomime of the deceased’s life prior to his suicide. Prapura names the terms, effectively giving him a year to improve the state of his soul while occupying Makoto Kobayashi’s body before reentering the cycle of reincarnation. As the narrator explores Makoto’s world, the drab colors of his home life come into focus. With his variously disappointing family members, it’s no wonder that Makoto entered a period of intense disillusionment that led to his taking his own life. For example, his mother was previously embroiled in an affair with her flamenco teacher. A somewhat absent father and a bully for an older brother fill in the rest of the picture. This sense of isolation and disappointment carries over into his school life where he is considered an outcast and weirdo by his peers. His only reprieve is painting and perhaps a lingering sense of love and attraction to a classmate named Hiroka. 

As the story progresses, Makoto’s world becomes more colorful. Different shades of human experience come into view. And in an interesting turn of events, the unnamed narrator begins to learn more about the people around him, his so-called host family and Makoto’s acquaintances. Rather than seeing things in black and white as Makoto once did, the narrator sees all the subtle motivations that fill in the gaps of human experience. Colorful is a surprisingly affirming coming-of-age story, light enough in tone that even the most polarizing topics—suicide, extramarital affairs, even prostitution at some point in the story—are treated with a deft hand and never an overbearing cloud of judgment. Good or bad, readers are shown that all of it is a part of the human experience. 

Why We Love It: Even though Colorful takes place in limbo, this unique coming-of-age story tells us a lot about what it means to be a young person today.

Chouette by Claire Oshetsky

GENRE: FICTION | ecco press 2021 | REVIEWED BY Rebecca Valley

“The birds are telling me that my life’s work as your mother will be to teach you how to be yourself—and to honor however much of the wild world you have in you…”

What does it mean to mother? This is the central question of Claire Oshetsky’s feminist fairytale Chouette, which begins when the narrator, a woman named Tiny, gives birth to an owl-baby named Chouette. The book vacillates between adoration and horror as Tiny’s life is transformed by her unapologetically wild daughter.

The book follows Tiny and Chouette as they experience the throes of motherhood and infancy together. Tiny experiences the intensity of motherly love beside the loss that comes from being made new by your child – physically, emotionally, and socially. Tiny is a concert violinist, and we follow her journey as motherhood alters her career while in many ways reconnecting her with the beauty of music and making. (P.S. Don’t skip the playlist Oshetsky made to accompany the book). Motherhood also fundamentally changes Tiny’s relationship with her husband, who wants to find a cure that will turn Chouette into a more palatable “dog-baby” – a mission that Tiny can’t support, because she knows it will destroy her daughter.

Chouette is a story about creating life – and more specifically, raising a child who doesn’t fit within tidy social norms. It’s a book about what it means to nurse a baby from its first stirrings in the uterus to its final days. To advocate for it, to learn to love it, to suffer with and for it, to teach it to be what it needs and yearns to be – whether that’s a compliant dog-baby or a wild, brutal, bloodthirsty owl-baby. For Tiny, there is loneliness and sacrifice and doubt and confusion. But there is also love, big and winged and beautiful, and wonder, wonder, wonder.

Why We Love It: Chouette is an exquisitely crafted, transformative fairytale about the ugly-beauty of motherhood.

A Portrait of a Mirror by A. Natasha Joukovsky

GENRE: FICTION | overlook press 2021 | REVIEWED BY angela gualtieri

A. Natasha Joukovsky’s novel, The Portrait of a Mirror, follows two privileged and self-involved couples: Wes and Diana, the married New Yorkers, and Vivien and Dale, the engaged Philadelphians. The couples’ lives are already entwined through past academic and professional experiences, but when Vivien finds herself in New York as a visiting curator to the Metropolitan Museum of Art while Diana begins a new project in Philadelphia, the line between where one couple begins and the other ends becomes blurred. What they think they want will be tested, because in the summer of 2015, anything goes.

Joukovsky’s tale combines art, philosophy, literature, and business to offer social commentary using a retelling of the Narcissus myth as its foundation. However, her mastery of the subjects allows the reader to understand the message clearly, whether you have a familiarity with the references or not. Perhaps the most standout aspect of the book is how Joukovsky handles themes of love, desire, and perception. As she writes: “Of all the dangers in life, there is perhaps none more treacherous than getting precisely what you want” (113). Wes, Diana, Vivien, and Dale each receive exactly what they think they want, learning the difference between concept and reality firsthand.

The Portrait of a Mirror holds up a looking glass, tempting us to see the truth of things–especially ourselves.

Why We Love It: This novel’s foundation in mythology makes what could be a typical story read more like a fable about what happens when you get what you desire.

Brother & Sister Enter the Forest by Richard Mirabella

GENRE: FICTION | catapult 2023 | REVIEWED BY Rebecca Valley

Every fairytale has its ghosts. In Richard Mirabella’s Brother & Sister Enter the Forest, ghosts propel the story forward as readers move closer and closer to the haunted center of this queer coming-of-age fable.

Set against the eerie backdrop of a small town in upstate New York, Brother & Sister tells the story of Justin, a young gay man who is haunted by an abusive ex-lover, and his sister Willa, who struggles to make sense of her brother’s pain. Justin copes with substance abuse, while Willa makes dioramas – tiny models of her brother’s memories that she hides in the spare bedroom in her apartment. As the mystery of what happened to Justin unfolds, we watch brother and sister struggle to love each other and themselves in the aftermath of a devastating tragedy.

In Brother & Sister Enter the Forest two siblings wander together in the forest of memory. This novel captures the complex emotional landscape of a young gay man who just wants to be loved and desired – and his sister, who keeps trying to pull him out of the dark.

Why We Love It: Brother & Sister is fast-paced and pulls you along while leaving space for complex emotions and experiences.

All’s Well by Mona AWad

GENRE: FICTION | Scribner/Marysue rucci books 2022 | REVIEWED BY Katie vogel

Unreliable narrator, theater professor, director, and former budding actress Miranda Finch justifies her decision to have her students stage Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well (when they’d rather put on Macbeth) by saying, “This is a problem play…Neither a tragedy nor a comedy, something in between. Something far more interesting” (21). She’s talking about the play, but she could just as well be speaking to the pages we find her in and the story that unfolds around her. 

Mona Awad’s All’s Well is a surreal, engrossing, frustrating, delightful, and disorienting exploration of what can happen when we blur the boundaries between self and character, student and teacher, director and actor, theater and reality, redemption and destruction, grief and revenge. It’s about the roles we take on out of desire and those we adopt out of necessity. Through the first-person perspective, we live in Miranda’s mind as she tackles this play, grapples with her lost past, and negotiates the precarity of her current job under the strain, and later miraculous absence, of chronic pain that resulted from a theater injury when she played Helen in All’s Well many years before. 

We travel with Miranda to her physical therapy appointments and witness the gross mishandling of her treatment by doctors who think that pain is just information! It’s all in her head! We also witness her condescension towards, jealousy of, and (sometimes justified) paranoia about what her students and colleagues think of her. She says of her assistant director, Grace, “Whenever Grace shakes her head about Helen, fucking Helen, I think she’s really passive-aggressively expressing her feelings about me” (29). We have empathy for Miranda’s grief over the career, marriage, and bodily comfort she’s lost in the wake of her accident. At the same time, we are suspicious of the circumstances under which her chronic pain resolves itself after she meets three mysterious men who seem both to know an awful lot about her and have an unexplained vested interest in her and the play’s success.

Miranda Finch is a narrator who I related to and despised in equal and unwieldy measure. I recoiled as much as I leaned in. Regarding the book, I would be just as delighted to mail it to you myself as I would be to walk it out into the ocean and watch it disintegrate beneath the waves. As it seems to go within the story, I ostensibly could —and might— do both. 

Why We Love It: This book delivers all the surreal dreaminess that Mona Awad is known for with a delightfully spooky Shakespearean twist.

Want to review a book for our next round-up? Head to our submissions page for more information and to see a list of titles we’d love to cover

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