Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami (Europa Editions 2020)
Reviewed by Megan Foster
Three women in Japan wrestle with the nature of the body and the self.
Natsuko is a struggling writer when her older sister, Makiko, and Makiko’s teenage daughter, Midoriko, come to visit for a few days. Makiko has made the journey to Tokyo to explore affordable options for breast enhancements. Midoriko, who hasn’t spoken a word to her mother in six months, privately wrestles with her own changing body and turns to her journal for companionship. A climactic clash occurs between Makiko and Midorko before the two return home, and the narrative flashes forward in time ten years. Natsuko has managed to publish one collection of stories but, even more than her struggle to write a novel, wrestles with her desire to have a child. Without a partner, Natsuko seeks other possible means to fulfill her deepest wish to be a mother as she continues to grow older alone.
Sisters by Daisy Johnson (Riverhead Books 2020)
Reviewed by Nora Poole
Sisters, the chilling second novel from British writer Daisy Johnson, is about, well, sisters: a pair of them, named September and July, who leave their home in Oxford with their mother Sheela after a terrible incident occurs at their school. The three retreat to a ramshackle family home near the seaside, where the girls go about their days listless and inseparable, seemingly waiting out the depression that has settled on their mother. We enter the story in what feels like the aftermath, a climax already nestled in the past. The entirety of the novel feels like it’s both building toward the moment we find out what happened at the girls’ school, and like it’s fleeing that same moment. The book is an unsettling portrait of the teenage sisters’ troubled- and troubling- relationship, asking how much of ourselves we are willing to sacrifice for love, groping for the line between protecting your loved ones and consuming them.
The Seep by Chana Porter (Soho Books 2020)
Reviewed by Edmondson Cole
In Chana Porter’s debut novel, an alien life form known as the Seep doesn’t conquer the planet in a military sense –instead it infiltrates humankind via their drinking water, achieving the “softest invasion” (9) earth (or the sci-fi genre) has ever seen. The effect of this invasion is not what one might expect. Not mind-control or bodily harm, but instead a oneness with the world, the ability to touch objects and feel their past, present, and future. For those under the influence of the Seep, “it was impossible to feel anything except expansive joy, peace, tenderness, and love.” (11) So begins an unconventional take on a classic sci-fi premise, a novel about grief and identity and those hardships of the human condition that persist even in a world where death is an “opt-in procedure” (44) and humanity has been freed to live outside “the old scarcity paradigm.” (13)
What You Have Heard is True by Carolyn Forche (Penguin Press, 2019)
Reviewed by Allison McCausland
History is written as much by the victors as it is by its witnesses. Witnesses are often responsible for giving voice to the unrecorded events and marginalized factions that history textbooks tend to gloss over. Poet Carolyn Forche served as one such witness to the beginnings of the Civil War in El Salvador, bearing witness to both atrocities and small glimmers of hope.
The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams (Doubleday Books 2020)
Reviewed by Summer A.H. Christiansen
Clare Beams’ new novel, The Illness Lesson is a gripping historical fiction that will leave you on the edge of your seat. The novel is set in Ashwell, Massachusetts in 1871, where Samuel Hood, a retired transcendental essayist, is establishing The School for the Trilling Heart. This private school for young women is the first of its kind. Its courses are taught by Samuel, young Civil War veteran David, and Samuel’s daughter Caroline. Throughout the novel, we follow Caroline as she struggles with her identity as an educated, unwed twenty-eight year old woman.
My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree by Yi Lei, trans. by Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf Press 2020)
Reviewed by Elizabeth Kudlacz
Who was Yi Lei?
For many in the Western world, this leading figure in contemporary Chinese poetry is probably unknown. Thanks to the efforts of Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi, English-speaking readers can appreciate the richness of Yi Lei’s bilingual collection of poems My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree.
Library of Legends by Janie Chang (William Morrow and Co. 2020)
Reviewed by Angela Gualtieri
In her latest novel, The Library of Legends, Janie Chang blends Chinese history with fantasy elements, adding a dash of romance.
Set in 1937 China, the Japanese aerial attacks begin to close in, forcing students at Minghua University to flee from Nanking to Chengtu. They carry with them the Library of Legends, a 147-volume record of myth and folklore from the Ming dynasty, 500 years ago. A priceless treasure, the Library of Legends brought students far and wide to Minghua, including Hu Lian. Lian is an introverted scholar fascinated with the historic tomes. Throughout the 1000-mile journey, Lian is torn between locating her mother and her duty to her school. She soon finds herself at the center of controversy when one student is murdered and another arrested. Knowing she must escape, Lian chooses to travel back to Shanghai in hopes of finding her mother. Along the way, she uncovers a special connection between the Library of Legends and two of her companions.
Braised Pork by An Yu (Grove Press 2020)
Reviewed by Allison McCausland
It’s easy for the monotony of life to settle in. It lulls us into a false sense of security. It keeps us from recognizing how drained our happiness and sense of self has become. Both circumstances plague protagonist Jia Jia as she struggles to adjust to life in Beijing after her husband’s bizarre death.
The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi (Mira Books 2020)
Reviewed by Angela Gualtieri
Historical fiction opens the gateway to a different time and place. The settings themselves make readers long for somewhere they’ve never been. This is the case in Alka Joshi’s debut novel, The Henna Artist.
Set in the 1950s, The Henna Artist transports us back to India a few years after gaining independence from the British. Joshi’s vivid imagery makes India’s past crawl off the page, bringing it to life: “We entered a colonnade flanked by lush gardens. Topiary elephants frolicked on the lawns. Live peacocks pranced around circular fountains. Stone urns sprouted honeysuckle, jasmine and sweet pea” (142). Amidst the color and beauty of historical India, Joshi also gives us a taste of the social, economic, and political climates of the time, shedding light on the difficulties for people of lower castes and women.