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All Literary Fiction Coverage

Elegant, melancholic and emotional, The Stars Are Not Yet Bells is lyrical from start to finish. The second novel from Hannah Lillith Assadi, a 2018 National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree, draws its narrative style from the realms of poetry, making for an atypical and dazzling reading experience.

Part of the book’s uniqueness lies in its subject: Elle Ranier, an elderly woman with dementia. At the beginning of World War II, Elle and her husband, Simon, left New York City to move to Lyra, a small island off the coast of Georgia, where blue stones are rumored to lurk beneath the ocean. In the novel’s present, set in 1997, Elle reminisces about her younger years and grapples with the secrets and betrayals of a life lived and nearly forgotten.

Elle’s tenuous consciousness leads to a blurring of the lines between the current narrative and her flashbacks and dreams, and Assadi follows this lead by emphasizing Elle’s hallucinations and memories. Underneath Elle’s imaginative thoughts, however, lie clues to the novel’s plot, ingeniously scattered so that the book feels like a mystery, the reader’s mission being to take Elle’s ramblings and form them into a cohesive, linear storyline. Assadi’s willingness to trust her reader is evident, and the book consequently becomes more immersive and self-reflective.

Assadi takes great care in crafting each sentence, incorporating poignant and thoughtful language into the heart of the story. This focus allows Assadi’s themes to shine, taking readers along on a journey into what it means to remember and forget, to be young and old, to be satisfied and to long for something or someone. It’s rare for a novelist to so seamlessly bring their themes into the spotlight without relying primarily on narrative events, but Assadi is willing and able to take the risk. As a result, her themes are even more relatable and decipherable, and impart longer-lasting messages.

Eerie and spellbinding, The Stars Are Not Yet Bells is not for everyone; its plot is incredibly subtle, leading to some moments of confusion, and readers must be willing to work through these moments of doubt and be flexible as they continue. But for the right reader, Assadi’s work is the epitome of ingenuity. She has mastered the art of entering a character’s mind and bringing it to life.

The second novel from Hannah Lillith Assadi draws its narrative style from the realms of poetry, making for an atypical and dazzling reading experience.

With admirable narrative range (and a lavish helping of the epistolary), Hanya Yanagihara returns the concept of the United States to the drawing board. Clocking in at over 700 pages, To Paradise is Yanagihara’s first novel since the runaway bestseller A Little Life (2015), and it’s both a dystopian departure from and an extension of her previous themes. The heavily scaffolded narrative is told in three sections, spanning 1893 to 2093, and it’s set in historically reimagined New York City and Hawaii—both places the author has called home.

To Paradise begins in Washington Square in an alternate 1893, in which New York is part of the Free States, separate from the rest of the U.S. Here sits the ancestral home of David Bingham, favored grandson of a banking magnate. David is suffocated by the pressures of his station, and also by his desire for the protection that his station affords.

Flash forward 100 years, and disenfranchised Hawaiian prince Kawika is living in this same house with his much older boyfriend during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Jump ahead another century to 2093, and pandemic survivor Charlie lives in the house, which is now government co-opted, with her husband by arranged marriage.

Time and again, Yanagihara’s characters must decide whether it is preferable to buy into someone else’s way of thinking—whether it be a friend’s, a lover’s or a government’s—or face their own reality. The threshold for self-debasement and humiliation is high here, and it is on this subject that Yanagihara writes most compellingly (albeit disturbingly). Her characters engage with battles for civil rights, grapple with disabilities, confront the social freedoms and limitations surrounding homosexuality across centuries, and live on a rapidly warming planet under a totalitarian regime. Topically this is a lot to juggle, and nuance is a casualty of scope in this novel.

Yanagihara’s imagined American reality prods readers to consider the one we find ourselves stuck with now. To Paradise feasts grimly on the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is not an anomaly, Yanagihara reminds us, but a blip in an increasingly illness-ridden world. If we redrew borders and rewrote laws, the novel asks—if intentions were mostly good—would the U.S. be any better off now?

Spanning 1893 to 2093, To Paradise is a dazzling experiment that returns the very concept of the United States to the drawing board.

In his experimentally structured debut novel, Velorio, Xavier Navarro Aquino makes important points about Puerto Rico, its history as a commonwealth of the United States and the catastrophic aftereffects of Hurricane Maria, which decimated the island in September 2017.

The Spanish word velorio signifies a wake or funeral, a moment of mourning but also recognition of what has been lost. There’s a pun in this translation to English, with wake also meaning the aftermath of a storm, or the turbulent waters behind a fast-moving ship. The wake of Hurricane Maria—a storm so powerful and its effects so catastrophic that Maria has been retired from the circulation of names used by the National Weather Service—provides the energy for this remarkable, mythic novel, populated by a memorable cast.

Maria was one of the most intense storms ever recorded on American territory and the deadliest since 1998. In some areas, floodwaters rose up to 6 feet in 30 minutes, eventually exceeding 15 feet in total, destroying 80% of the crops on the island and an estimated 18 million coffee trees. Months later, half of the population still did not have electricity or potable water. Billions of dollars in aid remained undistributed off-island. In this traumatic aftermath, the Puerto Rican people were rendered largely immobile.

Velorio is far from immobile, taking readers on a painful journey across the devastated island. Aquino addresses the situation using a wide range of voices and narrative styles. Drama is high as survivors fight to rebuild what they can salvage from the fury of nature and the incompetence of the powers that be.

The novel, dedicated to “the thousands lost and the unaccounted,” introduces the survivors individually, including Camila, who digs her sister Marisol’s drowned body out from the mud and clings to it as it decays, a symbol for the island itself. Carrying Marisol’s body, Camila gravitates toward a haven called Memoria, where gangs of young people are trying to reconstitute a society based on authoritarian symbols and gestures. Their leader, Urayoan, dresses homeless boys in red castoffs pulled from the dead, builds a hellish tower to concentrate his power and oversees the looting of what little is left.

Animals are skinned and butchered, all manner of outrages are performed, and “ghosts of people, ghosts of men, ghosts of women” are everywhere. The foundations of Memoria inevitably collapse like a fever dream, set afire by those who desperately escape it. Maria, “the monstrua,” has gutted the island, and demagogue Urayoan’s dream of a new Utopia will be shaken in turn.

Amid scenes of carnage and dialogue that incorporates Spanish idioms and Puerto Rican slang, the novel includes large swaths of poetry written by a visionary secondary character named Cheo. Some of the poems are only drafts, unfinished and abandoned. “It’s my poetry and that’s what keeps us alive,” he tells the younger gang members. In this way, Velorio pays homage to Nobel Prize-winning Caribbean author Derek Walcott, whose Homeric epic, Omeros, brought recognition to poets of the region. Extensive passages of Cheo’s work give the sense of a life raft bobbing along, battered by the monstrous storm: “Are we culprits to our fate / And live by our names? / And that is empire. / And that is violence.”

Xavier Navarro Aquino’s debut novel takes readers on a painful journey across Puerto Rico, as survivors of Hurricane Maria fight to regain what they can.

At age 14, Smita Agarwal and her family were forced to leave Mumbai after a horrifying incident of religious persecution. They immigrated to Ohio, and now, 20 years later, Smita has grown up to become a world-traveling journalist who writes about gender issues. As Thrity Umrigar’s Honor opens, Smita is asked to cover an assignment in Mumbai—“the one place she had spent her entire adult life avoiding.” Readers will find themselves completely immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of India, a place that Smita acknowledges can be “cosmopolitan, sophisticated, but also resolutely out of step with the world.”

Similar to her central character, bestselling author Umrigar grew up in Bombay (now Mumbai) and immigrated to the United States at age 21. Ever since, she’s been writing “to make sense of the world and to make sense of my own, often contradictory emotions and feelings.” In this spirit, Honor is a multifaceted examination of Smita’s love-hate relationship with her native country, a place that fills her heart yet is besieged with assaults on women. As one character comments, “We Indians are in the Dark Ages when it comes to the treatment of women.”

That issue is thoroughly explored through the lens of Smita’s assignment: the case of Meena, a Hindu woman suing her brothers after they killed her Muslim husband and then burned and disfigured her. Smita travels to Meena’s remote village and befriends the impoverished woman and her toddler daughter. She interviews the brothers, the police and the village chief, who emboldened Meena’s brothers to commit their atrocities. While Meena and Smita live in completely different worlds, Smita increasingly realizes the parallels in their lives and in the ways they have been treated as Indian women.

Throughout the novel, Smita is escorted by a wealthy single man named Mohan, who adores his country and is eager to reintroduce its glories to his charge. She is resistant, however, and their constant tug-of-war about India’s pros and cons results in a well-rounded portrait of a complicated country.

Suspense deepens as Smita and Meena await the court verdict, and there’s a horrifying aftermath that seems largely avoidable. Not surprisingly, romance develops between Smita and Mohan, and the blend of passion alongside brutality sometimes makes for an uneasy mix. Nonetheless, readers are likely to remain engaged with the story and its well-drawn characters.

Whether she’s writing about the bright lights of Mumbai or the poverty of village life, Umrigar excels at creating engaging situations and scenes. Readers will appreciate this novel’s deep understanding of the many complexities of Indian society.

Thrity Umrigar’s novel offers a well-rounded portrait of India, a place that can be “cosmopolitan, sophisticated, but also resolutely out of step with the world.”

Rachel Kapelke-Dale tackles everything from abortion to sexual abuse in The Ballerinas, an unflinching, unapologetically feminist glimpse into the world of professional ballet.

The daughter of a famous ballerina, Delphine studied ballet intensively for most of her life at the famous Paris Opera Ballet. Along with her friends Lindsay and Margaux, she was poised to become a star—until she suddenly left France for Russia and gave up performing in favor of choreography. 

Now Delphine is 36 and has returned to Paris to stage a ballet of her own creation with Lindsay as its star. Delphine feels she and Margaux wronged Lindsay somehow, and flashbacks to their teenage years reveal how these three young women were stretched to the breaking point by a demand for perfection from their teachers, peers and, in Delphine’s case, her mother.

Kapelke-Dale, who studied ballet herself, grants readers rare insight into a grueling world that, despite being largely female, is still dominated by men. Male teachers, choreographers and dancers hold power over their female counterparts, and gendered violence is embedded in the culture. Ballet is portrayed as an institution that fails the women it supposedly celebrates. For example, Delphine is betrayed at one point by a fellow dancer in a particularly horrific way, and he is immediately protected by the institution. 

The patriarchal structure of ballet prizes youth and beauty, which affects Delphine, Lindsay and Margaux in new ways in their mid-30s. Lindsay is nearing an age at which she will have to retire from performing to make way for the teenagers coming onto the scene. Kapelke-Dale shows how these women’s bodies are breaking down due to years of demanding dance training, making the pressure to appear thin, glowing and youthful feel even more cruelly ironic.

Despite all of this, The Ballerinas is not a bleak novel. Delphine, Lindsay and Margaux begin to push back against the system that has oppressed them, coming to terms with their past and moving forward into a world in which they have agency over their bodies and careers. It is to Kapelke-Dale’s credit that this empowering ending feels earned, rather than naively optimistic.

Rachel Kapelke-Dale tackles everything from abortion to sexual abuse in The Ballerinas, an unflinching, unapologetically feminist glimpse into the world of professional ballet.

If you’re a fan of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love or Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, you’ll likely feel right at home within the perpetually shifting landscape of Claire Oshetsky’s debut novel, Chouette. Which is to say, if you don’t mind a little unexpected violence set in a surreal landscape, it will be right up your alley.

Chouette’s mom, Tiny, is a cellist who has a dream of a sexual encounter with an owl and, two weeks later, learns she is pregnant. “You may wonder: How could such a thing come to pass between woman and owl? I, too, am astounded, because my owl-lover was a woman.” Tiny’s unnamed husband is at first more overjoyed by the pregnancy than she is, and as the owl-baby begins to take over Tiny’s thoughts and emotions, her musical talent begins to desert her.

After the birth, Tiny’s husband rejects the notion of an owl-baby, suggesting that the child he calls “Charlotte” is perhaps developmentally disabled while overlooking the fact that she eats mice and other snacks not typically found in the grocery store’s baby food department. As the days begin to drift away like so many molted feathers, some hazy shapes of proto-truths emerge. Tiny’s husband wants to “fix” Chouette, while Tiny would rather see nature take its course and adapt her love to her owl-child’s needs, rather than the other way around.

Tiny’s husband enrolls Chouette in an increasingly bizarre series of treatments carried out by medical practitioners with names like Doctor Zoloft, Doctor Benzodiazepine, Doctor Chelation, Doctor Rectal Flushing and Doctor Hyperbaric. Needless to say, these therapies to “normalize” Chouette are unsuccessful, but that doesn’t keep the husband from trying, nor Tiny from getting more frantic in her quest to allow Chouette simply to be herself. It seems inevitable that a day of reckoning is not long off, and when it comes, it arrives like an owl strike: abruptly, decisively and violently. Owls, after all, are predators.

Oshetsky shows an exceptional talent for keeping the reader off balance. Is Tiny hallucinating? Is she in hell? Is this a metaphor? Is any of the story actually happening in the manner it’s being told? The ambiguity is tantalizing, even mesmerizing, and if your internal gyroscope is sufficiently operative to keep you from slipping off the edge, Chouette will richly reward your attention.

It seems inevitable that a day of reckoning is not long off in Claire Oshetsky’s novel, and when it comes, it arrives like an owl strike: abruptly, decisively and violently.

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