Arlene McKanic

Have you ever seen a simulation of what might happen if a rogue planet wandered into our solar system? The animation shows how the planet would be as disruptive as a cue ball, knocking heavenly bodies hither and thither. It might even push them out of their comfortable orbits. That’s essentially what happens to a group of women in Nikki May’s first novel, Wahala.

The rogue planet is a woman named Isobel, and the orderly, cozy solar system she fumbles into is comprised of three British Nigerian besties. Boo is a frustrated wife and mother with a part-time job that doesn’t satisfy her. Her French husband adores her and their bratty, bossy daughter but is one of those “fun dads” who leaves all the heavy lifting to his wife. Ronke is a dentist who has lousy taste in men and lacks her friends’ impeccable sense of style. And Simi’s husband is eager to have a baby, but she isn’t.

These well-heeled ladies, concerned as they are with clothes and shoes, weaves and gel manicures, brunches and lunches at chichi restaurants and, of course, men, are meant to be a London version of the “Sex and the City” quartet. Maybe, the reader might think, these women need to have their lives shaken up a bit. Maybe a bit of wahala, that word often used by Nigerians to describe chaos or trouble, isn’t such a bad thing.

As it turns out, the wild stuff on “Sex and the City” doesn’t come close to what happens to Boo, Ronke and Simi. That’s because Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha didn’t have to deal with an Isobel. You’ve certainly heard of people like Isobel, and if you’ve run into one and lived to tell the tale, consider yourself lucky. She’s the person who wants to be everyone’s best friend, who showers you with expensive gifts if she’s rich enough to afford them, who beguiles you into confiding your disappointments, your uncertainties, your fears, your secrets.

For all its wittiness, fast-paced writing and recipes for Nigerian chicken stew and Aunty K’s moin moin, Wahala is a much darker read than you might expect. Many people get hurt—badly. It’s a story that reminds us of the ties that bind, and sometimes gag.

This tale of three besties whose orderly lives are disrupted by a planetary force of a woman named Isobel reminds us of the ties that bind—and sometimes gag.

Why are a bunch of airplane passengers being rousted by the FBI and the CIA? Their only commonality is that they were on an exceptionally turbulent flight from Paris to New York City. A few chapters into Hervé Le Tellier’s Prix Goncourt-winning novel, The Anomaly, we learn that it’s because their plane did not land where and when it should’ve and so triggered something called Protocol 42. Furthermore, it’s not the only plane of its kind, but the other plane landed in China and the Chinese government isn’t talking.

The passengers of Air France Flight 006 are the types of people you’d expect on a transcontinental flight—or maybe you wouldn’t. There’s the wife of an Afghanistan War veteran and her young children; a brilliant and ambitious lawyer who recently married the great love of her life; a translator who wrote a novel titled The Anomaly; a rapper who dreams of jamming with Elton John; and a man who leads a double life as a reliable father and hired assassin. And of course, there’s the pilot, who finds that the mess he’s in may, ironically, give him a second chance at life.

First published in France, The Anomaly is pleasingly Gallic, with chapters weaving together comedy, melancholy, tragedy and a strand of noir. Lovers and would-be lovers have their hearts broken. The stone-cold assassin seems right out of a Jean-Pierre Melville movie. Only the children on the plane seem to take things in stride, as children often do. A battalion of scientists, government agents, philosophers and clergy members struggle to figure out what happened, but there’s simply no good explanation.

No doubt you’ll find yourself wondering how you would react if you were a passenger on Flight 006. Would you find your situation intolerable? Would you try to live with this new reality to the best of your ability? It is to Le Tellier’s credit that these questions linger long after you turn the last page.

In Hervé Le Tellier’s Prix Goncourt-winning novel, the passengers of Air France Flight 006 must learn to live with a life-altering situation.

Literature and myth are full of tales of the naif who finds himself embroiled in circumstances so off-the-wall that only his innocence and good nature save him. Uwem Akpan’s first novel, New York, My Village, is almost one of these tales.

Nigerian editor Ekong Udousoro has been granted a Toni Morrison fellowship to work on a book about the Biafran War at a boutique New York publishing house. But first, he has to get to the United States, and the novel’s opening chapters deal with the frustrations of acquiring a visa. Ekong experiences a foretaste of what he’ll find in New York City: people who are indifferent and reject him, and people who seem kind and still reject him. No one bothers to tell him why his visa application is rejected, even though he has all the reams of necessary paperwork. They reject him—and others, including a woman who becomes so distraught that her clothes fall off of her—because they have the power and they can. Finally, on his third try, Ekong gets his visa.

New York City is just as baffling. Ekong’s colleagues at the publishing house, every one of them white, welcome him effusively. They’re happy to treat him like a king as long as he keeps a low profile. When Ekong, his childhood friend Usen and Usen’s family go to church, they’re nearly thrown out, then embraced, then ushered into the sacristy where the priest tells them never to come back and suggests they worship at an African American church nearby. This nearly sparks an international incident. Worst of all, Ekong and his screwy neighbors in their Hell’s Kitchen walk-up have bedbugs.

But Ekong is no Candide, nor is he Xi from The Gods Must Be Crazy. Intelligent and sophisticated, he’s capable of a rage that would never occur to these characters. Even as he comes from a place roiling with strife, corruption and intertribal bigotry—his very name means “war”—he just can’t wrap his mind around the perfidy, hypocrisy and smarmy racism that he’s found in America.

Akpan, author of the award-winning story collection Say You’re One of Them, allows Ekong’s astonished anger, acerbic humor and, despite everything, love of New York and its people to anchor him. Of all the characters in New York, My Village, Ekong knows who he is. We are privileged to get to know him, too.

Uwem Akpan takes us into the horrors of the visa process in a Behind the Book look at ‘New York, My Village.’

Uwem Akpan anchors his first novel in astonished anger, acerbic humor and, despite everything, love of New York City and its people.

At some point while reading James Han Mattson’s novel Reprieve, you’ll think, “This can’t be real. This better not be real.” On its surface, Reprieve is about four ordinary people who venture into a haunted house for the chance of a monetary reward. You could say it’s a story adjacent to The Haunting of Hill House, but even more disturbing. 

Quigley House in Lincoln, Nebraska, is a full-contact escape room, in which staff are allowed to physically engage with contestants. A group of participants enters and passes through several “cells” in the old mansion, collecting a number of envelopes in the allotted time and then moving to the next cell. If things get too intense, a member of the group can shout, “Reprieve!” at which point the game and its torment ends, though no one wins the prize money. It’s all perfectly safe, according to John, the man who runs the haunted house.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Leave the lights on! We picked seven books for Halloween reading, rated from slightly spooky to totally terrifying.

Unlike Hill House, Quigley House is not a nefarious entity, but something or someone within it is. Is it John, or perhaps one of the actors hired to play ghouls and freaks? Maybe it’s the folks responsible for the house’s ghastly special effects, if they are indeed special effects. Or is it someone among the latest group of thrill-seekers who have taken on the challenge of this grisly obstacle course?

Local college student Bryan is the leader of this group of contestants. Jaidee, his roommate, is an entitled Thai student who developed a crush on his English teacher, Victor, and followed him all the way to Nebraska. Victor and his fiancée, Jane, round out the foursome. We also meet Kendra, Bryan’s cousin and an avid fan of horror, who works for John. And though he’s not a member of the group, we also learn about Leonard, whose first action toward the woman he’s attracted to is to mow her down (accidentally or on purpose?) with a shopping cart. 

There are many ways to look at a book with so many flavors of madness. It could be a study of the effects of thwarted desire on people who are basically incapable of empathy, which we see in Jaidee and Leonard. John goes out of his way to befriend Kendra, to get her to enlist Bryan to endure a whole lot of trauma for a chance to win what, in the end, isn’t a whole lot of money. After all, there aren’t that many African Americans in Lincoln, and Quigley House needs the press that would follow Brian’s win.

As the book’s horrifying events unfold, Reprieve can be read as a commentary on, or even an allegory of, American racism. Are we fighting to succeed in a fun house whose rewards aren’t worth the pain? As a study of systems of power at their most perverse, Reprieve is a horror story, certainly, but it’s not as scary as it is deeply disturbing.

At some point while reading James Han Mattson’s harrowing novel, you’ll think, “This can’t be real. This better not be real.”

Somewhere near the end of Colson Whitehead’s tragicomic Harlem Shuffle, I found myself giggling in spite of myself. What was happening on the page was horrible, but it was hilarious. It was hilarious in the way that the comeuppance of the white supremacist clowns at the end of “Breaking Bad” was hilarious. The clowns in Whitehead’s story probably didn’t deserve their fate quite as much, but when they underestimated who they were dealing with, their fate was sort of sealed.

Indeed, like “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire,” Harlem Shuffle acknowledges a sense of morality and an ethical code that may be strange to those of us who aren’t crooks or cynics. Whitehead’s Ray Carney is one of those rare people who can walk the line between crooked and straight and live to tell the tale. By day, he’s a genial Harlem furniture salesman. By night, now and then, he fences “gently used items.” He is a genuinely devoted family man, not just to his smart, sensible wife and adorable kids but also to his cousin and childhood bestie, Freddie. Everyone knows a Freddie. He’s the perennial problem; he’s the one who gets you into the trouble you can’t even imagine. Yet you can’t quit Freddie, because he’s charming and he’s handsome and he’s stupid, and most of all, he’s blood.

Like Dante leading us through the levels of hell, Whitehead presents the reader with the levels of rottenness in early to mid-1960s New York City. There are heists and stickups and beat downs, as well as the hypocrisy of the Black upper crust who think Carney is too dark-skinned to join their club. There’s the tiresome regularity of racist police violence and the protection money paid to the cops and local hoods with lovely monikers like Miami Joe, Cheap Brucie, Yea Big and Louie the Turtle. Downtown, the rottenness is carried out in pristine office towers built by rich white folks who own not only the buildings but also the machinery of the city itself. Carney gets caught up in all of it thanks to a smidgeon of criminal DNA he inherited from his dad and, inevitably, Freddie’s fecklessness.

At the end we see the chasm from which the World Trade Center’s twin towers will rise, the fruit of a deal between more compromised New York mucky mucks. Sic transit gloria mundi, says the author. Thus passes worldly glory. Harlem Shuffle is yet another Colson Whitehead masterpiece.

Like Dante leading us through the levels of hell, Colson Whitehead exposes the levels of rottenness in New York City.

YZ Chin’s Edge Case is one of the first great novels to examine the grinding effect of U.S. anti-immigration policies during the Trump administration.

Edwina and her husband, Marlin, are in the U.S. on H-1B work visas. Both are from Malaysia; she is ethnic Chinese, and he is Chinese Indian. A tester at a New York City tech startup, Edwina is the only woman—and what seems like the only minority employee—among men so entitled, they can’t even see their racism and misogyny.

Software engineer Marlin was planning to get his green card (which isn’t green, by the way), become a citizen and then sponsor his parents to come to the United States. But this will never happen, as Marlin’s beloved father dies early in the book. This calamity unhinges Marlin, and he leaves Edwina. In the aftermath, she struggles to understand his disappearance via messages to an unseen therapist-in-training.

Compounding Edwina’s anguish over Marlin’s abandonment are her anxieties about her immigration status, her looks and daily racial insults. These barbs are too overt to be called microaggressions, and they come not just from her co-workers but also from police. (They accuse Edwina of drinking booze in the open when she’s sipping tea from a cup.) She remembers when dark-skinned Marlin was pulled out of line at the airport and hustled into an office for reasons no one knows. These affronts carry an extra cargo of anxiety that goes beyond the usual hurt of racism, since Edwina knows that if she or Marlin puts a foot wrong, they could be deported.

Chin, the author of the story collection Though I Get Home, is superb at describing the tumult of a woman being psychologically knocked about like a pachinko ball. Every chapter bears witness to Edwina’s pain, befuddlement and sheer exhaustion, while also revealing her snarky sense of humor, resourcefulness, tenaciousness and capacity for love. Edge Case shows what can happen to ordinary people when they’re caught up in systems beyond their control.

A woman is psychologically knocked about like a pachinko ball in YZ Chin's superbly tumultuous debut novel.

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