A selection of novels to read this autumn
We review five recent works of fiction
Kairos. By Jenny Erpenbeck. Translated by Michael Hofmann. New Directions; 335 pages; $25.95. Granta; £16.99
“Kairos”, from an ancient Greek word that can be simply translated as “the right time”, is a story of history both grand and intimate. Hans, in his early 50s, and 19-year-old Katharina meet on a bus in East Berlin in 1986. Their relationship plays out momentously—and destructively—as the German Democratic Republic begins to crumble. The couple conduct their clandestine relationship at a time when secrecy and paranoia are woven into the political fabric. As the certainties and protection of the Soviet system disintegrate, so the atmosphere of the book grows darker and more anxious. “Kairos” is a continuation of Jenny Erpenbeck’s series of novels about Germany over the past century. The author has proved time and again that she is a fearless, astute examiner of a country’s soul. Narrated alternately by Hans and Katharina, and with a sublime translation by the great Michael Hofmann, “Kairos” powerfully examines individual as well as collective history. Read our full review.
Watch Us Dance. By Leïla Slimani. Translated by Sam Taylor. Viking; 336 pages; $27. Faber; £16.99
“Watch us Dance” is a novel rooted in the land: stolen, returned and forsaken by a younger generation that is seduced by a different world. Studious and shy, Aïcha leaves her parents’ farm in Morocco for medical school in France. There, on the eve of the student rebellion of 1968, she finds friendship as well as prejudice. Leïla Slimani’s novel, the second in a planned trilogy, takes off when Aïcha returns to Morocco, dressed in knee-high brown leather boots, and the book picks up the tale of her parents, whose Franco-Moroccan love story featured in Ms Slimani’s previous work, “The Country of Others”. Aïcha’s father contemplates the soil of his farm, and his relatives who lie buried beneath it. Ms Slimani is best known for “Lullaby”, her thriller about a nanny who murders her Parisian charges. “Watch Us Dance”, a tale of rebellion and repression, love and its betrayal, roams far wider. Read our full review.
I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home. By Lorrie Moore. Knopf; 208 pages; $27. Faber; £16.99
“Everyone at some point in their lives should have a long great love affair with a magnificent lunatic,” Finn declares in Lorrie Moore’s beautifully idiosyncratic new novel, her first since 2009. (She is best known for her short stories.) Finn is a schoolteacher who trafficks in conspiracy theories. “The real story is never the official one,” he insists. He is still hung up on his former girlfriend, so is glad to find himself on a road trip in her company. The only hitch is that his ex happens to be dead. This slim volume packs a wallop. It’s not just that the book ponders weighty themes, such as love, death, suicide and the meaning of life. It’s also that Ms Moore writes in a way that demands constant attention, imbuing each of her sentences with an almost antic ingenuity. Her talent is for using humour and beguilingly odd details to yield truths about what it means to be human. Read our full review.
No One Prayed Over Their Graves. By Khaled Khalifa. Translated by Leri Price. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 404 pages; $30. Faber & Faber; £14.99
Khaled Khalifa writes about his Syrian homeland. His previous novel, “Death Is Hard Work”, dealt with the carnage of his country’s civil war, which began in 2011. His latest is an ode to Aleppo, a city ruined by conflict. The novel, which covers the period between 1881 and 1951, tells the story of two families “intricately entwined” despite differences of creed, class and character. The Bayazidis are Muslim, the Gregoroses, Christian. In this Aleppo, faith seldom dictates actions and affections: as children the characters “couldn’t care less about their religions”. Yet external events sometimes force them centre-stage. Passion or friendship breaches sectarian barriers. Love stories help bring a many-stranded plot together. At its heart is a scandalous affair. Mr Khalifa’s galloping narration restores life and soul to a city that has become a byword for devastation. Aleppo’s “immortal” monuments may have been bombed to rubble but, thanks to Mr Khalifa, those “great stories” endure. Read our full review.
Nothing Special. By Nicole Flattery. Bloomsbury; 240 pages; $26.99 and £16.99
When 17-year-old Mae is offered a job as a typist for Andy Warhol, her role is to transcribe tapes, no more. In “Nothing Special” Nicole Flattery, a young Irish writer, takes inspiration from the imagined lives of the young women who worked on “a, A Novel” (1968), an experimental book Warhol compiled from conversations with his muses. Mae is a lifelong outsider who takes more comfort in objects than in people. The Factory, Warhol’s studio, reminds her of a doll’s house, “with girls arranged everywhere”. Warhol plays the role of an extra, rather than a lead, in the novel. He appears to Mae in dreams, but she is never introduced to him. A spectral figure, he is “vast and untouchable”, but when he speaks to people, they become “more alive, more human, in that moment”. “Nothing Special” expertly captures the hold celebrity artists exert over peons and patrons alike. Read our full review.
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