By Olga Grushin.
Feb. 2016. 352p. Putnam/Marian Wood, $26.95
The night sky makes a young poet feel
vast. But the dreams of that same girl diminish with time as she finds herself becoming
absorbed with the everyday concerns of being a wife and mother in the very type of
restricted existence she had sworn she would
avoid. In her third novel, Grushin follows
this unnamed protagonist through the 40
rooms she inhabits during her life, from the
apartment of her childhood in Moscow to
the dorm rooms of her college years in the
U.S., to the homes of her married life. As
her aspirations become increasingly divorced
from her reality, she wonders more and more
about the woman she could have been. The
novel’s conceit of following her through the
rooms of her life is unfortunately a bit belabored. However, the main character’s inner
life is rich with feeling, her meditations on
her writing made vivid through conversations with a dangerous visitor to her dreams.
As she feels increasingly confined by her
choices, the rooms, no matter their size, feel
smaller. Readers drawn to the mood and the
complex psychological portrayal of the heroine will forgive the sometimes pretentious
prose. —Bridget Thoreson
By Matthew Griffin.
Feb. 2016. 272p. Bloomsbury, $26 (9781632863386).
Their names are Frank Clifton and Wendell Wilson, two gay men who live their
isolated lives on the fringes of society, in constant
fear of being found out.
Anyone who has seen the
iconic Brokeback Mountain
will recognize their milieu,
circumstances, and sense of
paranoia and secrecy. When
Frank is hospitalized, Wendell tells the staff that Frank is his brother so
he can visit him. In his debut novel, Griffin reveals the heart of their relationship as
based on respect, perseverance, and dogged
loyalty. What is perhaps most remarkable
about Griffin’s touching tale is its very ordinariness. There is nothing particularly special
about this relationship. Rather, Griffin follows it through the decades as he recalls in
flashbacks how the men met and how they
stayed together, capturing the quotidian moments of life itself. Wendell complains about
the anonymity of the health-care system
(“You can’t have just one doctor anymore,
one person who knows all there is to know
about you”) but then acknowledges that they
never did take photographs of each other in
public places, nor did they ever write love
letters to each other (“anything someone
might find”). It is moments like these that
elevate Griffin’s novel to something like a
small miracle: a bittersweet portrait of love
in the shadows. —June Sawyers
The High Mountains of Portugal.
By Yann Martel.
Feb. 2016. 352p. Spiegel & Grau, $27 (9780812997170);
“Not even the gods can defend a man, not
even one they love, that day when fate takes
hold and lays him out at last.” These memorable lines from the Odyssey ring entirely true over
the course of the three disparate sections that
bind loosely together to form Martel’s (Beatrice
and Virgil, 2011) latest novel, which emphasizes the cruel hand of destiny in shaping our
unpredictable lives. Tomás, Maria Dores Passos
Castros, and Peter Tovy might be separated by
time and circumstance, but they are connected
by their shared family history, which can be
traced to the high mountains of Portugal. Each
also suffers a devastating loss that scars his or
her psyche seemingly irreparably. Martel’s familiar trope of our interconnectedness with
the animal world (realized indelibly in The Life
of Pi, 2002)—a chimpanzee is a recurring element through the three narratives—seems a
bit discombobulated here, and the plot’s many
improbable coincidences strain credulity.
Nevertheless, this allegorical tale drives home
the ephemeral nature of beauty and joy and
the thin line we all walk between normalcy
and madness, especially in the wake of loss.
HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Martel is a
magnet for fiction lovers, who will be curious
about his new novel.
Losing the Light.
By Andrea Dunlop.
Feb. 2016. 327p. Washington Square, $15
(9781501109423); e-book (9781501109416).
When she unexpectedly encounters someone
from her past, Brooke is thrust into memories
of her fateful year studying abroad. Brooke
spent her junior year in Nantes, France, with
Sophie, the golden girl of their college class.
There, the two inseparable Americans became
enamored of charismatic French photographer Alex and his decadent lifestyle. When he
seduces both women, it creates a rift that has
tragic consequences. A decade later, Brooke is
a freelance writer in New York City, engaged
to be married, when she reconnects with Alex
at the launch of his book. Their encounter
makes her consider her friendship with Sophie
in a new and bittersweet light. Dunlop’s smart
and suspenseful debut follows the lead of Katie
Crouch’s Abroad (2014) and Jennifer duBois’
Cartwheel (2013) but delves more deeply into
the repercussions beyond a shocking incident
during a year abroad. Dunlop richly evokes the
heady emotions of friendship, lust, and betrayal.
The Lost Time Accidents.
By John Wray.
Feb. 2016. 512p. Farrar, $27 (9780374281137); e-book
Ottokar Gottfriedens Toula, a pickler in
the imperial backwater of Znojmo, Moravia,
was on the verge of a major scientific break-
through before his findings about time travel
were smothered by a genius patent clerk from
Germany with a radical theory of relativity. Ot-
tokar’s unrealized ambition becomes the Toula
family burden, and succes-
sive generations, beginning
with his sons, Waldemar and
Kaspar, get infected by the
“syndrome,” an obsession
to figure out what Ottokar
scrawled in his notebook
and give him his due place
in history. Ottokar’s great-
grandson Waldemar “Waldy” Tolliver narrates
this story, an arresting mosaic of science fiction,
history, and philosophy that proves Wray’s
(Lowboy, 2010) remarkable malleability and
talent. The novel tracks the Toula/Tolliver de-
scendants over much of the twentieth century
as they move from pre-war Austria to life in
the New World. Devastatingly, the younger
of Ottokar’s sons, Waldemar, morphs into
the Black Timekeeper of Aschenwald-Czas,
using his father’s scientific theories to hor-
rific effect by choosing to side with the Third
Reich. This wrenching guilt—over the family’s
implicit condonement of Waldemar’s unimagi-
nable brutality by looking the other way—will
prove to be their collective, crushing burden,
even more so than “some nonsense scribbled
in a notebook.” History’s stains, Wray expert-
ly shows, cannot be whitewashed in a hurry.
The Man without a Shadow.
By Joyce Carol Oates.
Jan. 2016. 384p. Ecco, $27.99 (9780062416094).
Margo Sharpe is an anxiously ambitious
graduate student in a cutting-edge neuropsy-chology lab, in 1965, when she first encounters
Elihu Hoopes. The scion of
a prominent Philadelphia
family, Eli is tall, tailored,
and charming, which camouflages his severe mental
limitations until one speaks
with him for 70 seconds. Eli
can crisply recall the first 37
years of his life, but after a
viral infection savaged his brain while he was
camping alone in the Adirondacks, he is unable to form new memories. Smart, cultured,
and congenial, he is the ideal neuroscience
research subject, and Margo, high-strung and
obsessive, becomes fascinated with Eli to the
point of wildly unethical fanaticism. She becomes famous for the results of the grueling
experiments she puts Eli through, while he,
haunted by a secret childhood tragedy, grows
increasingly angry and volatile. Masterful in
her articulation of distressed psyches and intimate predator-prey relationships, Oates (The
Sacrifice, 2015) is in her element in the world
of neuroscience, drawing on ardent research
and her gothic imagination and deploying her
eerie, incantatory style to dramatize the torment of mental impairment––Eli’s amnesia
and Margo’s monomania—as well as the wonder and ruthlessness of science. This complexly
suspenseful and darkly erotic duel between a