I’ve never read anything like Freshwater, and I’m so grateful that I did. This semi-autobiographical novel presents a rotation of narrators who all share the same body: the Nigerian college student Ada and the multiplicity of ogbanje children who shift in and out of her consciousness. The way that the author’s spiritual beliefs help frame the characters’ experience is fascinating… a metaphysical look at an identity as multiple, that a Western understanding might otherwise call fragmented, is presented in a way where we understand the motivation, the cruelties, the protection, and the pain of all the spirits within the “marble room” of the mind in an entirely new way. It was a difficult book to read purely because of the unceasing emotional pain of the narrative. But the writing is boldly inventive and captures a unique human experience of self-finding through the dark. A sensational debut.
This book is wildly experimental and very, very, very weird. It’s an ambitious and powerful hellscape with a spellbinding staying power. Matt Bell makes a torrential statement with this novel, the narrative structure of which resembles something like echoes that you can see bouncing off of a set of mirrors that you can hear. It’s truly beyond literal description and yet finds its footing in classical allegorical territory–it’s a psychological tour through grief, marital love and resentment, self-hatred, and the perverse (or courageous) will to keep going through any despair. The reader who approaches this monstrosity needs to be willing to accept almost anything as truth, and must be up for constant gut-turning imagery and lots and lots of pain. But: the reward is great. The story is a spinning, dreamlike voyage that I found impossible to go back from once I began. Bell pulls his reader deeper and deeper in, until it’s done. The rage and sorrow communicated in this story are as real as the plot is impossible, and that’s the towering literary feat of this pitch-dark, fantastical read. It reminds us that our choices, however we may choose to move on from them, are irreversible, and only our own to atone for.
Emily X.R. Pan’s debut is a lovely, complex addition to modern young adult fiction. It’s rare and special in so many ways–in the fact that it’s magical realism, in its honest and multifaceted sorrow, in its brave statements on family, blame, and the realities of depression. This book changed the way I saw the world while I was reading it. The main character’s visions are immersive to that extent, and her way of understanding emotions through color is cool. The novel is a love song to Leigh’s mother, and all mothers who have left the earth to take a different form.
Those of us who loved Borne are blessed to have this companion novella from the same world, out of Jeff Vandermeer’s spectacular and strange imagination. The Strange Bird is a troubling, surreal, but ultimately delicate elegy to the world as it once was. The imagery here is, once again, insane. The strange bird is made of all of us. Just lovely.
Memoirs of a Polar Bear travels to depths of weirdness that few books ever do, but it still manages to touch something primal and moving. Tawada’s prose is a whimsical dance that cartwheels from social commentary to absurdist humor to magical realism and probably eighteen other places that I missed along the way as I was puzzling over the blurred narrative boundaries that travel from bear brain to human soul, sometimes within the same creature, sometimes between two creatures of the same mind. Tawada’s message lands somewhere in the realm of commenting on our desire as humans to perform our lives for others, so as to have something to write down in the story of our lives. It also addresses the natural and unnatural bonds between humanity and animal kind. But it also includes things like a bear hallucinating the mentoring ghost of Michael Jackson in a broken computer monitor, so… either this book is totally brilliant, or Tawada just got away with writing whatever came into her brain and calling it a novel. Take it as you will.
In Reservation Blues, Sherman Alexie blends blues lyrics, a Faustian deal with the devil, anachronistic historical figures, and a group of Native American musician characters with a need for life-changing music. This book is a masterful example of magical realism: the plot is at turns impossibly insane and off-puttingly real. It’s safe to say that readers who “don’t do” magical realism won’t enjoy or understand its beauty. Those who are up for the challenge will be vastly rewarded by its mysticism, straight talk, sorrow, and groove. In case you needed more proof that Sherman Alexie was born to set things on fire with his words, in case you forgot that the world is exactly as bizarre as you thought it was, in case you thought that justice could be manufactured cheaply or that real music could be born for free, please read Reservation Blues.