‘A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing’
By Eimear McBride (Coffee House Press, $24)
Granted, a novel about a young Irish girl’s relationship with her sick brother and her sexual abuse at the hands of her uncle isn’t most people’s idea of relaxed, festive reading. Compounding the difficult subject matter is the demanding mode of storytelling: broken, clashing, syntactically warped sentences crammed with fragmented thoughts and lurid observations. But venturesome readers who persist will find that McBride’s searing honesty and linguistic prowess pay huge dividends.
“All the Light We Cannot See” By Anthony Doerr (Scribner, $27)
Doerr took 10 years to craft his magnificent World War II novel, and it shows. Each short, urgent chapter consists of carefully distilled research and meticulously measured prose. The lives of a young blind French girl and an orphaned German boy with a love of radios are absorbing as separate strands and exciting when intertwined. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another decade for more writing of this caliber.
“The Zone of Interest” By Martin Amis (Knopf, $26.95)
This isn’t the first time Amis has staged a pitch-black comedy in a concentration camp, but on this occasion he extends the conceit without thinning the joke and produces caustic, soul-shattering results. The novel unfolds through the perspectives of three characters — two top-brass Nazis and one thoroughly degraded Jewish inmate — only one of whom will survive the war. The documented horrors committed within the “vast yet bursting madhouse” are leavened by Amis’ refreshing supply of gallows humor and dizzying stylistic feats.
“The Narrow Road to the Deep North” By Richard Flanagan (Knopf, $26.95)
Winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize, Flanagan’s sixth novel should, if there is any justice, catapult him into the major league. It is August 1943 and Dorrigo Evans is an Australian surgeon haunted by a past affair and struggling to stay sane and alive in a Japanese POW camp. A candid, moving and devastating portrait of a life lived, and an unforgiving depiction of how war turns global ambition and courageous soldiers into “imperial dreams and dead men.” “Masterpiece” is an accolade too often doled out by book critics. This time, for this book, it is the only word that will do.
“Fourth of July Creek” By Smith Henderson (Ecco, $26.99)
This stunningly accomplished debut novel tracks the jagged course of Pete Snow, a steadily unraveling social worker, through the towns and backwoods of western Montana. His encounter with a near-feral 11-year-old boy and his disturbed father proves life-changing and prompts him to confront his own demons. Henderson’s narrative enthralls, his dialogue crackles, and on the considerable strength of this, a promising literary career beckons.
“Praying Drunk: Stories” By Kyle Minor (Sarabande Books, $15.95)
In Minor’s bravura collection, Kentucky, Florida and Haiti form backdrops to tragic, quirky but all too human lives. Among the heartache, cruelty and dashed hopes lurk laughter in the dark and bouts of compassionate reflection.
“In the Light of What We Know” By Zia Haider Rahman (FSG, $27)
A vast, globe-hopping, fact-finding epic that makes sense of two men’s lives while offering penetrating meditations on love, literature, religion, finance and mathematics. Few first novels come as assured as this.
“10:04” By Ben Lerner (Faber and Faber, $25)
The rapturous acclaim heaped on “Leaving the Atocha Station” didn’t daunt Lerner from dazzling readers all over again. The exploits, observations and concerns of the anxious and overwhelmed narrator of “10:04” stimulate and disorient, often at the same time.
“Song of the Shank” By Jeffery Renard Allen (Graywolf, $18)
At the center of this sprawling, riveting 19th-century epic is an account of the life of Blind Tom, an African-American slave and piano prodigy. A masterful fusion of history and fiction.
“Snow in May: Stories” By Kseniya Melnik (Henry Holt, $25)
Nine sparkling interlocking tales featuring Russians in the second half of the last century. All nurture hopes, fall in love, try to stay afloat and negotiate “ankle-snatching snow” and political winds of change.
“Boy, Snow, Bird” By Helen Oyeyemi (Riverhead, $27.95)
Set in 1950s New York and featuring a female protagonist called Boy, Oyeyemi’s latest novel explores race, beauty and identity in a shrewdly inventive retelling of the Snow White fairy tale.
“Lila” By Marilynne Robinson (FSG, $26)
Occasionally gritty, often profoundly affecting and always intensely mesmerizing, Robinson’s third novel set in the fictional town of Gilead follows its eponymous heroine’s moral journey and spiritual awakening.
“All the Birds, Singing” By Evie Wyld (Pantheon, $24.95)
One of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists excels with this dark, disquieting tale about one woman on a wind-battered, rain-lashed island wrestling with her fear of a marauding “beast” and the equal torment of her inescapable past.
“Shotgun Lovesongs” By Nickolas Butler (Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99)
Four male friends are reunited for a wedding in one small Wisconsin town. Butler’s cast is so perfectly formed, their ups and downs and intersections so beautifully charted, that the novel’s good intentions still sing to us long after the last page.
“Journey by Moonlight” By Antal Szerb (NYRB Classics, $16.95)
A rediscovered gem by a Hungarian writer whose life was cut tragically short in the Holocaust. Prepare to be moved and entranced by a novel thick with aching nostalgia, lost love and travels around prewar Italy.
Malcolm Forbes is a book critic in Edinburgh, Scotland.