It is 1922, and England and her citizens are still recovering from the upheaval of the First World War: High unemployment, disillusioned ex-soldiers and severely strained circumstances are commonplace. Twenty-seven-year-old Frances Wray and her mother are living in South London. Both of Frances’ brothers died in the war, and her father’s recent death left the two women close to financial ruin. Even with the dismissal of servants and Frances taking over the housework and meals, the Wrays no longer have enough to live on. Their decision to take in lodgers, or “paying guests” as they genteelly refer to them, leads to an event as ultimately life-altering as the war itself.
Dan Kelly, the protagonist of Christos Tsiolkas’ latest novel, is not a likable character. He’s not likable in the novel’s first pages, when he’s a scholarship student at a posh boys’ school in Australia, and he remains unlikable at the end, when he’s a 30-something who doesn’t know what to do with his life. However, by the end of the book, we understand Dan, a little. This is why you will stay with Barracuda, why you will keep turning the pages even as you grit your teeth.
Readers of Amy Bloom’s riotous new novel, Lucky Us, might want to pack a few snacks and buckle their seatbelts for this highly entertaining ride, which kicks off when half-sisters Eva and Iris hightail it from small-town Ohio to pursue their dreams in Hollywood.
Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House is an appealing mixture: part archival mystery, part ghost story, part historical novel, starring a house with as much personality as Manderley or Hill House. Told in reverse chronology, it unfolds as a kind of bookish scavenger hunt, uncovering clues and putting pieces of the fictional puzzle in place.
Slava Gelman has it made in Boris Fishman’s debut, The Replacement Life. With a junior staff position at a prestigious literary magazine, a Manhattan apartment and an assimilated American girlfriend, he’s more than just miles away from his childhood in Minsk or the Russian enclave in Brooklyn where the rest of his family lives. But when Slava is woken by an early morning phone call from his mother, his carefully constructed life threatens to come crashing down around him.
At the age of 2, Laura Bridgman lost four of her five senses to illness. Several years later, she was taken to the Perkins Institute in Boston where, under the tutelage and guidance of Samuel Ridley Howe she not only learned how to communicate, but became one of the 19th century’s most notable women. Yet few people know about her today. Kimberly Elkins’ stunning debut, What Is Visible, promises to change all that.
BookPage Fiction Top Pick, June 2014
The best historical fiction offers readers a new look at a well-known subject, or illuminates an episode or individual that has been lost to history. Playwright Kimberly Elkins achieves the latter in What Is Visible, a strikingly original debut novel about Laura Bridgman, the first deaf and blind person to communicate through finger spelling.
In a world where writers are eternally reminded to “write what you know,” debut novels are often thinly veiled memoirs, or at least tentatively tied to the author’s own experience through location or life experience. Not so for screenwriter Laline Paull, whose ambitious first novel, The Bees, doesn’t feature a single human character—and it’s set in the labyrinthine world of the hive.
A beehive is a place of order, control, maybe even oppression. In Laline Paull’s debut novel, The Bees, Flora 717 is a sterile worker bee from the lowest caste of an orchard hive. Like her sisters, she is bound by the motto to accept, obey and serve. But during a period of famine and environmental crisis, Flora is asked to take on new tasks: first, feeding the newborns in the hive’s nursery and then becoming a forager, flying freely in search of pollen and nectar. Her size and strength make her a formidable worker, and she proves to be a quick learner.
Joshua Ferris, who previously examined the culture of the contemporary workplace (Then We Came to the End) and family life (The Unnamed) turns his attention to social media in To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. At first, the novel seems to be a satiric look at the way Facebook and Twitter could be used to hijack a person’s identity. But as the main character heads toward an existential crisis, it is clear that Ferris is also exploring how technology both connects us and reinforces our isolation.