You may have read many novels in which the two main characters hate each other, but how many have you read in which the main characters, two professional women, are in their eighties and next-door neighbors? Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door, will appeal to readers looking for an escape from some of the doom and gloom of contemporary life without escaping into mindlessness, a story with some realistic grit. Setting the novel in Cape Town, South Africa, Omotoso depicts an upscale enclave in which these two women, one black and one white, must deal with some big issues, some of them racial. Though apartheid is outlawed and the neighbors may pretend that the problems are solved, the feelings are not yet gone. This is not a “message novel,” however. For Omotoso, the story and its characters come first, her themes being revealed through their conflicts and the empathy she creates among her readers. Fun and often funny, with unique characters, and strong insights into the racial tensions of South Africa.
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In this dramatic and thought-provoking novel, Edmundo Paz Soldan, a Bolivian writer, displays his enormous gifts of both narrative and character development while also examining serious themes and social and psychological problems. Creating three characters from three different time periods, all of whom are native to Mexico or South America and all of whom are in the US for various reasons and for various periods of time, Paz Soldan explores their lives and creates comparisons and contrasts before making connections among them. Jesus, a young man from Northern Mexico in 1984, is a boy/man who responds impulsively to situations as they arise in his life and does not hesitate to be violent. In contrast to Jesus, Michelle, a graduate student in South Texas who appears as the second main character, is working hard to establish herself as a writer/cartoonist working on a comic book about a librarian with special powers who is bent on revenge. The third main character is Martin Ramirez, living illegally in Stockton, California, in 1931, trying to pay off some debts and help his family back in Mexico by working as a migrant worker. Paz Soldan rotates the action through these three characters’ lives, developing themes as he goes, and the reader cannot help but become involved both in the action of their lives and in the psychological crises they face. All are dealing with issues of identity and a sense of belonging/ . One becomes a killer. Throughout the novel, the author shows the inner conflicts of people who are from one country but live in another, exploring their personal predicaments, their sense of displacement or their sense of hope.
The speaker in this quotation, called “the man” throughout most of this novel, will repel every female reader – and most male readers – with his macho vulgarity, his unrelenting assessment of women in terms of their anatomy and sexual stamina, and his proud alcoholism. Boasting of his ability to consume seven bottles of vodka in his prime, he manages “only” two bottles a day on this trip to a new job site in construction in Mongolia. “The girl,” who has the great misfortune to be sharing a compartment with him on a trans-Siberian train traveling four thousand miles from Moscow to Ulan Bator, had hoped to be alone on this trip. Recovering from a personal crisis involving Mitka, a young friend on whom she had set her romantic sights but who is now hospitalized, the girl is making this trip almost as a memorial to him, since they had hoped to make the trip together. She had met him in Moscow in college, where she studied antiquities and anthropology for three years, and she is especially anxious to get to Mongolia now so that she can see the famous ancient petroglyphs there, some of them dating back to 12,000 B.C. So quiet and repressed that she makes only one or two statements during the entire trip, she is the complete opposite of Vadim, the man, with whom she has been fated to travel, destined to spend the trip fending off his advances. Considering the fact that neither of the main characters is one with whom the reader will identify to any great degree – Vadim because he is so disgustingly venal and the girl because she is so passive – author Liksom does a remarkable job of keeping the reader completely occupied during her novel. Vibrant pictures of life in the Soviet Union from the 1940s to the 1980s emerge as Vadim tells his life story in pieces throughout the trip, and the girl’s own life, though a bit confused and undirected, reflects some of the attitudes of young people and the reasons for her own lack of commitment.
In this second of his “new style” of novels, Norwegian author Jo Nesbo creates a character frantic to escape the Oslo hitmen sent to kill him. Traveling eighteen hundred kilometers in seventy hours of non-stop racing, the character, Ulf, finally reaches the Finnmark Plateau to the far north of Norway. Located well above the Arctic Circle, near the North Pole, Finnmark appears to be the perfect hiding place for Ulf, also known as Jon Hansen. Its enormous land area – larger than the country of Denmark – has only seventy-five-thousand residents – a good place to hide – and with three months of midnight sun, it is not a place where an enemy can sneak up easily in the dark. Like Olav in Blood on Snow, Nesbo’s previous novel, Ulf has become involved with the organized crime ring run by “the Fisherman” in Oslo, and also like Olav, he appears to have a good heart beneath his hard exterior – a young man sucked into being “fixer” for a big-time criminal by circumstances over which he believes he had no control. His fifteen years of schooling, including two years of university, never prepared him for the kind of absolute choice he had to make when, in desperate need of a large sum of money, he connected with the Fisherman as the only way to save a life. Now, on the run because he did not fulfill a contract killing, Ulf has arrived in tiny Kasund, near Kautokeino, home to fishermen, reindeer herders, and the aboriginal Sami culture.
One out of Two, an early (1994) novel by award-winning Mexican author Daniel Sada, has just been published in English translation for the first time – a tragicomic classic by an author whom both Roberto Bolano and Carlos Fuentes have highly praised for his “contributions to literature in the Spanish language.” It joins Almost Never (2008) as one of only two books by Sada available in English, to date. Though the book appears, at first, to be a simple morality tale, Sada is an adventurous novelist who endows his main characters with more than the flat, stereotypical behaviors and thoughts which one usually associates with stories written to illustrate a moral lesson. While keeping his style uncomplicated, he shows his characters as they live their ordinary lives and make some remarkable decisions which cause unexpected complications for them. The mood is light and the action often very funny, though equally often, it is ironic or edgy. The cumulative result is farcical rather than pedantic, serious rather than lightweight. The story revolves around a pair of forty-year-old identical twins who are invited to a wedding which only one can attend, and she meets a suitor. What the twins do to meet their joint needs becomes the focus of this farcical but sensitive novella with a surprising ending.