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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The cold and snow swirling across Lake Superior in the opening paragraph set the scene, the tone, and the atmosphere of the conclusion of this love story, which is presented in the opening chapter and told in flashbacks from that moment on. The unnamed narrator, a student researcher writing a book about luxury trains, also writes fiction in his spare time. Having come to Chicago from Switzerland to work on an advanced degree, he soon meets Agnes, a twenty-five-year-old graduate student in physics, working on her own dissertation. Like him, she uses the resources of the Chicago Public Library, and from the first time that she sits opposite him at the library, the narrator is drawn to her. Though Agnes is a plain woman, her eyes “had something unusual about them, an expressiveness [the narrator] hasn’t often seen.” Before long, they take cigarette breaks together and, later, go out for coffee, though Agnes admits that she is “not a very sociable person.” Still, it is April, spring-time – a time of promise and growth, and within a couple of weeks, the narrator and the innocent Agnes are spending nights together. As the novel develops, change and decay pervade the action, but it is the related question of how we perceive reality and the role of fiction as part of that reality which make the conclusion such a shock. It is one thing for the observant reader to become so involved in the story that s/he is horrified by the ending, and quite another for an author to write fiction with the idea of encouraging a particular outcome in real life.
Author Eugen Ruge grew up in East Berlin during the time of the Berlin Wall and lived there till the age of thirty-four, leaving the East for the West a year before the Wall fell, and perhaps it is this background which enables him to create a main character like Peter Handke. Handke is disconnected from those around him, alienated, his profound loss of motivation preventing him from making changes in his own world. Like the author, Handke is also a man from Berlin, one who has just lost his girlfriend and his sense of direction, and he has decided to start over in a new country. Not as young as he seems, he is a former professor of chemical engineering with a well-paid, permanent position, one he has recently resigned in order to become a writer. A novel of absurdity which sometimes borders on the bizarre, Cabo de Gata (“Cape of the Cat”) begins with Peter’s travels from Basel to Barcelona and then on to Andalusia, the southernmost region of Spain. Peter Handke is not a “hero” or even an anti-hero. He is too neutral and uncommunicative to attract the long-term interest of the reader, and his journey is a solitary one, with no antagonist, other than life itself, to fight him. He raises questions but does not come to many conclusions, and those he does draw are often offbeat and darkly comic. The novel ends without a clear resolution, adding to the feeling that this novel defies all the “rules” and presents itself on its own terms. Readers who can be satisfied with letting the novel unfold in its own way will enjoy this unusual and often humorous creation which offers more than mere laughs.
In 2012 Australian author Thomas Keneally’s prodigious imagination was captured by a special exhibition of “Napoleon’s garments, uniforms, furniture, china, paintings, snuffboxes, military decorations, and memorabilia” on display at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. The exhibition catalogue featured the name of Betsy Balcombe, age thirteen, and information about her family, people Napoleon knew during his exile on the tiny island of St. Helena (1815 – 1821), halfway between South America and Africa. Betsy’s journal of her experiences with Napoleon inspired Thomas Keneally to write his own “journal” modeled on Betsy’s – this novel. Thirteen-year-old Betsy, as she emerges in Keneally’s captivating novel, is a perfect foil for Napoleon Bonaparte, who has brought with him all his war-time memories, a few furnishings, some assistants, two French ladies (the owners of the clothes on display in the Melbourne museum), and a strong need to adapt to a new life. Betsy, energetic and uninhibited, has no awe of Napoleon, a characteristic which charms him – she talks back, argues with him, and acts without fear as his life plays out in exile. Though the novel is character-based, rather than action-filled, an intense and dramatic conclusion occurs after Betsy creates a social disaster which permanently affects the lives of everyone she knows. Keneally never says whether the dramas of this conclusion are real or fiction. By the time the novel ends, the reader is so charmed that he does not have to. Elegantly written and old-fashioned in the best possible ways, this novel is my favorite so far this year.
From the outset of this tragicomic novel, Spanish author David Trueba’s ability to visualize and create intense word pictures dominates his style, making the reading of this novel a special treat on several different levels. Not only does he show the places and people surrounding his main character, Beto Sanz, instead of simply telling about them, but he also channels Beto’s own inner thoughts, providing lively commentary on virtually every aspect of his life and the activity around him. As the narrative opens, Beto has just arrived in Munich from Madrid for a conference for landscape architects, where his firm is a finalist for an international prize. He is nervous but full of hope as he prepares for his presentation to the jury, after which he and Marta, his partner and lover, will return immediately to Spain. Unfortunately, while he is there, Marta mistakenly sends him a message meant for her lover, and she returns to Spain alone, while he remains, miserable, in Munich. What follows is the intimate story of one calendar year from January, when Marta and Beto end their relationship, through December, when Beto begins to take some control of his life. The author, a well-regarded film maker, allows the reader to share Beto’s innermost thoughts and experience some of his questionable activities, while he also uses visual elements from art and architecture to ground Beto’s life in a greater reality.