Novel

THE ARCHIVE OF ALTERNATE ENDINGS

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THE ARCHIVE OF ALTERNATE ENDINGS BY LINDSEY DRAGER

Lindsey Drager’s latest novel, The Archive of Alternate Endings, makes a needle of Halley’s Comet and a thread of its tail, along which are strung the beads of myth and history. Hansel and Gretel, Edmund Halley, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, Johannes Gutenberg, a dancer, a programmer, multiple witches, and a space probe that transmits folktales into the abyss, all shuffle across the novel’s stage, which spans a millennium, taking place in the years that the comet returns. “[N]othing in this life is unbent,” Wilhelm Grimm remarks one evening in 1835, “and as such all things intersect.” These intersections, somehow, make the novel cohere.

Drager has managed to synthesize the meta abstractions and intricate structures of experimental fiction with the rich, warm, living essence of good, old-fashioned, character-driven prose. Alternate Endings is unapologetically Borgesian, at once a library of Babel and a garden of forking paths, but its ideas hold meaning because real people live and die by them, caught up in spirals of shame and compassion, always on the verge of—but never quite tipping over into—understanding. Always siblings strive to protect each other. Always outcasts lose themselves in murky woods. Always the same story with different endings—or different stories with the same one. You get the distinct impression, upon closing the novel, that you could open it again and find that the stories inside have been evolving and metastasizing, new concepts cropping up on every page. You might be tempted to try this. Do.

Dzanc Books.

—Review by Mekiya Walters

FAMOUS MEN WHO NEVER LIVED

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FAMOUS MEN WHO NEVER LIVED BY K CHESS

They shouldn’t be here. They shouldn’t even exist. UPDs, or Universally-Displaced Persons, are the refugees from an alternate world destroyed by acts of terrorism against nuclear plants who have crossed over into our world in hopes of survival. K Chess’s Famous Men Who Never Lived follows Hel and Vikram, two of the 156,000 UPDs that make it through before contact with their world mysteriously vanishes. Hel, a former surgeon, left behind an ex-husband and young son, while Vikram mourns not his family, but that he could not bring more books with him. Hel and Vikram wrestle with how to integrate into our strange world and they create a space for remembering their own, a museum. The words on these pages now belong to the men and women who’ve never before existed in our world. Chess’ reflections on choice, survival, and fate illuminate her characters’ decisions: how they will live in a world that does not want them, a world that worries they have shown up to ruin this world’s timeline as well. The debut novel is absorbing and quick-paced, full of loss and surprising reversals, and with it, K Chess has crafted a story that is universally relevant.

Tin House.

—Review by Lucas Palmer

OFF SEASON

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OFF SEASON BY JAMES STURM

Originally released serially, during the fraught and divisive days leading up to the 2016 Presidential Election, James Sturm’s graphic novel Off Season tells the story of a marriage as it crumbles. Mark and Lisa are divided by their failed attempts at understanding and comforting one another’s inner despair; each chapter is a short vignette, taking on one moment at a time. The mundane springs to the surface—snow tires, kids demanding cookies, a cold beach; meanwhile the fraught backdrop of the election, economic instability, the universal pains of watching someone you love die—all take the background as American burdens: impossible to look at directly, impossible not to carry.

Sturm’s art is muted in shades of grey and blue, sometimes so soft it seems perceived through tears. All the characters are drawn with cartoon dog faces, which lends a gaze of kindness to their worst moments, and also reminds us how much one struggling, broken-hearted person resembles another. The story moves slowly, through present-day and memory, showing the reader how the moving pieces of a life can work in harmony or grate against one another. In one scene, Mark (who is the focalizer of the story) lies awake listening to his wife sob, and admits being, “. . . slow to recognize what I am hearing.” Confessional moments like these offer mirrors of our own moments of missed connection, slow-to-start empathy. Through close examination of these moments, Sturm offers a meditation on where things go wrong, and the difficult self-reflection we must employ to steer them right again.

Drawn & Quarterly.

—Review by Joy Clark

RIDDANCE

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RIDDANCE: OR: THE SYBIL JOINES VOCATIONAL SCHOOL FOR GHOST SPEAKERS & HEARING-MOUTH CHILDREN BY SHELLEY JACKSON

Shelley Jackson’s postmodern gothic novel, Riddance, covers the lives of headmistress Sybil Joines and her new pupil, turned stenographer, Jane Grandison at the Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing-Mouth Children in late 19th century Boston. Each woman’s life is marked with travesty from childhood, largely due to their speech impediment, but Sybil is determined to use what society sees as a disability as a tool to communicate with the dead. Throughout the novel, Jackson builds a world of necrophysics where mouth objects and language are explored as avenues of existence and communion between the living and the dead: “Death is not departure but arrival. We are latchkeys kept by wanderers against a future homing. With our last strength, we fit our bodies into this locked world, and turn.”

Later, the loss of a student and murder of a school inspector cause speculation over the school’s competence, moral standards, and the headmistress’s mental health. And as Sybil and Jane become closer, their voices become less distinguishable from each other, as well as the dead they interact with more and more. Jackson’s experimental frame of poetic prose, documentation, and photographs, which describe the minutiae of how her characters experience the world around them, is carefully wrought, showing a deep love of language, both for herself and the world she’s created.

Catapult.

—Review by Jenee Skinner

THE ORPHAN OF SALT WINDS

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THE ORPHAN OF SALT WINDS BY ELIZABETH BROOKS

Elizabeth Brooks’ novel, The Orphan of Salt Winds, interweaves flashbacks and present-day reflections of the troubled soul, Virginia Wrathmell. In 1939 England, 10-year-old Virginia is adopted by Clem and Lorna, a couple who believes their marriage can be saved by a child. Clem instantly presents Virginia with a sense of belonging but Lorna, though alluring, remains emotionally distant and has a curious relationship with the overly involved neighbor and widower, Max Deering. When a German airplane crashes at the spark of World War II, Clem disappears in the isolated marshes on a search for the pilot. Virginia and Lorna’s lives take an unexpected turn, leading to a decision that Virginia will regret for the rest of her life.

The Orphan of Salt Winds simultaneously functions as a gothic, historical, psychological mystery and bildungsroman. Brooks vivid comparison of the beautiful and tumultuous landscape and Virginia’s life is artfully rendered: “The winds and tides remember, as do the birds, and the cockles, and the shrimps, and the sand worms, and the whispering reeds, and the grasses, and the lichens, and every single stone in the old seawall. I know they remember, because they passed the story on to me—a stranger—just as I passed it on to you.”

Tin House.

—Review by Jenee Skinner

ÖRÆFI: THE WASTELAND

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ÖRÆFI: THE WASTELAND BY ÓFEIGUR SIGURÐSSON, TRANSLATED BY LYTTON SMITH

Öræfi: The Wasteland, Ófeigur Sigurðsson’s stunning novel, translated by Lytton Smith, opens on an injured Austrian toponymist—naive, curious, passionate to a fault—ostensibly arriving at Skaftafell National Park Visitor’s Center after dragging himself down a glacier. There, he is treated by a vacationing veterinarian, the brilliant, frenzied Dr. Lassi, and the two swap tales of how they, and the wasteland, have come to be there. What follows is a collection of Icelandic stories, realist and mythic, historical and fictional, nestled inside an epic adventure. It is at once a history of place, and a man’s intensely personal journey through the elements of the land, and of his own mind. A delightfully complex play on the epistolary novel, the narration of Öræfi is layered, at times coming to us through five or six levels of character interpretation.

On translating Öræfi, Lytton Smith says: “The fiction of translation is physical: a translation is a creation in which one geography gets moved to another.” Read Öræfi to be transported to a world of beauty, horror, treasure, and ghosts. Full of tall tales, mighty storms, mysterious sheep, and impossibly large traveling trunks, Öræfi: The Wasteland draws you in to its baffling web, asks you to linger in this brutal, exquisite place

Deep Vellum.

—Review by Claire Pincumbe

REVOLUTION SUNDAY

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REVOLUTION SUNDAY BY WENDY GUERRA, TRANSLATED BY ACHY OBEJAS

In Wendy Guerra’s debut in the English language, Revolution Sunday, translated from the Spanish by Achy Obejas, her protagonist Cleo is a writer; indeed, she is an award winning writer, but only outside of her home country, Cuba, where her work has been denied publication. In the face of this severe censorship and increasing surveillance, Cleo doubts everything. When her parents pass away in a mysterious accident, she confines herself to her house, turning inward, working only on her writing. After continual raids and surprise visits from government agents, the only person she can trust is her housekeeper, Márgara. And when Gerónimo, a Hollywood actor, appears at her doorstep, he claims to be working on a documentary about Cleo’s father—only, the man he describes is not the man Cleo has long believed to be her father, but a political revolutionary.

Guerra’s Revolution Sunday is a story about the nature of art in the face of censorship and surveillance, and shows how the survival of art mirrors the survival of the soul.

Melville House.

—Review by Rome Morgan

MINA

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MINA BY KIM SAGWA, TRANSLATED BY BRUCE AND JU-CHAN FULTON

In her mind, teenaged Crystal is unparalleled; she gets the grades, works the system, has no one and needs no one—except Mina. But when a friend’s suicide leaves Mina heartbroken, she begins to pull away from Crystal, who observes her mourning with a perplexing detachment. As Crystal wrestles with both her own isolation and the violent impulses that emerge in the wake of Mina’s withdrawal, disturbing reveries and half-finished thoughts flicker and flare in her consciousness before erupting in one startling, obsessive line: “The problem is: there are too many people who ought to be killed.”

Mina’s translators, Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, masterfully capture Crystal’s manic voice, navigating long, suspenseful dialogues between the two girls in which Crystal’s lines are cardiograms, spasming between threat and apology, threat and apology, as arrhythmic and untrustworthy as a palpitation:

“IfyoufeelIambeingcrueltoyouIamsorrysorrytrulysorryreallysorrysorrysorrysorry.”

Even as Crystal’s actions become more and more volatile, she remains resolutely, alarmingly, in control of herself, her future, her way of life. In this tense, slow-burning novel, Kim Sagwa hacks into the egocentric complexities of adolescence to criticize a monolithic and unsympathetic collectivist tradition. “If you want to win,” Crystal asserts, speaking for a society that is greater than and beyond her, “you need to be illogical, powerful, and destructive, and the more of each the better.” With Mina, Kim has created a compelling narrative of mental degradation, flaying both Crystal’s ego and a culture at large to reveal the often disturbing complexes found therein.

Two Lines Press.

— Review by Samantha Kirby