by Timothy Schaffert
Schaffert’s fourth novel, The Coffins of Little Hope (Unbridled Books, 2011) is another triumph of storytelling, featuring quirky characters, humor, compassion, and insight into human strengths and foibles. The story revolves around its narrator, 83-year-old Essie Myles, who is the obituary writer for the County Paragraph, her grandson Doc’s small town Nebraska newspaper. In one of the many intersecting plotlines that make up the book, the paper has been contracted to print the last book in a fabulously successful series of teen novels called The Coffins of Little Hope (think A Series of Unfortunate Events and hope that Schaffert someday writes the series of children’s books he describes so appealingly). In another, a local woman claims that her teenage daughter Lenore (whom no one has ever seen) was kidnapped by her boyfriend Elvis, a ne’er-do-well photographer. And there’s more: Essie learns that her granddaughter, Ivy, long out of touch with the family, is planning to return home—news that is especially upsetting to Doc, who raised Tess, his niece, when her mother ran off to Paris when Tess was just a child. Things get very complicated when the national media learn about the (possible) kidnapping and descend on the small town, and pages of the top secret conclusion to the aforementioned series of novels start showing up. What anchors these multiple strands of plot and makes them work so well together is Essie herself—wry, self-aware, and with a secret or two of her own. This enchanting novel is perfect for readers looking for realism with a heart by an author who cares about his characters and wants you to, too. Here’s how it begins:
I still use a manual typewriter (a 1953 Underwood portable, in a robin’s egg blue) because the soft pip-pip-pip of the typing of keys on a computer keyboard doesn’t quite fit with my sense of what writing sounds like. I need the hard metal clack, and I need those keys to sometimes catch so I can reach in and untangle them, turning my fingertips inky. Without slapping the return or turning the cylinder to release the paper with a sharp whip, without all that minor havoc, I feel I’ve paid no respect to the dead. What good is an obituary if it can be written so peaceably, so undisturbingly, in the dark of night?
I don’t want to quote the last line, because it’s blow-your-mind perfection.
by Preeta Samarasan
Preeta Samarasan’s brilliantly executed first novel, Evening Is the Whole Day (Mariner, 2009), takes place in Malaysia. Samarasan focuses her writerly lens on the lives of the Rajasekharans: politically inclined Raju, the paterfamilias, whose grandfather came to Malaysia from India in 1899 and initiated the family’s inexorable rise to the upper classes; his wife, Visanthi, who cannot abide remembering her lower class upbringing; his elder daughter, Uma, who is excitedly looking forward to leaving Ipoh, Malaysia, for college at Columbia University; his son, Suresh; and six-year-old Aasha, who is desperately sad at the recent death of her grandmother and her beloved older sister’s imminent departure. As Uma’s departure approaches, different chapters explore both the family’s past—in vivid, fascinating, and often troubling detail—and the equally vivid, fascinating, and frequently troubling events that shaped Malaysian independence. Like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (which this novel made me want to reread), this is a book that begs to be read aloud. Here’s one sentence that gives a good sense of Samarasan’s style: “A wry sun was setting with a vengeance on the British Empire.” Don’t you love the adjective “wry”? It’s such an interesting way of describing the end of Britain’s colonial reign.
by Monique Roffey
Right after they marry in England in 1956, Sabine and George Harwood move to post-independence Trinidad for a job that George has been offered. Fifty years later they’re still there. Now both in their middle 70s, George is, as he’s always been, happy with his life and loving his adopted country, while Sabine has never been able to adjust to the oppressive heat and the culture of the island. Monique Roffey’s The White Woman on the Green Bicycle (Penguin, 2011), which was a finalist for the Orange Prize, switches back and forth between time periods and narrators (so that both husband and wife get their say). In 2006, when George finds a cache of Sabine’s old (and unsent) letters to Eric Williams, Trinidad’s charismatic prime minister, it sets off a series of events that will shake the foundations of their marriage. But the true main character in this novel is Trinidad itself: its people, its customs, and its contradictions. Roffey’s explorations of longtime marriages, race, and the lingering effects of colonialism are insightful and often painful to read.