Book Review

The Summer’s Best Fiction, Hands Down

In late August, just as I was reading my last—and, it turns out, best—book for my fall fiction chronicle, the neuroscientist Sliman Bensmaia died unexpectedly. His name may not be familiar, but his work is: He allowed amputees to feel what they were touching with their artificial limbs. Thanks to his refinement of brain-controlled prosthetics, an amputee could pick up a cup of coffee and feel the roundness and the hardness of the vessel, as well as the heat emanating from it. When our hands grasp an object, billions of neurons and trillions of synapses communicate the sensation to our brains. As Bensmaia said on a podcast last year, “The hand, in a way, is an expression of our intelligence.” Hands matter hugely to everyone in our species, but for some people—surgeons and sculptors, say—they are indispensable.

In Abraham Verghese’s beautiful, brilliant, and dexterously rendered account of a South Indian family from 1900–1977, The Covenant of Water,[1] hands emerge as the novel’s most important recurring symbol. Indeed, in one scene, a baby’s hand literally emerges through a slit in his mother’s belly, the result of a stab wound by her ne’er-do-well husband, and a doctor chases it back inside by holding a burning cigar close to the little fist, then stitching up the slit with his own fire ravaged hands. In this novel, main characters include a writer who makes his own ink and revels in wielding his pen, a young doctor who delicately dissects a forearm to uncover the tendons and nerves, an artist who first becomes famous for her oil portraits, then sculpts stone into figures, and two gifted surgeons, both of whom eventually dedicate themselves to lepers, sufferers of a disease that twists hands into claws, then whittles them to nubs. To have and to hold, to have and to lose. And, ultimately, to transcend loss and live on. These are Verghese’s themes, and he inks them indelibly, through characters so compellingly drawn that even now I can’t stop thinking about them.

The novel earns its name in a variety of ways, not least because the family at the heart of the story suffers from a malady they’ve named “The Condition.” Those born with the malady react strangely to water and must avoid rivers, lakes, even ditches lest they drown. Drowning occurs so often among the afflicted that the family has been charting it on a genealogical tree for generations.

Not only the family members, but everyone who lives in Parambil (the village where most of the action takes place) are bound by another covenant of water. Some have The Condition, but all live in a “land . . . shaped by water . . . [A] child’s fantasy world of rivulets and canals, a latticework of lakes and lagoons, a maze of backwaters and bottle-green lotus ponds . . . because . . . all water is connected.” The marshes, jungles, and rice paddies of the region now known as Kerala are familiar to me not only because I too live in a watery landscape—beside an estuary on an island off the coast of Florida—but more specifically from the three weeks I spent in Sri Lanka, the island southeast of this area of India, which shares many of its characteristics, including elephants, tea cultivation, Tamils, Hindus, Buddhists, and those converted by the Apostle Thomas, Christians who long predate the arrival of Portuguese Christians (and the first wave of colonization by Europeans).

The novel opens with the marriage of two St. Thomas Christians in 1900. It’s an arranged marriage between a 12-year-old girl who has lost her father and a 40-year-old man who has lost his wife. The girl’s mother tells her, “The saddest day of a girl’s life is the day of her wedding.” Sad because not only must the girl marry a man she doesn’t know, she must also leave her family to live with her husband’s. Mariamma, the child bride of this tale, grows up to be the matriarch of the family, Big Ammachi, and as a grandmother she tells her descendants the story of her husband’s family. Big Ammachi understands the power of a compelling narrative: “A tale that leaves its imprint on a listener tells the truth about how the world lives, and so, unavoidably, it is about families, their victories and wounds, and their departed, including the ghosts who linger . . .”

Covenant overflows with quotable scenes, but I will focus on those with the recurring motif that first, ahem, grabbed me: Hands. As someone who paints, sculpts, and, lately, crafts clay sgraffiti, etching out images from black engobe that I’ve painted over white clay, my hands feel indispensable to me. Clearly, Verghese sees the human hand as the manifester of civilization. Hands also give aid and comfort, and hands held convey both love and safety. Thus, when Big Ammachi sits beside her husband’s bed as he’s dying and he asks for water, she holds a glass out to him. He covers “her fingers on the glass with both his hands. His hands are powerful, but gnarled and weathered by age, callused from the trees he has climbed, and the ropes, axes, and shovels he has wielded. Together they raise the glass to his mouth, and he drinks . . . Their overlapping hands bracket their many years together as husband and wife.” In another scene, Rune, the doctor who has had a vision of his purpose in the universe and opened a leprosarium, grasps the forearms of Digby, a talented young surgeon who has suffered grievous burns. “The spectacle of these ruined tools of a surgeon’s livelihood fills [him] with sorrow. This is, after all, his own nightmare, though in his dream the culprit is always leprosy.” In Chapter 34, titled “Hand in Hand,” Philipose, the writer in the novel and a young boy in this scene, helps Digby open the trachea of a baby suffocating with diphtheria. “When Philipose hesitates, the paw closes over his thin hand, steadying it. Together, they access some grace as they press the scapel tip into the trachea, where it lodges like an axe in a tree.” Digby twists the scalpel, holds the hole open and pulls out “a long, rubbery piece” of white, leathery material. That’s diphtheria’s membrane, the dead and pus-saturated lining of the throat that sloughs off and chokes the child. “Diphtheria” means “leather” in Greek. Here I must pause to note that the descriptions of medical conditions and operations throughout this book fascinated me. Abraham Verghese thrills me as a novelist, but it’s obvious that he’s first and foremost a doctor, and a deeply empathetic one. Later in the novel, when Digby asks Rune if his hands will ever allow him to operate again, the older man notes that even if Digby can no longer be a surgeon, his hands will find something useful to do. Rune quotes Ecclesiastes: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.” Lest I give too much of this story away, which I am loath to do because readers deserve to follow its tributaries to their own sources, I will close with a last scene, and the most explicit, on the subject of hands.

“You have nice hands. Hands interest me . . . I noticed yours the first time I saw you.”

“And I yours when you traced that snuffbox” . . . He notices a fleck of green paint on her palm. His skin tingles where she touched him.

“I have notebooks filled with drawings of hands,” Elsie says. He asks why. “I suppose because anything I draw or paint begins with my hands. Sometimes I feel my hand leads and my mind follows. Without a hand I’d have nothing.”

What we think is true often isn’t true, and this novel uncovers many secrets, some medical, some familial, and all rooted in a place and time Verghese has rendered unforgettably.

In addition to Verghese, three other celebrated novelists had work come out in America during my reading period. Two of the books were novels originally published in Spanish, though only one was written by a native speaker. I refer to The Wind Knows My Name,[2] by Isabel Allende (born in Peru, raised in Chile) and The Pole,[3] by J. M. Coetzee, the Nobel laureate from South Africa. Coetzee says he wants to dethrone English as the most important global language (because native English speakers do so much that is bad with their power), and so first published this latest novel in a language that isn’t much more laudable in terms of what its speakers did when they were colonizing the New World. Coetzee does not speak Spanish, though he did grow up bilingual in Cape Town in English and Afrikaans. He’s the grandson of Afrikaans-speaking Anglophiles (in the South Africa of his childhood, Afrikaans was considered low class and English high class). Thus, he wrote the novel in English, and its main characters are Beatriz, a well-off, 40-something supporter of the arts in Barcelona, and Witold, a 70-something classical pianist from Poland who is a dead ringer for Max von Sydow.

Beatriz and Witold cannot speak each other’s languages, so how do they communicate? In English, of course! Not pellucid English, but the stilted global English in which so many people in the world misunderstand each other every day. So, if Coetzee wrote his novel in English, who translated it for the first edition in Spanish that came out in 2022? That would be Mariana Dimópulos, a celebrated Argentinian novelist who is also known for her translations of the German philosophers Heidegger, Adorno, and Benjamin. She’s a brainiac with good bone structure (look her up), and Coetzee has known her at least since 2018 when he interviewed her about translations and Latin American literature for the Sydney Review of Books. He has acknowledged that she is the one who suggested to him how Beatriz, the heroine of The Pole, would think, speak, and act.

There’s a lot of humor in this novel, which is a comic version of the relationship of Beatrice and Dante. Beatriz is Witold’s muse, and he falls in love with her. But the novel begins in what sounds like the voice of God, which is to say, the author of these characters: “1. The woman is the first to give him trouble, followed soon afterwards by the man.” The authorial musing continues (and I don’t know why each paragraph or three gets its own number—musical notation?): “4. Where do they come from, the tall Polish pianist and the elegant woman with the gliding walk, the banker’s wife who occupies her days in good works? All year they have been knocking at the door, wanting to be let in or else dismissed and laid to rest. Now, at last, has their time come?”

Witold, an accomplished interpreter of Chopin (Beatriz doesn’t like his interpretations—too cold) falls for Beatriz, his hostess at a Barcelona recital. She is 24 years younger than he. (Coetzee, one might add, is 33 years older than his inspirational translator.) Witold woos her and bemuses her. When asked if he’s always been a pianist, he contemplates the word pianist.

“I have been a man who plays piano . . . Like the man who punches tickets in the bus. He is a man and he punches tickets, but he is not a ticket man.”

So in Poland, in the buses, they still have men who punch tickets—they have not been rationalized away. Maybe that is why young Witold did not run away to Paris, like his musical hero. Because in Poland they have men who punch tickets and men who play the piano. For the first time she warms to him. Behind that solemn air, she thinks to herself, he may just possibly be a joker. Just possibly.

Witold pitches woo, inviting her to visit him in a nearby city where he’s giving lessons. Beatriz wants to know what he wants from her. “‘Dear lady,’ says the Pole, ‘you remember Dante Alighieri the poet? His Beatrice never gave him one word and he loved her all his life.’”

Oh, courtly love. One only needs to read the Decameron, or, better yet, from a woman’s point of view, The Heptameron, to see where this is going. The artist needs a muse, but he doesn’t necessarily need her to reciprocate his feelings to be inspired by her. But the fun in this novel comes not from Witold, who eventually writes her a book of love poetry in Polish—she must get it translated when it’s given to her after his death—but from Beatriz. How does the muse react to the lover who wants to bestow his art upon her? Beatriz reacts by wishing she liked his music better. She listens to his recordings, but they make her yawn. In the beginning she’s irritated that he should love her without knowing her or what she likes or is like: “I am not the answer to the riddle of your life, Señor Witold—your riddle or anyone else’s! That is what she should have said to him. I am who I am!” Beatriz is the Yahweh of her own existence!

Nevertheless, it’s hard for an attractive woman to ignore an accomplished man who adores her because, as he tells her, she embodies for him both grace and peace. Far from casting Witold off, Beatriz begins to plot ways to make his adoration last forever. Meanwhile, both their correspondence and their face-to-face meetings remain difficult to interpret because their exchanges must take place in English. I thought of Nabokov’s wonderful novel Pnin as I read The Pole. The Russian professor Pnin’s misapprehension of English provides the best comic moments in the novel, and it’s the same here. Even Beatriz wonders if Witold really knows what he’s saying in his fractured English. “Is he saying something profound or is he simply hitting the wrong words, like a monkey sitting in front of a typewriter?”

This novel reads fast and wittily, and it’s one of the better books I’ve read about translating, what gets lost in translation and what may be unexpectedly found. Witold, the pianist, never gets over their brief affair and goes Full Dante during his last years in Poland, forgoing the piano in order to write a book of poems dedicated to Beatriz. He cannot know if she will ever read them, and in truth, she literally can’t read them—not without the help of a translator she hires and the translator’s poetry-loving son. When asked, the son admits to Beatriz that he doesn’t actually speak Polish, “But I have read lots of Polish poetry. In Poland poetry is a disease, everyone catches it.” Having gazed at the window display of the Polish bookstore on the Blvd. St. Germain in Paris, I think Coetzee has that right, too.

Isabel Allende’s novel appeared in Spanish editions back in January, coming out here in June. What struck me most about it was that it’s a variant on American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins, a novel that was canceled by so many critics three years ago. Why? Because Cummins, an American who has a Puerto Rican grandmother but doesn’t speak Spanish, dared to write an ambitious novel about Mexican and Central American immigrants who risk their lives to get to America to escape drug lords, poverty, or worse. The attack on her novel on the grounds that she should not have been allowed to write it was ridiculous, so I read it. It was a fast-paced, engaging narrative and provided a visceral account of how harrowing the journey through Mexico to El Norte is for illegal immigrants.

Writers are notoriously jealous of each other’s success, so perhaps it wasn’t surprising that a Latina writer, pissed at Cummins for her multimillion dollar contract (the result of a bidding war between nine interested publishers), could articulate what sounded like a more justifiable reason for hating it. Cummins’ publisher caved in the face of online outrage (the original rant was published on a minor blog, but it caught fire among other disgruntled writers of color and their allies) and canceled her book tour. Luckily, not before Oprah made it one of her Book Club selections, so it still sold millions of copies. On the three-year anniversary of Dirt’s pub date in January, Pamela Paul of the New York Times was opining that “the publishing world lost its confidence and ceded moral authority to the worst impulses of its detractors.” Paul wonders how the literary world let it happen, yet I remember that, at the time, neither the Times nor Paul herself was defending the author. They were too afraid of getting canceled themselves.

Anyway, now a bona fide Spanish-language author, Allende, has taken on the same tale of illegal immigrants crossing America’s southern border and being brutalized by the authorities. Like Khalid Hosseini’s work on behalf of Afghanistan refugees (his novels both educate readers and provide links to places they can donate money), Allende also has a foundation that helps female refugees at the U.S./Mexico border. Didactic novels usually irritate me, but Allende, like Hosseini, crafts good characters and plots. She links a Jewish boy, Samuel Adler, who is a musical prodigy sent to England via Kindertransport after Kristallnacht in Vienna, to an El Salvadoran girl, Letitia, who comes to America with her father after her family is slaughtered in El Salvador in the El Mozote massacre of 1981.

The journey sounds just like the one Cummins described: “They made a large part of the journey on foot, hitchhiking or perched atop cargo trains whenever possible, because they didn’t have money for transportation. They ate thanks to the charity of kind people and the shelters that aided migrants along the route.” Letitia grows up in Arizona and California, and eventually she goes back to El Salvador to find her village. It no longer exists. Government soldiers, trained by Americans, had been ordered to terrorize poor farmers like Letitia’s family to keep them from joining or helping the guerillas in the country’s civil war. Instead, they slaughtered them all. Letitia’s guide, who lost his family too, wonders, “Why did they kill the children? Even the most savage beast in the jungle isn’t that brutal. And these crimes were committed by men just like the victims, people from the country, poor people.”

Enter the compelling Mexican-American character Selena Durán, whose job is to ease the humanitarian crisis at the Mexican border. Specifically, when children of illegal immigrants are separated from their parents, Duran helps the kids get lawyers both to find their parents and try to gain asylum in the U.S. Advancing the didactic tack of the novel effectively, Selena tells a law firm, and us, something I didn’t know: “A serial killer has the right to a lawyer in this country, but that right does not extend to immigrants and refugees.” Selena, with the help of Frank, a lawyer from a fancy law firm, begins to work on the case of a blind El Salvadoran girl, Anita, who has been separated from her mother at the border. Meanwhile, Samuel Adler shores up in California after coming to America to study jazz. (Both his parents perished in the Holocaust.) In the 1960s he marries a rich Creole woman from New Orleans, Nadine. Many years later, Letitia becomes their housekeeper and caretaker in Berkeley, ultimately moving in to help Samuel when Covid begins. Eventually Allende brings the threads of all her characters’ lives together, like Fate setting down her scissors and deciding to knit instead. A well-written novel, The Wind Knows My Name (English translation by Frances Riddle) kept my attention while I was reading, but it didn’t hang with me because it was written to educate, which hampered its ability to thrill. Isabel Allende won’t get canceled in the way Jeanine Cummins did, and Wind will do some real world good, even if it isn’t Allende’s best novel.

Happily for readers, I do think Tom Lake[4] is Ann Patchett’s best novel. I read it on a long flight back from England last summer, and the hours flew by. It’s another Covid-inflected novel, but one that uses adult children’s enforced return to their parents’ home as the perfect foil for their mother to tell them, and us, an engaging story from her youth. Covid has appeared in many works of fiction these last two years, but Patchett doesn’t just note its presence, she leans in and uses it as a plot device. Lara, the mother of three daughters in this story, also admits something a lot of us parents felt when the pandemic forced our kids to move back in with us for a while (my son, teaching English in a Bordeaux lycée, landed in our guest room when the French government urged foreign nationals to go home): “[I don’t] pretend that all of us being together doesn’t fill me with joy. I understand that joy is inappropriate these days and still, we feel what we feel.”

The framing device for the novel is Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. Lara, a high school kid in New Hampshire, once played Emily in a community theatre production of the play seen by a talent scout, launching her brief career as an actress. She made one movie and spent a notable summer acting in Tom Lake, Michigan, a fictional place that hosts an annual theatre festival. Our Town is a great play to frame the novel because it focuses on small town America for twelve years at the beginning of the twentieth century. Farmlands encircled small towns then, neighbors married neighbors, lives took their course in front of everyone, and eventually—some too soon—all the townspeople die and take their eternal place in the local cemetery. Lara admits that she was perfect for the role of Emily, not because she was a good actress, but because she was Emily. She quickly learns there’s no other part she can play because that would require acting, and she can’t act. Before she learns that, however, she has a memorable summer with Peter Duke in Tom Lake, an actor who will go on to become a superstar, whereas she will marry a cherry farmer and raise three daughters.

The great truth of Wilder’s play is that Emily, after she’s dead, realizes that neither she nor anyone else in the town fully enjoyed the miracle of their lives on earth. Instead, they worried about inconsequential things and wasted precious time and relationships. Lara has a related thought as she’s trying to answer her daughters’ questions about her summer in Tom Lake.

There is no explaining this simple truth about life: you will forget much of it. The painful things you were certain you’d never be able to let go? Now you’re not entirely sure when they happened, while the thrilling parts, the heart-stopping joys, splintered and scattered and became something else. Memories are then replaced by different joys and larger sorrows, and unbelievably, those things get knocked aside as well . . .

The great truth of Tom Lake is that “[t]he stories that are familiar will always be our favorites.” This novel about parents and children, young love and betrayal, married love and friendship, a play we know, a famous actor we think we can identify, and the pandemic we all just went through provide a familiar backdrop for fresh characters to inhabit. Nothing here is beyond our ken, including farming—it’s the livelihood of nearly all our ancestors a few generations back, and the cycles of its seasons still affect the way we shape time (summers off for students in order to prepare for the harvest, daylight savings time for farm chores, the daily arrangement of mealtimes to maximize outdoor labor). I was very happy to sink into this landscape with these characters and let Patchett work her magic. And Patchett wields great gifts as a writer, particularly her wry and impish humor. Her portraits of feckless young lovers, talentless or terrified actors, and the antics of various animals and children made me laugh. The dynamic of Lara’s three daughters struck me as both brilliant and believable, and the dialogue throughout the novel is as good as any you’d hear in a Pulitzer-winning play. Lara holds the story together like the Stage Manager does Our Town. Patchett’s insights and humor make her narrative less elegiac than Wilder’s and more visceral. “Cherries, cooking, goats, dishes, the past. Days are endless and the weeks fly by.” My day of reading inverted that in a very happy way. In the morning I opened the novel blearily in a British Airways lounge at Gatwick and tried not to spill coffee on it; by early evening, as the plane descended from the clouds to land in Orlando, I read the last page and reluctantly closed a tale well told. As I straightened my seat for landing, I realized that the long day of travel had simply vanished while I lived years in the world Patchett had conjured.

Besides the summer’s “big four,” I read several other novels of merit and one quite compelling story collection. Ada Zhang’s The Sorrows of Others[5] has glowing jacket blurbs from short fiction writers I love—Jess Walter, Charles D’Ambrosio, Yiyun Li—and this collection deserves them all. Several of the stories treat young women who are trying to come to grips with the opposing expectations of their Chinese parents and their American friends. In the opening story, an art student in New York shares an apartment in Flushing with an elderly Chinese woman named Granny Tan, giving her street cred: at “parties that summer, my living situation lent me an air of authenticity.” The student has middle-class, Chinese immigrant parents who embarrass her, but living with Granny Tan impresses her hipster friends because “there was a palpable fear in every young liberal . . . that one could never be poor enough or of-color enough to outweigh whatever privileges one had.” For an art project, the student decides to paint three versions of Granny Tan and present them with an oral history of the old lady’s life. The student goes from revering Granny Tan’s authenticity to becoming annoyed by her constant intrusions, to being horrified when she learns about Granny Tan’s cavalier attitude to the deaths of baby girls under China’s one-child rule (Granny had been a midwife), not to mention her racism which surfaces when they discuss the death of George Floyd. The student thinks she’s in control of her interactions with “the subject” of her study, but the old lady upends those assumptions spectacularly before the story ends.

A running theme of these stories is that pitying others allows us to subvert our own loneliness. By focusing on “the sorrows of others,” or at least acknowledging their pain, we try to mute our own. Every story in this collection is strong and well written, but the ones about female friendships and the enigmatic relationships of mothers and daughters really resonated with me. “In front of the clothesline, my mother squinted at me. Tiny goldfish appeared under her eyes, their tails fanning out from the corners to reinforce the symmetry that made her face beautiful and terrifying.” Taking a damp shirt out of the basket, she “shook it out just once, with such force that the crack—a clean and empty sound—made me jump.” Discovering Ada Zhang was one of the high points of my summer reading.

Last summer’s reading included novels whose artistic merits will canonize them and those whose power is to entertain in this cultural moment. Melissa Broder entertained me by finding the humor in clinical depression. The first page of Death Valley[6] shows us the witty narrator we’re dealing with:

[A] friend texted me a quote by Kierkegaard: “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”

Ordinarily, I’d do nothing more than mark this kind of text message with a heart, maybe respond with the word yesss, and move on. But because of the low place I’ve been in, I saw the quote as a life raft, as though I were a small version of me adrift in a bowl of milk and the quote was the lone Cheerio I had to grab onto.

Remember Cheryl Strayed losing her boot on the Pacific Crest Trail in Wild? Well, this narrator should not be allowed to leave the parking lot at the nature reserve she’s so clueless about hiking. Of course, her experiences getting lost in Death Valley while trying to find a giant cactus she might have hallucinated are what’s entertaining here, not to mention excruciatingly funny. Imminent death focuses the mind like nothing else, and Melissa Broder’s heroine runs out of water, can’t find shade, and steals cactus guts from a fluffle of rabbits to ease her thirst. She pays for all her bad choices in hilarious fashion and learns something too. I suppose what doesn’t kill you makes you wiser.

My Murder[7] by Katie Williams was another fun summer read. This one, set in the near future, centers on a woman who was killed by a serial killer and then brought back as a clone by a government agency. It’s an intriguing premise, especially when Louise wants to solve the mystery of her death. I guarantee you’ve never read a line like, “The serial killer survivors’ group met on Tuesday afternoons.” Williams does a lot with the idea of authentic selfhood. Are we real if we’re cloned? What if we’re living our lives online? In the world of this book, people spend a lot of time in “helms,” virtual reality headsets, existing as avatars in virtual realms.

This offered a fun bit of speculative fiction, as did Isabel Cañas’ Vampires of El Norte,[8] a historical romance set during the Mexican-American War of the 1840s. Néstor, a poor vaquero, and Nena, a rich Mexican rancher’s daughter, are at the heart of this potboiler, and they’re classic star-crossed lovers. Néstor “was always crisply aware of who rode with silver on their bridles and who did not. Whose hats and horses were new and whose were worn with age. He was a man of dust who served men of silver: it was impossible not to know his place in the world. Especially when he had worked for years to claw his way out of the dust and build himself a house of stone.” But Nena’s parents will not let her marry a lowly vaquero. She’s destined for a rancher’s son. Nena fears her angry, powerful father and cold, implacable mother. She imagines “her whole future unspooling before her: as a daughter-in-law in a new house, she would be thrust low in the pecking order. She would chafe every day at the commands coming from on high—instead of Mamá and the tías, it would be some faceless mother-in-law and a dozen women she had never met . . . Would she ever be the master of her own fate?”

All this and vampires, too. Vaqueros keep getting attacked by mysterious creatures and fall into comas, an illness of the spirit referred to as “susto.” The attacks seem linked to the Yanquis who’ve been coming down from Tejas to buy or steal land from the Mexicans. Nena, who has become a healer, poultices the comatose victims with herbs and calls their spirits back to their bodies (not always successfully). I admit that the vampires were sort of lame when we saw them—big bats with humanoid bodies who turn to black ash when their heads are chopped off—but the scenes of the young lovers thrown together by danger will thrill those who love romance novels. This novel’s an entertaining hybrid of several popular genres, and Cañas, who holds a PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, has erected her fictional world atop a strong foundation of research.

Tom Rachman spent his career in journalism before becoming a novelist, and his best-known book is The Imperfectionists. His new novel, The Imposters,[9] was the first one I took out of my stack of sixty-odd galleys in June, and it didn’t disappoint. Rachman’s writing is smart and ironic; he delights in imagining situations in which people outwit themselves for the amusement of readers who think we’ll never do the same. Of course, it’s hard to outwit old age and death, and that’s the task before Dora Frenhofer, an aging novelist who recognizes during the isolation of the pandemic that her mind is beginning to go. She wants to write a last novel, and The Imposters seems to be a mix of both what’s happening to her and what she imagines for the novel. In both versions, her lost brother, estranged daughter, lovers, and friends provide the fodder for her mind’s final project.

Rachman’s ability to write compelling scenes and invent characters from all over the world (scenes in India, Australia, France, and other places known to me from visits come alive as if Rachman had spent years in each) impressed me. He also has many insights about writers and writing, especially the wonderful feeling when a story begins to come to life. “I’m back at the laptop, poking the wrong keys and some of the right ones, so near to the lines that they’re places with people in them, hinting and scowling . . . I’m tipsy from hope (could this book turn out well?), sobered by fact (few will care), and I want more, so sit again, knobbled hands on the keyboard, fading eyes on the screen.” This is the opposite of writer’s block; it’s the state every writer longs to be in every moment she’s not.

Dora, who bought her depressed teenage brother a ticket to India in the 1970s thinking some backpacking would cheer him up (instead he went missing, permanently), puts herself in his mindset and sees herself as she imagines he did when she bullied him into going. “Theo feared contending with his sister, who suffered a common failing of the intelligent: able to dissect an animal, identify every organ, name its role—yet never wonder what the creature thought.” A good novelist will discover what she doesn’t know by the very act of writing, and so does Dora.

For me, though, this kind of novel reminds me of several male writers (Martin Amis, for example) who satirize brilliantly but falter when it comes to emotional matters. There’s a great deal of humor and intelligence in this book, but it lacks a heart. I don’t care about Dora Frenhofer, and the ironies of her life don’t touch my soul. Irony touches only the mind; love reaches the soul. It’s probably why my two favorite novels last summer were the ones by Verghese and Patchett. And they will surely be the ones that stay the longest on best-seller lists.

I will close this chronicle with the strangest novel I read last summer, and compositionally the coolest. Henry Hoke’s Open Throat[10] is a queer mountain lion’s take on the humans he encounters near his lair in Los Angeles. The tale’s first line, “I’ve never eaten a person but today I might,” is quickly explained by three idiotic humans, one bearing a whip. “the man without the whip lies down on his back and spreads his legs and lifts his feet up to the sky and shouts okay do it just flick ’em just lightly flick my nuts.” Watching this, the lion thinks, “I try to understand people but they make it hard.” The lion knows what he knows from what the humans say: “I know I live below the hollywood sign because the hikers say oh look we’re below the hollywood sign and they say can we get all the way up there and they ask which letter would you jump off.” The big cat hates these hikers, but he loves some homeless people living in tents nearby who leave him the leftovers from buckets of fried chicken: “the meat and the bones taste like many people’s saliva and my stomach gets full and I get grateful and my eyes fill . . . I want to thank my people but I know if they see me it’ll fuck up our relationship.”

This novel reads like poetry, uncapped and largely unpunctuated, and its interpolated human dialogue as recorded by the lion is ferociously funny. Yes, humans are really that narcissistic, clueless, cruel, anxious, and generally sad as the ones the lion overhears. Tom Rachman’s novel points out that smart people often can’t imagine how other people feel, though they can describe them perfectly. Henry Hoke has created a lion who, from his own threatened world, sees just how dangerous and deluded humanity is. This novel will make you smile, but it will also make you certain that almost any other species would do a better job of running the planet than Homo sapiens.

[1] THE COVENANT OF WATER, by Abraham Verghese. Grove Press. $32.00.

[2] THE WIND KNOWS MY NAME, by Isabel Allende, trans. by Frances Riddle. Ballantine Books. $28.00.

[3] THE POLE, by J. M. Coetzee. Liveright. $26.00.

[4] TOM LAKE, by Ann Patchett. Harper. $30.00.

[5] THE SORROWS OF OTHERS, by Ada Zhang. A Public Space Books. $18.00p.

[6] DEATH VALLEY, by Melissa Broder. Scribner. $27.00.

[7] MY MURDER, by Katie Williams. Riverhead Books. $27.00.

[8] VAMPIRES OF EL NORTE, by Isabel Cañas. Berkley. $28.00.

[9] THE IMPOSTERS, by Tom Rachman. Little, Brown and Company. $29.00.

[10] OPEN THROAT, by Henry Hoke. MCD. $25.00.