Witches, arson in rural America, and two takes on teenage girls.
By Jenean Marie Gilmer, Emma Gordon, Annie Harvieux , Ann Mayhew, Julianne Queensen, Kaylen Ralph and Sarah Waller
Threads: From the Refugee Crisis by Kate Evans
Threads is a series of graphic essays documenting author Kate Evans’ experiences traveling from her home in England to refugee camps in Calais, France. It follows Evans as ad-hoc camps — constructed by activists like herself — overflowing with refugees from Syria, and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, are taken over by governmental organizations and despairingly dehumanized.
Evans’ essays depict arbitrary violence perpetrated by police, politicians, and governments, and her illustrations share the changeable, rushed quality of life in the camps. Many refugees share England as a destination, perhaps, as Evans notes, due to the dominance of English around the world as a spoken language, and because many have relatives already living there — stark reminders of the lasting effects of England’s colonial Empire. Evans represents popular opinion with comments made on the Internet, such as “We need to purge this scum with fire theres no other option,” (sic). Such vitriol, read alongside heart-rending stories of the people Evans encounters, is a shocking reminder of the disparities in access to resources and the vigor with which those living in industrialized, capitalist countries work to keep those resources to themselves.
Credit is to be given to Evans’ for displaying her own errors and deficiencies, and contrasting her relatively cushy life against the lives of refugees. Readers may find themselves annoyed with what might be perceived as do-goodery, but there’s no mistaking the importance that Evans rightly places on telling people’s stories. The essays in Threads remind readers that we are indeed all connected, encourages critical thinking, and asserts the necessity of speaking out against the classification of people as “less than,” as unknown others, and to take effective action against those who work to enforce such difference.
—Jenean Marie Gilmer
The Witches of New York by Ami McKay
The Witches of New York is an ambitious work of historical fiction centered on three witches living in New York City in 1880. Young Beatrice, living in upstate New York answers a “work wanted” ad in the city, and soon finds herself swept up in the lives of two bonafide witches — and discovers she may have some magic in her herself.
The novel is a love letter to New York City, describing it in ample detail. It attempts to deal with a lot: The Comstock laws, the Egyptomania that swept the British and American worlds at this time, more ghosts than seem necessary. However, our three heroines — Beatrice, Adelaide, and Eleanor — carry the book through, allowing questionably unnecessary moments and characters to be forgiven.
By embracing witchiness, McKay is able to both develop strong feminist female characters while addressing very real historic and contemporary sexism. The most frightening aspect of the book has nothing to do with the supernatural; rather, it’s the male villain’s double-edged sword of violent sexism and a male savior complex; he’s seeking an innocent girl possessed by demons to “save” via torture; when the girls he kidnaps do not meet his impossible standards of purity, he justifies killing them.
Considering the complexity of the world McKay creates and a significant unfinished storyline, one can only hope there is a sequel in the works; if not, the book gets some major demerits for feeling unfinished. That note aside, Witches is a delightful and strong work of historical fantasy with three wonderfully developed women at the forefront.
American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse
Podcasts and shows focused on murder, such as Serial and Making a Murderer, have recently surged into popular culture and seem here to stay. But let’s not forget another disturbing crime to which people are equally, darkly, drawn: arson. Also trending right now? The examination of rural American life, as seen most recently in books like Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance and White Trash by Nancy Isenberg.
American Fire by Monica Hesse has both, with thorough research and beautiful writing. It’s the story of a county in rural Virginia that in 2012 was victim to 67 fires within a five-month period. It’s the story of the two people, crazy in love, who, undetected, set those 67 (mostly) abandoned buildings ablaze, and why.
The narrative that Washington Post feature writer Monica Hesse has wrangled is complicated, yet extremely coherent and compelling. The reader learns a lot about firefighting and the investigation of arson. Hesse includes historical and psychological examinations of arsonists, as well as an analysis of the area’s economic situation. Accomack County is an isolated place under pressure from the rest of society to change. The ways that the residents made money are no longer profitable or no longer exist. Many of the residents feel forgotten. To then be betrayed by somebody in the community, who remains unidentified for so long, is an impossible struggle.
Charlie Smith, the man who pleaded guilty to the fires, is a fascinatingly earnest and troubled person. Even more compelling is his girlfriend, Tonya Bundick, and the dark shift that took place in their epic love story. This is great true crime, featuring details about the arsons, interrogations, and trials, with a “This American Life” tone of storytelling.
New People by Danzy Senna
New People: A Novel would make a really good feature film. It takes place in New York City, features plenty of love triangle drama, and whoever scored the wardrobe stylist spot for this film would definitely get featured in Vogue. New People: The Movie would be cast with beautiful people, because it’s 1996, and New People, i.e people of mixed race, are not only beautiful, but the New York zeitgeist is recently hip to its white privilege and eager to celebrate this particular brand of beauty.
Khalil and Maria, i.e. New People, are college sweethearts in their late twenties. They are engaged, successful and happy as hell—that is, depending on whom you ask, and you probably shouldn’t ask Maria, who’s slowly drowning in a self-reflecting pool while trying to finish her dissertation on the Jonestown massacre. The couple is the featured subject in a documentary called New People, directed by a filmmaker character named Elsa, whose film will follow the lives of four New People, of which Maria and Khalil are two. As for the other subjects in the doc? “All of them are around the same age, born in the late sixties and early seventies, the progeny of the Renaissance of Interracial Unions.” Folded into the pre-marital drama of this book — namely, Maria’s imagined, illicit love affair with a poet in her and Khalil’s friend circle — is an ethnography of a “people” that couldn’t be more different from their brethren, and therein lies Senna’s effective skewering of the way our culture has continuously, erroneously, attempted to homogenize race.
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang
In her debut collection Sour Heart, Jenny Zhang has crafted stories that are, in equal measures, tender and vulgar, insightful yet thoroughly laced with the immature voice of childhood. The first-person narrators of Zhang’s short stories, all daughters of Chinese immigrants to New York City, are constantly caught between the desire to be “selfish and self-indulgent and destructive like the white girls” and reverant of the tales of their parents’ and grandparents’ experiences in communist China. They grow up navigating identity while bridging the gap between Chinese history and American urban poverty. And, remarkably, they do it all while managing to be hilarious.
Though the young protagonists all feel like one woman in their personalities, which crux on being “sour” (read: strong-willed, opinionated, and selfish), the varying stories inhabit different vantage points of age and location to confront different challenges, from extreme poverty to puberty to schoolyard drama at immigrant-rich schools that are mockingly referred to as “high-risk.” Repeated families, characters, locations, and buzzwords throughout the book create pleasurable referential jokes.
Much of Sour Heart also centers around the family as a tightly bonded but imperfect unit. As first-generation Americans, the families in the collection typically lack a stable larger social structure and therefore stay fiercely loyal to immediate kin through financial despair, unemployment, and even marital infidelity. From helping a youngest daughter sign her first lease to shoving a rusted Oldsmobile into the Bronx River, “family bonding” comes in near infinite forms in this collection. For the narrators in this delightful debut, the family is a place where a young girl can be cherished for being her sour self.
Things That Happened Before the Earthquake by Chiara Barzini
Italian writer Chiara Barzini contributes to the current trend of depicting not just a coming-of-age story, but specifically that of a teenage girl, in adult literature (Marlena by Julie Buntin, last year’s The Girls by Emma Cline, and Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman, for example). Like The Girls, Barzini focuses on Los Angeles in a nostalgic era— the early ‘90s. While certain aspects of the story feel as if Barzini was working off a checklist of teenage-girl angst (sexual promiscuity! idolizing a rebellious classmate! drugs!), Earthquake ultimately reads authentic, profound and mesmerizing.
Eugenia’s filmmaker parents move her from Rome to capitalist Los Angeles shortly after the 1992 Los Angeles riots. There, teenage Eugenia has to navigate Los Angeles public school— connecting with a boy in a Persian gang, and Deva, who embraces the counter-cultural world of nearby Topanga Canyon— while also managing her family’s expectations and forays into Hollywood and filmmaking. The novel covers approximately two years, ending shortly after the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake.
Despite initial dislike of the new country, as Eugenia grows, she discovers the opportunities the United States offers her: namely, a college creative writing program and kinship with the land. Environment proves as much an influence on Eugenia’s life as the people she meets, and not just because of the title natural disaster. Los Angeles, superficially bare and ugly, begins to not just become familiar but eventually glows: “There was silence and then the steady breath of hot are at my back — a strong, dry wind blowing from the desert, pushing me toward the city and its ocean.” As Eugenia embraces her new world, she is able to look forward to her future, and no longer feel forced unwillingly into the unknown.
Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo
Alfred A. Knopf
In a culture that values children above all, can a happy marriage last if it is childless? Nigerian writer Ayobami Adebayo intimately explores the relationship of Akin and Yejide in Nigeria as, after years of their trying to conceive, Akin is forced by family pressure to take a second wife. With honesty, emotion and brilliant storytelling, Adebayo has written a moving expose of a relationship struggling against the deepest of cultural pressures.
In love since they met at university, Akin and Yejide always said they’d be monogamous despite traditional Yoruba culture. When Akin seems to betray his beloved without warning by taking a second wife, her jealousy drives her to try for a child with a rigor unlike before, and she soon suffers a yearlong false pregnancy. But after Akin’s second wife dies and Akin’s brother comes to stay with them, Yejide finally becomes pregnant — at a great cost. While the losses Yejide endures are more than she can bear, her love for Akin is challenged even further, until the secrets they hide threaten to alter their future forever.
Adebayo weaves vibrant characters with deep empathy, creating a literary tragedy that tempts to break the reader’s heart. Readers are so connected with Yejide’s pain that the passages from Akin’s perspective feel disjointed, though still well written, adding depth to the story. This strong debut gracefully illuminates the complicated relationship a marriage has to society and touches upon themes of monogamy, fertility, and motherhood with tender force.
The Burning Girl by Claire Messud
W. Norton & Company
Acclaimed novelist Claire Messud’s seventh book centers on a friendship that leaves an indelible mark. Julia and Cassie are just four when they meet, and nothing alike. Julia, the novel’s narrator, is passive, level-headed, book-smart and obedient, a foil to adventurous and inscrutable Cassie. The girls spend the summer before seventh grade in the woods of their Massachusetts town, playing in an abandoned, potentially haunted mental hospital they are forbidden from entering. Flirting with danger, they find comfort in a space undisturbed by outside forces.
But then comes the school year, and with it, new friends and activities that send Julia and Cassie down different paths. Still, Julia never loses sight of her old friend, and when Cassie’s behavior takes an alarming turn, Julia may be the only person who can reach her.
Messud’s latest follows a recent trend of adult books that attempt to recreate the explosive energy of adolescent girl friendship (see review of Things That Happened Before the Earthquake above), but her prose lacks the urgency of her peers’. Whereas The Burning Girl is distinct in its mythic structure, its use of “good girl, troubled girl” archetypes feels trite rather than innovative. They’re characters we’ve seen before, and instead of deepening the girls by lingering in scenes, Messud passes time quickly, aging Julia and Cassie before we ever know them at present. Though this novel has sparks of acute insight and emotional clarity, The Burning Girl never catches fire.