Award-winning, bilingual novelist
Book illustration (Shutterstock.com/Chinnapong/File)
Being asked what your favorite novels are is like being asked the story of your life.
There are books that inspired you when you were young, books you feel compelled to revisit at different stages of your life and books you just picked up and enjoyed so much you want everybody to read them now. There are those so-called timeless books, which bring joy, solace and sustenance at any given time, and there are books that speak more forcefully to the times we are living in.
And those times, right now — need we be reminded — are like no other.
One of the blessings of the lockdown is the great big space it opens up for us to think about how we have lived and how we are going to live. We can choose to hang on to our old prejudices, stale ideas and polluted rivers and oceans or to keep the positive lessons of our isolation — our heightened gratitude, our greater mental and physical discipline and our renewed sense of purpose. We can choose to wallow in our miseries or to enlarge our solicitude toward others and advance causes that are bigger than us. We can learn to listen better and rethink what it means to be alive — and to live with difference.
Now, with borders closed and spaces hemmed in, we can think of ways to travel imaginatively rather than lament our canceled trips and non-reimbursable flight tickets. We may be in retreat and much of our struggle may be inward, but we are also surprisingly at our most open: to new thoughts, new reflections and even new sources of wisdom and hope.
And I find this so true of my reading list of the past few months, which is, at best, a mixed bag of genres and styles, old and new, read and reread. Here are some of them.
The Overstory by Richard Powers
Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize-winning paean to the wisdom of trees. This is a big book of 502 pages — by no stretch a quick read — but its prose is so sublime, its imaginative flights stunning, you will be long immersed in its world even after you’ve finished reading it.
The novel reminds us that there is a world alongside ours — vast, interconnected, endlessly inventive and almost imperceptible to us.
It also speaks to us, if only we knew how to listen: “A chorus of living wood signs to the woman: If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning.”
Homesick for Another World by Otessa Moshfegh
Hands down the best short story collection I’ve read in the past 10 years.
Psychologically astute, superbly crafted and funny as hell, these stories are near perfect examples of the form. There is not a single person in these stories who is not weird, broken, frequently pathetic, just as there is not a single story that is not dark, unsettling, even violent.
At times the author’s searing wit and crackling prose remind you of A.M. Homes and Lorrie Moore, as does her willingness to make us squirm. Yet there is much wisdom and compassion in Otessa Moshfegh’s gaze that leaven her characters somehow, making you want to sit down and have a beer with them.
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
One of the surprise joys of the past year: A debut novel that doesn’t read like a debut — and one that had me in tears more than I could remember. It is set in modern-day Dublin and tells of two college students and the curious connection they forge with a married couple.
Narrated by one of the students, a gifted but fragile millennial protagonist, it is a tender, poignant and perfectly observed study of modern love and friendship, of growing pains and lost innocence, and of what it means to be young and female today.
Milkman by Anna Burns
First, a warning: Coming-of-age is not the easiest of genres and Milkman is not an easy read. Even though it won the Booker Prize in 2018, it remains at its core a strange, intense, intricate construction whose rewards have to be earned.
The characters and the setting are nameless, though it appears to be the author’s native Belfast in the 70s during the period known as the Troubles, a time when Northern Ireland was felled by a series of sectarian murders.
There is no political explanation for all the forces at play; even England is referred to simply as "the country over the water". Yet the novel so eerily embodies the disquiet of our own era, from terrorism to sexual harassment to the gnawing divisions in a hair-trigger society plagued by violence, distrust and paranoia. As Washington Post declares, it is a “#MeToo testimony in the context of a civil war”.
There is also a haunting, visceral quality to the 18-year-old narrator’s stream of consciousness patter that keeps you transfixed — and ultimately, moved.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
You don’t encounter this sort of premise often: a runaway slave willing to slaughter her own children rather than be dragged back to captivity. A staggering study of love and goodness in the face of so much evil, this is what Toni Morrison does best, melding the beauty and precision and poetry with the great themes of humanity: racism, slavery, injustice, gender and class inequality.
The prose can be overripe sometimes, but it is utterly warranted, as is the author’s absolute moral majesty.
There is also all the food talk. Try this for the erotic version of corn-on-the-cob: “How loose the silk. How quick the jailed-up flavor ran free […] No accounting for how that simple joy could shake you.”
And there is this: “Freeing oneself is one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self is another.”
It's the one line that made me want to be a writer when I first read this 1987 pièce de résistance in the early 1990s.
The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
"I am an invisible man […] I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."
So Invisible Man opens — the novel that won the National Book Award in 1953 and named one of the Best 100 Novels of the 20th Century.
The unnamed narrator is angry at the world, his world, the unjust world of young black people in America in the 1950s, and what seems like the impossibility of changing it.
Even if the novel was written 67 years ago, we find the narrator enduring the same challenges as African-Americans today in their long and awful fight against racism. It was as if Ellison had anticipated the events of the past two months, including the inevitable rise of Black Lives Matter.
July’s People by Nadine Gordimer
Nadine Gordimer’s 1981 masterpiece set in a fictional South Africa at the end of apartheid. The story centers on a white family forced out of their home by black rioters, who are taken in by their servant July and must now live as he lives, trusting him with their lives.
Spare, unsentimental, written almost with cold candor, it looks at the nature of power reversal, the incompatibility between fear and true intimacy, and sex as a liberating form of self-exile.
The Real Odessa by Uki Goni and A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The former is a chilling study on the extent to which Argentina’s mass killing program — resulting in some 30,000 "disappeared" — might have been influenced by the country’s harboring of numerous Nazi war criminals such as Adolf Eichmann and Joseph Mengele after the war. It looks at the premise of the latter, inspired by the Lebensborn program of keeping women alive as human incubators, murdering them after they gave birth and handing their babies to them to raise as their own.
It also speaks to our times, that a society that separates children from their parents is a society that is already on the path of totalitarianism.
The Right to Have Rights
A slim book of essays published in 2018 by four academics each trying, focusing on one word, to unpack the famous Hannah Arendt phrase, “The right to have rights.”
It also looks at Arendt’s initial skepticism of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as she later enshrined in her 1951 masterpiece The Origins of Totalitarianism.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Part of me has always been stuck in the 19th century, with Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Portrait of a Lady by Henry James as its linchpins.
Jane Eyre follows the story of Jane, a seemingly plain girl as she battles through the many obstacles in her life: her cruel and abusive Aunt Reed, the grim conditions at Lowood school, her love for Rochester and Rochester's tortuous marriage to Bertha. However, Jane’s courage and wit win the day; she ends up marrying Rochester and they have children of their own.
Upon rereading, I just realized that the novel also gives us an insight into life during an epidemic. Even if Jane’s friend, Helen Burns, dies from consumption, not typhus, it reminds us that with COVID-19, we are just, as Amy Davidson Sorkin argues, “as vulnerable as the Victorians were — given the novelty of the virus, our lack of immunity and the inequalities that made its depredations worse”. (kes)
Laksmi Pamuntjak is an award-winning, bilingual novelist, poet, essayist, journalist and food writer. Her debut novel, Amba/The Question of Red, won the German LiBeraturpreis in 2016, and the sequel, Fall Baby, was published last year by Penguin Random House SEA.
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.