The Most Necessary Books for the End of 2016

book covers

This election season is no joke. At times, this world can feel grim as the weather grows cold and the nights grow long. Pick up one of these necessary books to guide you through the end of 2016 with heart, honesty, and compassion.

The Story of a Brief Marriage
Anuk Arudpragasam
Flatiron Books
September 6

At the beginning of Anuk Arudpragasam’s slim and devastating novel, Dinesh is digging a fresh set of graves for the latest victims of the Sri Lankan Civil War. When a man approaches him with a proposition to marry his daughter Ganga, Dinesh questions the meaning of marriage on a day that might be his last. Life in the refugee camp is never taken for granted by the evacuees: they’ve all lost mothers, wives, siblings, and the memory of what life used to be.

Arudpragasam’s prose slays in its detail: the soft bristles on a comb, the smooth bed of Ganga’s fingernail beneath Dinesh’s thumb, the ever present pound of shelling in the distance. Dinesh finds new purpose in his devotion to Ganga amid the senselessness of war, and therein the the novel hits its most sonorous notes. The traditional war narrative has never been quite so intimate. The Story of a Brief Marriage strikes at the core of sacrificial love when the heart has nothing left to give.

Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down 
Anne Valente
William Morrow
October 4

Short story writer Anne Valente’s debut novel is a piercing investigation of a tight-knit community in the wake of a town-wide tragedy reminiscent of Columbine. After young Caleb Raynor opens fire in the halls of Lewis and Clark High School in St. Louis and kills thirty-five of his classmates and teachers, the town is left splintered and groping for answers. The four juniors responsible for compiling the yearbook are scathed by their survival: Zola hid in the library while the shots rang out around her, Matt found Raynor’s first victim in the hallway, and Christina and Nick hid in their classrooms and feared for their loved ones.

The quartet faces down their memories as they write a profile for every student they lost. But as they struggle to manage their own grief as well as the school’s, a new threat appears on the doorsteps of every neighborhood in town. One by one, the houses of Raynor’s victims catch fire, and Zola, Matt, Christina, and Nick reckon with whether or not their community can ever recover.

Valente has written a poetic page-turner that explores how we grieve in solitude and grieve together, and what the human body endures when that grief overwhelms. Quizzical, melodic, and unforgettable, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down breaks new ground on issues of mass violence, communal loss, and the act of remembrance.

The Mothers
Brit Bennett
October 11

Stanford graduate and University of Michigan MFA alum Brit Bennett’s debut novel reads like a dream and cuts like a knife by posing one question: Can you be a mother while you mourn the one you lost? In small town Oceanside, California, nothing escapes the notice of the mothers in Upper Room’s fiercely loyal church congregation. They’ve learned that the best secrets have a certain taste to them, especially the ones young Nadia Turner has kept since her mother committed suicide. She falls for the pastor’s son, Luke–a former football prodigy who loves Nadia, but doesn’t dare bring her home. What unfolds is a series of mistakes, betrayals, and lies when Nadia finds herself pregnant and fears her future has already been determined by every single mother in Oceanside who is not her own.

Bennett writes that the “magic you wanted was a miracle, magic you didn’t want was a haunting.”  I inhaled The Mothers. It’s a story as much about the actions we take as the ones we don’t; the way our stories inform our communities, and the way those communities inflict themselves upon us. Nadia grows into a life burdened by the absent-presence of others, a life that invites her to wrestle with the weight of caring and being cared for, loving and being loved–all while the ghost of the past watches over her.

Pull Me Under
Kelly Luce
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
November 1

Rio Silvestri is a mother, nurse, and wife, but she has not always gone by the new name she chose for herself when she fled Japan as a young woman. Chizuru Akitani was the Japanese-American daughter of a famed violinist, and after she stabbed the school bully as a twelve-year-old, she lost her identity, her freedom, her nationality, and any semblance of a father’s love. When a cryptic package arrives on her doorstep in Colorado after years of silence, Rio returns to Japan to reckon with the wreckage she and her father left behind.

Luce’s debut novel is psychologically seductive, and the prose draws the reader into its loneliness. Pull Me Under shines brightest as an inquest into whether a split psyche can ever be made whole once the past becomes its own foreign country–and the tyranny of being taught that a dark past is not to be trespassed upon.

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