The moral conundrum in this edgy, contemporary interpretation of Sophocles’s Antigone is how we balance fidelity to faith, family, and country. The novel’s central characters, who, like author Kamila Shamsie, are Londoners of Pakistani descent, are forced to contemplate unspeakable personal choices thanks to a series of events that entangle them through love, friendship, and jihad. Crisp prose, surprising twists of plot, and an ending that will send chills up your spine are among the reasons Home Fire (Riverhead, $26) was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The seventh and best book yet from this talented young writer—and my favorite novel of the year.
Winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize, George Saunders’s amazing first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House, $28), could easily be a play. There’s no narrator, no omniscient scene-setter, only voices. The narrative unfolds in the dual worlds of Washington, D.C., in February 1862 and in the timeless bardo, the Buddhist limbo, and the voices are both historical—contemporary witnesses and journalists, later historians—and imagined. Bridging these categories is eleven-year-old Willie, Lincoln’s third son. Recently dead of typhoid, he joins the spirits in their state of denial in Oak Hill Cemetery. Representing a wide range of American society, these artisans, slaves, soldiers, and ministers comment, confess, rave, and dispute, all the while strenuously avoiding the “d” word. They feel they still have business with this world, though they’re virtually powerless to influence it—a condition not new to all of them. When Willie’s father visits, as he actually did, he has a noticeable “vivifying effect” on the ghosts; in one of Saunders’s remarkable tours de force, the spirits crowd into the man’s consciousness in an effort to make him really see his son, as opposed to the remains in the “sick-box.” Only there, in the President’s body, does this diverse cast of characters begin to understand each other. Saunders’s portrait of Lincoln as a grieving father is poignant, and his visions of an afterlife, alternately glorious and monstrous, is worthy of the Book of Revelation.
Based on the lives of her mother and grandparents, Miss Burma (Grove, $26), by Charmaine Craig, is nothing short of stunning. Especially for readers unfamiliar with Burma, here is a tale of loss and love in a country too long neglected by the world. This novel begins in 1926 in a place still dominated by the British Empire. We meet Benny, Craig’s grandfather, and follow him as he endures a harsh childhood as a Jewish transplant first in Calcutta, India, and then in Rangoon, Burma. Surviving on his reputation as a pugilist, he eventually becomes an officer of His Majesty’s Customs Services. Through his official duties Benny meets Craig’s grandmother, Khin, a member of the long persecuted ethnic minority group known as the Karen. Their courtship and wedding is passionate and swift. They soon have their first child, Louisa, Craig’s mother, and other children quickly follow. What might have been a wonderful life for a happy family was forever altered by the advent of World War II and then years of civil war. What separates this book from others is its frank look at who and what survives under such perilous conditions. Love and identities are tested both physically and mentally, and the characters have more than a few surprising realizations. This is an epic story that uses the lens of one family to help explain modern Burma.