Drawing the title from Gertrude Stein’s often misunderstood remark about Oakland, “there’s no there there,” Tommy Orange in his tremendous There There (Knopf, $25.95) wants “to bring something new to the vision of the Native experience” by presenting the untold and as yet unstereotyped “Urban Indian story.” He brilliantly accomplishes this in twelve vivid interwoven profiles that tap into the “real passion…and rage” of Native Americans in contemporary Oakland. Powerful and moving, these virtuoso narratives bring us into the lives of children and grandparents, single mothers and drug thugs, recovering alcoholics and victims of abuse. All have complicated relationships with their heritage. Some are members of one or more specific nations, others don’t know where they belong. Some are always conscious of their identity, others feel Indian only when dressed in Indian regalia. For many, their heritage is too easily confused with patronizing images. Through intimate and urgent stories Orange recovers the “there” of a Native history that’s “been paved over.” At the same time he emphatically ends American Indians’s long struggle “to be recognized as a present-tense people, modern and relevant.”
Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26) is a marvel. The haunting story of a woman who goes to a horror film festival in Havana and sees (or does she?) her dead husband is one of the most stunning novels of 2018. The Third Hotel nods to its extensive cultural influences-- from feminist film fiction to Clarice Lispector—and then eats them all alive, absorbing and metabolizing these sources to create an entirely new world, strange and beautiful but entirely solid in its own universe. Above all it dives deep into “genre” (is it Literary Fiction? Mystery? Horror?) and turns it inside out, challenging all of our simplistic ideas of categorization. There are moments of narrative freefall, but your vertigo is always intentional: van den Berg is an artist in utter, full-cylinder control of her craft. You’ll finish this gorgeous novel breathless, exhilarated, and forced into an uneasy reckoning with your secret selves.
Favored by many to win this year’s Man Booker, Washington Black (Knopf, $26.95), the third novel by Canadian writer Esi Edugyan, will be sure to please the person on your gift list who loves magical realism and historical fiction. The novel opens by bluntly posing the question of what it means to be free, a question ingeniously and powerfully explored through the life of the eponymous Washington Black. Washington is an eleven-year-old slave on a Barbados sugar plantation when he’s selected by the plantation master’s brother to assist with perfecting his new invention, the “Cloud-cutter.” A flying machine, the cutter allows Washington to drift off to several different countries. The plot keeps pace with the adventures, and Edugyan’s tale deftly interweaves themes of friendship and betrayal while brilliantly evoking the world of the early nineteenth century.