Set in post-WWII England, Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger (Riverhead, $16) starts with Dr. Faraday’s house-call to the old country estate, Hundreds Hall, to tend to the family’s ill maid. The maid’s real complaint is not her health but the rambling and dilapidated house, which shows signs of supernatural goings-on: mysterious wall markings, soft taps across the floors of deserted rooms, shifting objects, bruises and scrapes suffered by its occupants. As these preternatural occurrences grow more violent, they’re echoed in the social turmoil of the changing world outside the estate. Waters’s beautiful prose and masterful control of her material deepen the chill of this accomplished Gothic novel.
Wanting (Grove Press, $14), Australian author Richard Flanagan’s latest historical novel, is a poignant work about the varied objects, yet unified nature, of human desire. Set in 19th-century London and Tasmania, the narrative follows the explorer Sir John Franklin and his wife Jane’s crusade, abetted by a Christian priest, to “civilize” Mathinna, an aboriginal girl. The plot quite literally thickens as Flanagan adds layers of fact and fiction; years later, Charles Dickens re-tells the Franklins’ story. Flanagan extrapolates intimate tales of brutality, betrayal, and hubris from the brief historical relationship between the Franklins and Dickens. Wanting reads like one part biography, two parts fable; it’s a vibrant, dynamic portrait of our drive for fulfillment, and the things—mostly ourselves— that get in the way.
At first glance, this prose isn’t flashy, yet its phrases can dazzle; the narratives aren’t cerebral, but they pose knotty moral problems; the plots are the classic American ones of the road trip, the repeated coming-of-age, the unsettling encounters with other cultures, especially in Latin America, yet each story moves in complex, unexpected directions. The work of a writer renowned for a spare, distinguished output, The Collected Stories Of Deborah Eisenberg (Picador, $22) adds up to a substantial body of work. From her accomplished first book in 1986 through her most recent collection, the acclaimed Twilight of the Superheroes, Eisenberg has chronicled the lives of men and women, mostly in New York, struggling to make sense of their lives, relationships, and careers, but her devastating wit, nuanced satire, and uncompromising yet generous vision, make them much more.