The world should thank the Nobel committee of 2015 for calling its attention to Svetlana Alexievich. A previously little known Belarusian journalist with a remarkable talent for oral history, Alexievich is an unconventional choice in a field of novelists and poets. Yet her books have the complex plots, memorable characters, lyricism, pathos, and truth of any great literary work. This is especially the case with the wrenching Secondhand Time (Random House, $30). Assembling hundreds of interviews conducted since the end of the Soviet era, Alexievich worked to “admit feelings into history.” As she talked to workers and students, victims and executioners, heroes and parents, she tapped into an almost overwhelming vein of emotion; her subjects laugh and cry at once. They give way to cathartic outbursts worthy of the classical tragedies. They exclaim that they’ve never told anyone these things before. Some stories have been repressed for decades, other are as fresh as the ethnic divisions of today’s headlines; all carry an irresistible intensity and urgency. Together, they reflect the “sheer schizophrenia” of this moment in Russian history, when the older generation regrets the lost idealism of communism, defends the “socialist idea,” and wonders if “instead of a motherland, we live in a huge supermarket,” while younger people are impatient with tradition, dismissing the great “Russian novels” because they ”don’t teach you how to become successful, how to get rich.” Can a land of such sharply discordant views cohere? Maybe. When Alexievich abandons individual interviews and records the diverse statements she overhears at public events, the result isn’t incoherence or non sequitur but a monologue as eloquent and compelling as any.
Hanya Yanagihara, who made a wildly creative debut with The People in the Trees, beautifully navigates several perspectives in A Little Life (Doubleday, $30), narrating the lives of four men in New York City. A tight-knit crew in college, Malcolm, JB, Jude, and Willem stick together after graduation, and the story chronicles their lives, complete with the pivotal moments and festering secrets, both shared and hidden, over decades of friendship. Yanagihara supplies little in the way of concrete physical descriptions and straightforward timelines, instead devoting many pages to expertly paced exposition that delivers powerful emotional punches. Most of these focus on Jude, who is the novel’s fulcrum; the other characters are defined by their relationship with this extraordinarily complicated figure. Yet the group itself has a complex dynamic, and the story traces stubbornness, rivalry, anxiety, and outright fear. Jude, however, has an especially traumatic story, and his emotional and physical scars affect the entire group. Even as the men grow into middle age, their relationships continue to evolve, expanding, shrinking—even spiraling out of control.
Observing that we seldom read about a successful marriage in serious literature, Lauren Groff set about changing that. Though she’s confessed she’s no expert on marriage, despite being married herself, she’s birthed a brilliant monster of a novel with Fates and Furies (Riverhead, $27.95). At once a richly layered and inventive portrayal of a relationship, in all its passions and secrets, and a deep well of a tale about loyalty and love, Groff’s third novel lets us deep inside the psyches of Lotto and Mathilde. A story told in two halves, it gives the husband’s and wife’s perspectives separately. We watch as the characters develop, following them from their childhoods to their meeting, witnessing how they stay together and how they form their own identities both within and outside their marriage. With Groff’s trademark breathtaking backdrops—this time the plot unfolds in France, Florida, and New York City—and a colorful (sometimes even grotesque) supporting cast, this amazing novelist gives us her most important work yet. It’s been shortlisted for the National Book Award for a reason—and everybody should drop what they’re doing and read it.