In the highly-anticipated, richly imagined first novel from National Book Award-winner Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer (One World, $28), we travel to a plantation in antebellum Virginia. Hiram Walker, the son of an enslaved—or, in the book’s terminology, “tasked”—Black woman and her white master, is born into a life of slavery, and virtually orphaned at age nine when his father sells his mother to a family farther south. He is a young man of many talents, however, including both a photographic memory and, kindled by the phenomenal strength of his memories, especially those of his mother, the power of conduction. Along with Harriet Tubman, another great conductor, Hiram puts his singular ability to move himself and others across bodies of water in the service of the Underground Railroad, and Coates interweaves his life with those of the runaway slaves Hiram helps lead north. He also interpolates texts by and about those who perished in the middle passage, constructing a collective memory more powerful than any one person’s. Written with dazzling prose, this searing and uplifting story explores the constructs of family and race and the salvific power of memory to bind people together.
Resistance is the dominant theme of The Testaments (Nan A. Talese, $28.95), Margaret Atwood’s compelling, beautifully-written sequel to her dystopian feminist epic of 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale. As themes go, it couldn’t be more timely. More than three decades after she invented Gilead, a futuristic totalitarian theocracy built on the subjugation of women, such state-sanctioned, gender-based oppression no longer seems so fantastical. In The Testaments, which co-won this year’s Booker Prize, Atwood celebrates those who resist the tyranny of Gilead as she wrestles with deeper questions about women who help build and support the tyrannical regime, even as they understand its brutal consequences. Told as witness testimonies in the voices of three women characters (including a still vexing Aunt Lydia), The Testaments raises questions that have political bearing today: How does resistance take shape inside, and outside, a totalitarian system? How does coercion work? What is complicity? And what are the ethics of perpetuating a system one hopes to overthrow? In an age when autocrats, demagogues, and wannabe dictators are running roughshod over democratic institutions and disrupting norms, often with blind followers assisting them, Atwood reminds us that true resistance may be our only salvation.
The brilliance of Karen Russell’s fiction starts in her sentences and carries through her vivid, mind-bending plots. Fittingly for a book called Orange World (Knopf, $25.95), these eight stories are colorful and wide-ranging: “the revelatory pain called wonder” is “a purple welt rising” in the mind while weather is a series of “violet funnels” and “crocusblue mists.” Embracing both sides of what was once an ultimate divide, Russell expands notions of life and death, putting existence itself in a new perspective—much as climate change is doing. In “The Gondoliers” four women navigate the toxic waters of New Florida by listening to the echoes of the drowned Old Florida. “The Tornado Auction” follows the sorry fate of an old-school tornado rancher who can’t transition to farming wind, though his compulsion harms his children. In the multi-layered “Black Corfu,” Russell chronicles the life of a “posthumous surgeon” who renders the recently dead unfit to walk again, which amounts to “treat[ing] the fears of the living.” Though set in 1620, this story is very much of the 21st century; in addition to everything else—her language, compassion, storytelling brio—Russell is a superb allegorist, and these eight tales don’t just entertain, they illuminate and inform.