In Women Talking (Bloomsbury, $24), Miriam Toews takes a true story and makes it into a novel, a Greek tragedy, a play, and a feminist protest. The facts are that between 2005 and 2009 the women of a Mennonite community in Bolivia were attacked and raped in their sleep. At first, the colony blamed spirit demons, but eventually it emerged that the attackers were some of the colony’s men. Toews sets her fiction during the course of a few days; while the community’s men are in town working to release the perpetrators, the women gather in a hayloft to debate their options. They can do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. Because they’ve been kept illiterate, the women delegate the colony’s schoolteacher—who is shunned by the other men—to record their discussion. The women are eloquent, funny, sharp as they consider both the religious and the everyday implications of their decisions. Women Talking, with its vivid voices—full of individual idiosyncrasies and generational differences—fluid transitions, and unexpected tensions, could easily be a play. Toews’s dialogue is uncannily alive, and her narration is tender, unadorned, and sympathetic as she writes of women’s pain and doubts, but also their hope and faith and profound humanity.
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.