Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach (Scribner, $28) captures a time and place on the verge of momentous change. Set in Brooklyn in the 1940s, the novel tells the story of Anna Kerrigan, a young woman who has dropped out of Brooklyn College to contribute what she can to the American war effort. Unsatisfied with her job of inspecting and measuring machine parts, she attempts to enter the male-only world of deep-sea diving. Manhattan Beach is rich and atmospheric, highlighting a period when gangs controlled the waterfront, jazz streamed from the doors of nightclubs, and the future for everyone was far from certain.
Winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice, The Leavers (Algonquin, $25.95), by Lisa Ko, is an exploration of the lives of a family of Chinese immigrants. Polly, an undocumented immigrant, is rounded up in a raid on the nail salon where she works, gets caught up in the system, and eventually is repatriated to China. Her eleven-year-old son doesn’t know where she’s gone or what happened to her. She’s just gone. Fostering with a kind, intelligent couple (both are professors) in the suburbs, Deming has difficulty recovering from the trauma and confusion of his early life. The book is timely and the subject important, but the strength of the novel lies in the composition of the principal characters, showing the depth of their humanity, their worthiness of our empathy.
In the world Louise Erdrich envisions in Future Home of the Living God (Harper, $28.99), nature appears to have reversed itself and evolution has gone haywire: cats and birds now come in often horrifying scale, and, most terrifying, women give birth to barely recognizable primitive creatures. Our narrator, Cedar Hawk Songmaker, is an Ojibwe raised by white parents in Minnesota, and she’s four months pregnant. The state has demanded that all pregnant women surrender themselves, and those who do not are hunted by officials and sent to prison-like hospitals. Cedar reunites with her Ojibwe birth family and lives on the reservation until even that gets too dangerous. Future Home of the Living God is an exciting page-turner, but it’s also a serious look at authoritarianism and the politics of reproduction.