The second post in this Best Of 2021 series:
Literary Fiction (or, the list that gave me the worst book hangovers)
The Turnout by Megan Abbott
Bestselling and award-winning author Megan Abbott’s revelatory, mesmerizing, and game-changing new novel set against the hothouse of a family-run ballet studio, and an interloper who arrives to bring down the carefully crafted Eden-like facade.
With uncanny insight and hypnotic writing, it is a sharp and strange dissection of family ties and sexuality, femininity and power, and a tale that is both alarming and irresistible.
It’s not often that the marketing copy is as accurate as this one. Most marketing copy makes the book seem a lot better than it is (no shade—that’s the whole point of marketing), but The Turnout’s is on point (heh)
Teetering on the edge of horror, it’s dark and smoldering and deals with some heavy topics (CW: sexual abuse when one of the characters was a teenager). But oh my goodness the prose is stunning; it’s so lyrical and delicious and even though not much “happens” in this book, I was captivated.
Megan Abbott is an auto-read for me. In interviews she’s spoken about the influence of old Hollywood noir on her work (she wrote her PhD dissertation on hardboiled fiction) and it’s evident in everything I’ve read by her, no matter how contemporary. I see a lot of the Gothic in her work—noir shares a lot of similarities with the Gothic—which is probably another big reason why I like it so much.
Anyway, if you haven’t read The Turnout, I recommend you do so immediately!
Nothing Can Hurt You by Nicola Maye Goldberg
On a cold day in 1997, student Sara Morgan was killed in the woods surrounding her liberal arts college in upstate New York. Her boyfriend, Blake Campbell, confessed, his plea of temporary insanity raising more questions than it answered.
In the wake of his acquittal, the case comes to haunt a strange and surprising network of community members, from the young woman who discovers Sara’s body to the junior reporter who senses its connection to convicted local serial killer John Logan. Others are looking for retribution or explanation: Sara’s half-sister, stifled by her family’s bereft silence about Blake, poses as a babysitter and seeks out her own form of justice, while the teenager Sara used to babysit starts writing to Logan in prison.
I love short story collections, but I especially love collections of linked stories. They provide the cohesion of a novel with the benefit of short stories, bite-sized pieces from various points of view. Perfect for an ADHD brain, tbh.
Nothing Can Hurt You is “literary suspense,” so these stories are pretty quiet, but I nevertheless found them full of tension and intrigue. If you’re looking for a straightforward whodunit, you won’t find it here. But if you want quietly fascinating stories about the reverberating impact of violence in a small community, pick this up.
The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai
Meet the Devohrs: Zee, a Marxist literary scholar who detests her parents’ wealth but nevertheless finds herself living in their carriage house; Gracie, her mother, who claims she can tell your lot in life by looking at your teeth; and Bruce, her step-father, stockpiling supplies for the Y2K apocalypse and perpetually late for his tee time. Then there’s Violet Devohr, Zee’s great-grandmother, who they say took her own life somewhere in the vast house, and whose massive oil portrait still hangs in the dining room.
The Hundred-Year House unfolds a generational saga in reverse, leading the reader back in time on a literary scavenger hunt as we seek to uncover the truth about these strange people and this mysterious house. With intelligence and humor, a daring narrative approach, and a lovingly satirical voice, Rebecca Makkai has crafted an unforgettable novel about family, fate, and the incredible surprises life can offer.
This was such a unique read that I couldn’t stop thinking about it for a while after I finished it. I should have known that Rebecca Makkai’s writing does this to me after I had the worst book hangover, to date, after I finished The Great Believers two years ago. I’ll let the marketing copy speak for itself because this book is one of those you just gotta experience for yourself. I will say that this book, with its quiet hauntings and mysterious house, that should have tipped me off to my Gothic proclivities much earlier than I realized.
The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans
With The Office of Historical Corrections, Evans zooms in on particular moments and relationships in her characters’ lives in a way that allows them to speak to larger issues of race, culture, and history. She introduces us to Black and multiracial characters who are experiencing the universal confusions of lust and love, and getting walloped by grief—all while exploring how history haunts us, personally and collectively. Ultimately, she provokes us to think about the truths of American history—about who gets to tell them, and the cost of setting the record straight.
Danielle Evans is a master of the short form. All the stories in this collection, even the quieter ones, are razor sharp. My favorite stories were “Boys Go to Jupiter” and “Anything Could Disappear,” which absolutely wrecked me.
And THEN she blows us away with the eponymous novella at the end. Evans weaves in history with culture and the experiences of Black men and women in the US, and ties in a mystery to solve as well. I read a couple novellas this year and they felt like they were just scratching the surface of the story they wanted to tell, but The Office of Historical Corrections kept the rhythm and depth of a novel in a fraction of the space. It’s brilliant. I read this collection in February and I still think about it from time to time.