Note: I’ve had the great pleasure of working with Melissa since she acquired my forthcoming novel, THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS, for Doubleday last September. I know a bit about her editorial style but very little about her personal reading tastes. So I invited her to share some recommendations with us today: one novel she edited, and one she didn’t. Melissa has kindly offered to give a copy of PARLOR GAMES to one lucky reader. Simply leave a comment on this post if you’d like to be entered in the drawing.
I have a weakness for unreliable narrators, so when Maryka Biaggio’s debut novel, PARLOR GAMES, first hit my inbox, I put it at the very top of my submission pile. Part Becky Sharp, part CATCH ME IF YOU CAN’S Frank Abagnale, this historical romp chronicles the life and times of May Dugas, a beautiful con-artist whose escapades spanned the Gilded Age and took her all around the world.
The novel is framed by a trial occurring in 1917 where an older May finds herself accused of extorting money from a friend—a charge that our alluring protagonist vehemently denies. Fearful that details revealed during this trial will be twisted to make her look like the bad guy, May entreats the reader to hear her version of events. She promises a truthful account, but it’s immediately clear that we’re dealing with a woman who knows how to spin a story, cover her tracks and get what she wants.
May takes on an intimate tone, drawing us into her confidences in such a way that readily explains why so many men (and some women) fell prey to her charms. I have to confess that it’s so fun to be in May’s orbit that it was only after one faintly disquieting revelation after another—about how she’s seduced and swindled, enchanted and entrapped—that I realized the full extent of her transgressions. She would certainly like us to believe that this is a tale of an innocent corrupted by an unfair world or that she did it all to support her beloved family, but regardless of whether or not the reader buys into these claims, it’s hard not to root for (or at the very least, respect) May as she traipses across countries, hearts and the law.
In a sense, it’s even harder to believe that this novel is based on a true story. As Maryka recently wrote in a blog for Huffington Post, we say that the truth is stranger than fiction so often that it’s become a bit cliché. And yet, it’s a cliché that I find myself constantly gravitating towards in my reading—both for work and for pleasure. Although very fine plots and characters in historical fiction have been the product of pure invention (after nailing the period detail of course), there is almost a voyeuristic appeal in reimagining a life already lived. Here, we see a glamorous existence lived just a step ahead of the law–until, that is, May’s past catches up with her.
The novel that I didn’t edit falls into a very different category, but features a style that could also justifiably be called unreliable—if only because it’s narrated by a child who bears witnesses to events that she can’t fully comprehend even as she faithfully recounts the sensory detail.
NoViolet Bulawayo’s WE NEED NEW NAMES (on-sale 5/21) opens in a Zimbabwe shantytown in 2008. 10-year-old Darling and her friends spend their days stealing guavas and playing games like “Find Bin Laden”—scenes that so perfectly capture the universal preoccupations of childhood. This coupled with the powerful, pretense-free narration by Darling exposes the distance between how these children see the world and the harsher reality that an adult reader can intuit.
Their homes have been destroyed and the schools shut down amidst political upheaval; deep, gnawing hunger and AIDS have become so ubiquitous that they’re hardly worthy of description but operate forcefully in the background. Luckily for Darling, her aunt lives in America, and the young girl has placed all her hopes in this sparkling country without fully realizing what she’ll sacrifice or the challenges she’ll face when she finally moves to Kalamazoo, Michigan.
The book has two distinct parts, and although America stands in such stark contrast to life in Zimbabwe, the bigger gulf is between Darling’s expectations for America and what she experiences once she’s actually there. This is not to say her life in America is marked by tragedy or exploitation that sometimes accompanies this type of novel. Instead, humorous moments mingle with nuanced observations and Bulawayo shifts the tonal register so expertly as Darling navigates the pitfalls of both assimilation and adolescence that it’s an even more gripping read than if there were high-octane drama involved.
Questions of identity and alienation definitely loom large in this novel and there are scenes punctuated with violence and heartbreak, but the characters and plot never feel like part of a message while Darling’s point of view is pretty much pitch perfect to my ear. The only point where Bulawayo breaks this spell is in a powerful chorus-style narration that gives voice to not only those from her country and continent but the full-spectrum of immigration.
Following in the tradition of other novels of displacement, but with a beguiling rawness that’s uniquely its own, WE NEED NEW NAMES is a beautiful and haunting book that provides an intimate window into one young woman’s experiences, overturns preconceived notions and entertains in equal measure. It’s a book that will stay with me long after the last page.
About Ariel Lawhon
Ariel Lawhon is the co-founder of She Reads, novelist, blogger, storyteller, and life-long reader. She lives in Texas with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). Ariel believes that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart.