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Viet Thanh Nguyen’s memoir A Man of Two Faces delves into the desperation of the displaced. Picture: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s memoir A Man of Two Faces delves into the desperation of the displaced. Picture: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

A powerful portrait of America

Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen’s memoir A Man of Two Faces is described by the publisher as “profound in its emotions and brilliant in its thinking about cultural power, it explores the necessity of both forgetting and of memory, the promises America so readily makes and breaks, and the exceptional life story of one of the most original and important writers working today.”

Through his works, the Vietnamese-American novelist, professor and cultural critic addresses the experiences of Vietnamese refugees and the Vietnam War’s multifaceted effect, prompting readers to reflect on universal themes of humanity, morality, and the consequences of war.

As with The Sympathizer, Nguyen’s memoir, longlisted for the National Book Award, explores complex figures split between nationalities, loyalties and philosophies. He discusses his childhood experience of watching war movies, particularly Apocalypse Now, which made him question his identity as both American and Vietnamese. The narrative delves into the immigrant experience in the US, emphasising the desperation of the displaced and the dehumanisation of refugees on a global scale.

But it’s also characteristically witty and sardonic. Kirkus Reviews calls the book “a kaleidoscopic memoir... deeply personal and intensely political... If the author’s criticism is understandably scathing, there is also a mischievous sense of humour... Nguyen indisputably captures the workings of a quicksilver and penetrating mind... Lyrical and biting, by one of our leading writers”.

 A complex search for true connection

Bryan Washington (Lot, 2019; Memorial, 2020) is known for his distinctive narrative style and his exploration of family, identity, love and community, often through the lens of marginalised and diverse characters.

His third novel, Family Meal, a story about food, sex and love, is once again set in Houston, depicting the city’s multicultural and vibrant landscape. According to the publisher, Family Meal is “a story about how the people who know us the longest can hurt us the most, but how they also set the standard for love”.

After the death of his lover, Cam is overcome with grief and haunted by Kai’s ghost which won’t leave him alone. As his life begins to fall apart, Cam returns to Houston, his hometown, battling with sex and drug addiction. He gets a job as a bartender and reconnects with his estranged best friend TJ and TJ’s family bakery. TJ doesn’t know how to deal with this new version of Cam and his self-destructiveness. The novel explores if and how the two can forget the past, move forward and find each other again.

“Shifting between points of view,” the publisher writes, “Washington shows us characters at their most vulnerable, using food culture to explore conflict, desire, pleasure and passion. The meals his characters enjoy together through it all — from congee to collards to croissants — remind us of the many ways that love, like food, sustains us.”

What it means to be alive

Sigrid Nunez won the National Book Award for The Friend (2018), a moving and unforgettable novel about a woman who inherits a Great Dane from her deceased friend, and the bond between humans and animals. In her 10th novel, The Vulnerables, she explores the sustaining power of connection in a world where people are increasingly distant from each other.

It’s described by the publisher as a story that “reveals what happens when strangers are willing to open their hearts to each other and how far even small acts of caring can go to ease another’s distress”, “a search for understanding about some of the most critical matters of our time”, and “an inquiry into the nature and purpose of writing itself”.

The Vulnerables is set in the early days of lockdown at the start of the pandemic. The story revolves around three strangers living in a luxury Manhattan apartment: a solitary writer, a vegan Gen Z college dropout, and an intelligent and sociable miniature macaw named Eureka, initially abandoned by the student. Small acts of kindness happen in the apartment, while outside, the streets are empty and unfamiliar.

“Nunez’s subject is the core business of being alive: the tenuous beauty of human connection, the nature of memory ... the result is almost arrestingly straightforward,” writes Kirkus Reviews. “Spare and understated and often quite funny, the experience is less like reading fiction than like eavesdropping on someone else’s brain ... Strangely, sweetly hopeful... Sharp — and surprisingly tender.”

Mystery, whimsy and wonderment

From Pulitzer Prize finalist Daniel Mason comes an imaginative novel that begins with two young lovers fleeing a Puritan colony.

“The world had closed over them,” Mason writes. “Gone was England, gone the Colony. They were Nature’s wards now, he told her, they had crossed into a Realm.” Their modest little cabin in the woods will become the home of an extraordinary succession of characters: an English soldier who escapes the battlefields of the New World to devote himself to growing apples; spinster twins who confront war, famine, bitterness and desire; a crime reporter who uncovers an ancient mass grave; as well as a painter, a con man, a panther, and a lusty beetle.

“This magisterial and highly inventive novel ... brims with love and madness, humour and hope,” says the publisher. “Following the cycles of history, nature, and even language, North Woods shows the myriad, magical ways in which we’re connected to our environment, to history, and to one another. It is not just an unforgettable novel about secrets and destinies, but a way of looking at the world that asks the timeless question: How do we live on, even after we’re gone?”

Ode to a city suspended in past and future

Pulitzer winner Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies, 1999; Unaccustomed Earth, 2008; The Lowland, 2013) lived in Rome from 2012 to 2015 and wrote Roman Stories in her adopted language of Italian before translating them herself into English. It’s a collection that captures her multidimensional approach to language and narrative.

The eternal city is not just the setting for these stories, it is the central character. In “The Boundary”, we see the lives of a family holidaying in the Roman countryside though through the eyes of the immigrant caretaker’s daughter.

In “P’s Parties”, a Roman couple befriends foreigners at their friend’s annual birthday gathering, but then the husband crosses a line. In “The Steps”, a public staircase that connects two neighbourhoods, Italy’s changing capital is examined through the tension between worlds and cultures.

“Lahiri steps back from the action, gets out of the way, so the people and things in her stories can exist the way real things do: richly, ambiguously, without explanation,” writes Time.

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