You know a novel’s good when it haunts you for days after reading – and Victoria Gosling’s Before the Ruins (Henry Holt) passes that test with flying colours. This debut work from the English Berlinerin is tense, tough, and surprisingly tender. Into a bona-fide mystery plot – abandoned manor, alluring stranger, childhood friends with tragic secrets – Gosling smuggles an impressive depth of human insight and a wealth of lovely description. “Beneath the shining life I’d built were ruins,” the narrator Andy reflects, “and now I was among them.” As Andy digs into her difficult past, she unearths a dramatic set of overlapping mysteries. But the novel’s true theme is the mystery we are to ourselves – and to the people we love.
Another much-anticipated debut novel comes from Mateo Askaripour, an NYC sales prodigy-turned-author. Black Buck (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) tells the story of Darren, aka Buck, a drifting young Starbucks barista whose life is transformed when he gets hired by a mysterious Manhattan start-up. It turns out Buck is a natural salesman. But will his new white colleagues allow him to succeed? And what does this company even sell? Buck’s meteoric rise – and the strain it puts on his relationships back in Brooklyn – is narrated in a wisecracking voice full of salesy charm. While Black Buck was marketed as a satire of race and capitalism, it feels much more like a satire of race in capitalism, an astute parody of business-world appropriation and prejudice.
Staying in the US: Very few treatments of the annus horribilis 2020 have been as beautiful and intelligent as the poems and essays published in The Yale Review’s “Pandemic Files” series. The best of these are now available in a collection, A World Out of Reach (Yale University Press). Here diverse contributors, from Zimbabwe to Rikers to Yale itself, discuss their fear for loved ones, their adjustment to new conditions, and their research into historical precedents (AIDS) or structural inequalities behind the pandemic. The unexpected highlight is an essay by Classics professor Emily Greenwood: “Thucydides describes the plague for his readers,” she writes, “not as any kind of inoculation against the recurrence of the disease, but so that next time people will be wiser. We all know how that goes.” Indeed.
From the topic du jour to a timeless concern, particularly in Berlin. Celebrated British author Simon Winchester’s new book Land (William Collins) addresses how Western ideas about land have shaped (and misshaped) the modern world. Eschewing a traditional structure, this mosaic of highly readable short chapters explores the various ways land has been mapped, traded, stolen, used and stewarded over time. Accompany Winchester on his travels – from early cartography to the dispossession of Native Americans, from the communitarian Dutch “polders” to the sinister mega-landowners of Australia and Texas – and just try not to agree with him that something has to change about the current late-capitalist private land ownership system. Even if you do vote FDP.