Though set in present-day Singapore, Fiona Cheong's riveting novel Shadow Theatre (Soho Press, 256 pages, $24), evokes a mythic timelessness which captivates and bewitches, as does Cheong's beautifully wrought prose. Women and girls of various Asian ethnicities and class backgrounds recount, in a series of narratives, the story of one woman's homecoming, the ghost each sees in a garden and the terrible spell cast by one woman upon another.
Sharp, fluid, erotic and not a little violent, Shadow Theatre unveils the interior landscape of girls and women as they live their daily lives and dream of how they would prefer to live. Life and death often appear interchangeable in this enthralling book with which Cheong establishes herself as a vibrant and compelling voice of the Asian experience.
Cary Holladay's chilling coming-of-age tale, Mercury (Shaye Arehart Books, 305 pages, $22), takes readers into an adolescent heart of darkness deep in the Arkansas delta. High-school senior Katelynn is troubled as she is privileged; her most recent folly - playing with mercury found in an old neon factory - has cost her her health and her best friend, who succumbed to the poisoning. During her recovery, Katelynn witnesses the sinking of a tour boat on the lake outside her bedroom. The boat's captain, Louisa, shattered by the event and her responsibility for the dead, seeks out Katelynn, the only witness, in an effort to obviate her guilt.
Mercury details how the two connect and their mutual effort to rejoin the world of the living. Holladay has a keen ear for dialogue both internal and spoken; Louisa's memories of her family in Yellville evoke the Ozarks as succinctly as a meal of possum and hushpuppies, while Katelynn's adolescent musings are dark as they are real. Mercury lures with lush language and reels one in with a darkly disturbing and richly textured tale.
Jeffrey Ford's novel, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque (Morrow, 310 pages, $24.95) explores the ultimate challenge for an artist: Paint a perfect portrait of the subject while never actually seeing her. Such is the commission given to painter Piero Piambo, a New York City painter working at the close of the 19th century. His patron, the elusive Mrs. Charbuque, sits behind a screen and tells Piambo her life story. In the course of painting his masterpiece, Piambo finds his standing in the art world plummeting, his long-time relationship with Samantha, a stage actress, unraveling, and becomes involved in a bizarre series of murders in which women weep blood. When Mrs. Charbuque disappears, Piambo discovers other famous artists have attempted the commission before, only to lose their minds.
Art history, Hitchcockian suspense and Pynchon-esque augury in equally bizarre measure, Portrait is a portrait of the artist at work as well as captivating intellectual fluff.
Michael Tolkin made his name with The Player, a novel in which a Hollywood film exec murders a writer he thinks is
stalking him, only to find he has made a terrible mistake. Tolkin's new novel, Under Radar (Atlantic Monthly Press, 212 pages, $23), explores the flip side of The Player. Lawyer Tom Levy kills a fellow vacationer while in Jamaica and is sentenced to life in prison.
There a fellow convict due to be hanged tells Tom his story, sending Tom into a seven-year trance. Soon after he recovers, he and his fellow prisoners are released, whereupon Tom spends a year sailing around the world, only to propitiously land in Hawaii, where his ex-wife and two daughters have settled. Can he win back their trust? Should he reveal his true identity to them?
Under Radar requires tremendous leaps of faith, given some of the soap-operatic plot devices. Nevertheless it presents a unique view of crime and punishment, a Rashkolikov for the 21st century.
For the first time Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet's acclaimed novel in verse, Human Landscapes from My Country (Persea Books, 480 pages, $39.95) is available in a complete English translation (by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Komuk). Set in neutral Turkey during World War II, Landscapes proffers the thoughts of soldiers, prisoners, housewives, prostitutes, merchants, journalists and politicians in a stunning display of counterpoint. Although a novel in verse may sound like drudgery for graduate students, this deft translation presents a poem fluid as a river and poignant as a Bach fugue. Stunning.
(The one caveat: Blasing and Komuk eschew footnotes in favor of a brief glossary of important historical figures at the end of the book, perhaps not the best choice.)