Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Year of Storytellers


A book buyer celebrates the notable titles set to be released throughout this landmark year for literary fiction

I HAVE NEVER BEEN as bored with fiction as I was in 2008. It was a barren year for novelists, and the only highlights for story-lovers were Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark, Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma and Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Even the Man Booker Prize shortlist last year was, in my opinion, rather lacklustre.

As my pleasurable flings with fictional characters became nearly non-existent, I turned to real people and real issues, devouring Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father and Robert Frisk’s The Age of the Warrior. I even found Charles Wheelan’s Naked Economics surprisingly engaging, and E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World highly entertaining.

But the real world will have to take a back seat now, for this is the year we return to the dazzling world of fiction, embracing the return of the kings who used to reign: the storytellers.

First to ascend is Chinese writer Yiyun Li, who wowed the world in 2006 with her awesome collection of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. In her upcoming début novel, The Vagrants (Picador, February 2009), everyone in a provincial village is affected when a young woman is sentenced to death for speaking out against the Cultural Revolution. To fellow villagers, that is an outrage; to the rest of the world, it is humanism stifled by Maoism; to readers in countries where democracy is feigned, a plight all too familiar.

And those who have been on tenterhooks awaiting the sophomore effort of our very own London-based Tash Aw after his best-selling début, The Harmony Silk Factory, will be glad to know that his next epic will be out soon. Entitled Map of the Invisible World (Fourth Estate, April 2009), it is set in Indonesia after World War II. Abandoned by his mother and separated from his brother, 16-year-old orphan Adam is taken in by Karl, an artist. When Karl is arrested by the army for dubious reasons, Adam is determined to find him in the tumultuous world ruled by Sukarno’s iron fists. Let’s hope this one will inspire as much interest in writing as his last effort did among Malaysians.

The wonderfully witty Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is finally back in print! My admiration for her 2003 début, Purple Hibiscus, is beyond words. Liked a mad woman, I kept scouring bookstores for anything written by her, and was restless until I heard news of her next novel, The Thing Around Your Neck (Fourth Estate, April 2009). A collection of 12 stunning short stories focusing on the ties between men and women, parents and children, and Nigeria (where Adichie was born) and the United States (where she studied and lives part of the time now), this sublimely beautiful title will indubitably drive me batty again, making me reread all of Adichie’s other works as though I had never read them before.

If Adichie’s stories are gripping then those by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho are inspiring. I feel a sort of peace descend on me when I think of his books. But Coelho is not God (as some rabid fans contend!). He simply writes books that enlighten and empower millions of people. Better still, books that answer the question, “How to be good?” In his latest, entitled The Winner Stands Alone (Harper Collins, April 2009), four characters stride forth in life to make their dreams real, only to meet defeat at the hands of their own selfishness and earthly desires.

What purported to be just a holiday read while vacationing in London turned out to be an extraordinary discovery for me: The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro’s third novel, published in 1989, when it won the Booker Prize. Reading it is like sitting in a Zen garden, admiring the simplicity and serenity of grass, gravel and patterns. There are no flowery metaphors, no shocking ending, but there’s plenty of gentleness, subtlety and wit. In his next book, Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall (Random House, May 2009), five protagonists find themselves in potentially life-changing moments of their music-driven lives. Through their musings, Ishiguro explores the subjects of love, relationship, music and time.

And then we have Spanish writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I read his almost 500-page Shadow of the Wind in three totally engrossed, gulps. After enduring for four years with nothing from him, I wager Ruiz Zafón’s next, The Angel’s Game (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, June 2009), will be read in one single sitting. Who can resist the temptation of revisiting the creaking mansions and spooky alleys of Barcelona, teaming up with some of the friends we made in Shadow of the Wind, discovering new allies and villains, and entering once again Ruiz Zafón’s mesmerizing labyrinth? This time, he promises to be darker and scarier.

But I must confess: I used to have a rather jaundiced view of Margaret Atwood’s and Martin Amis’s works, as I felt their writings were too daunting for my mediocre soul. But I was persuaded into becoming a fan after reading Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Amis’s Money. My literary gods ride again in September with eerily themed novels. Amis engages feminism and Islam in The Pregnant Widow (Jonathan Cape, September 2009), while Atwood professes dystopia in The Year of the Flood (Random House, September 2009).

With a foot on European soil and another in Muslim turf, Turkey has always been an intriguing country. What better way, besides making a trip there, to know it than reading Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City (2005)? It turned out, however, to be a book too melancholic and sad for me. But, having been deprived of literary pleasures last year, I am determined to read his next novel, The Museum of Innocence (Knopf, English translation out in October 2009). Already a best-seller in Pamuk’s native Turkey where it was released in August 2008 in its original language, the book tells a story about love and obsession in Istanbul between 1975 and the present.

If you are like me and have an unscratched literary fiction itch, this is the year to scratch it most satisfyingly. Besides, in the midst of all this economic doom and gloom, what better way to save money on entertainment than to turn to books for a cheap, and lasting, pleasure? So happy reading in 2009, everyone!

ABBY WONG was a book merchandising manager at Kinokuniya Bookstores Malaysia until she emigrated to Sydney, Australia, in 2008. She has always read voraciously, and is looking forward to feeding her habit even more this year.

Reproduced from The Sunday Star of February 22, 2009


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am looking forward to Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence and Kazuo Ishiguro's cycle of stories, Nocturnes!

Friday, February 27, 2009 6:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think Paul Auster's Man in the Dark is his best work.

Saturday, February 28, 2009 6:15:00 PM  

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