The world should thank the Nobel committee of 2015 for calling its attention to Svetlana Alexievich. A previously little known Belarusian journalist with a remarkable talent for oral history, Alexievich is an unconventional choice in a field of novelists and poets. Yet her books have the complex plots, memorable characters, lyricism, pathos, and truth of any great literary work. This is especially the case with the wrenching Secondhand Time (Random House, $30). Assembling hundreds of interviews conducted since the end of the Soviet era, Alexievich worked to “admit feelings into history.” As she talked to workers and students, victims and executioners, heroes and parents, she tapped into an almost overwhelming vein of emotion; her subjects laugh and cry at once. They give way to cathartic outbursts worthy of the classical tragedies. They exclaim that they’ve never told anyone these things before. Some stories have been repressed for decades, other are as fresh as the ethnic divisions of today’s headlines; all carry an irresistible intensity and urgency. Together, they reflect the “sheer schizophrenia” of this moment in Russian history, when the older generation regrets the lost idealism of communism, defends the “socialist idea,” and wonders if “instead of a motherland, we live in a huge supermarket,” while younger people are impatient with tradition, dismissing the great “Russian novels” because they ”don’t teach you how to become successful, how to get rich.” Can a land of such sharply discordant views cohere? Maybe. When Alexievich abandons individual interviews and records the diverse statements she overhears at public events, the result isn’t incoherence or non sequitur but a monologue as eloquent and compelling as any.
How do you measure the overall achievement of a man’s life? It’s a frequently asked and sometimes clichéd question, but one that Ward Just, now an octogenarian, breathes new life into with this contemplative, enigmatic novel. Ned Ayres is a newspaperman through and through, driven to skip college to work for a small-town daily in Indiana, from which he moves on to a larger Chicago publication before reaching the pinnacle of his profession at “the paper” in Washington, D.C. Just’s non-chronological narrative reveals Ned as an editor uninterested in salaciousness or scandal; to him, news reporting is a careful and balanced process, the skill residing in a sense of knowing what to tell and what to leave unspoken between the lines. Ned arrives at this ethos early in his career with a single, shocking story, one that turns on the true identity of a man in his home town. It’s a story with profound repercussions, leaving lives upended in ways Ned never envisaged, and The Eastern Shore (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25) subtly explores the lasting effect of these events on Ned, as well as examining how a man who, having been witness to the extraordinary stories of others his entire life, and having carried their secrets, must ultimately ask what he has to say about himself. Just doesn’t answer such questions directly. Rather, his accomplished novel makes the insights available for those who care to look between the lines.
Let me begin with a warning: if you hear Colombian writer and think magic realism, Reputations (Riverhead, $25) is not what you’re thinking. This is more like what might happen if a magic-realist hand lifted Philip Roth from Newark, New Jersey, and dropped him in the mountainous suburbs of Bogotá. Juan Gabriel Vásquez, author of The Sound of Things Falling, is considered one of Colombia’s great contemporary writers, and for good reason—his writing is as emotionally and politically acute as it gets, with some Rothian swagger thrown in. The protagonist of Reputations is a man who’s losing his swagger. Javier Mallarino is a revered political cartoonist, an artist who’s made and, perhaps more importantly, destroyed careers. At the start of the novel, he receives an award from the Colombian government: his face on a stamp. He’s official. He’s enshrined—and he doesn’t like it. He never meant to be an insider or a hero, and so when a long-forgotten friend of his daughter’s begins asking questions about the consequences of his work, Mallarino is right there with her, legacy be damned.