Imagine Me Gone (Little, Brown, $26) is the chilling game a father proposes to his children. They’re on a boat. The father lies down, closes his eyes; can the ten- and seven-year old steer the craft to safety on their own? All too soon, the children really do lose their father, a man who has suffered from lifelong clinical depression. The legacy of this mental illness, which the father passes on in the form of severe anxiety to his oldest son, Michael, is the focus of Adam Haslett’s powerful, compassionate second novel. Told from the points of view of all five members of this British-American family, the narrative dramatizes how complicated an organism a family is, how very different the temperaments of its members, and how the suffering of one affects all. Michael’s monologues, in particular, challenge the received image of such disabilities as, well, downers. Michael has one of the sharpest, smartest senses of humor in recent fiction. He’s a wicked parodist. He’s also a brilliant amateur musicologist, analyzing and enthusing over everything from disco to house to ska and beyond. Haslett displays remarkable dexterity in conveying these five distinct voices, and his deep insight comes through in prose that sings, getting “down in words what doesn’t live in words.”
Eimear McBride’s debut, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, won the Baileys Women’s Prize, stunning readers and judges alike with its incandescent prose. What this bold author was trying to do with her Joycean explosion of sentence fragments and rhythms, McBride has explained, was to “draw in all the disparate experiences of the body and the mind and…..express them simultaneously.” She uses this Stanislavkian “method writing” to equally mesmerizing effect in her second novel, The Lesser Bohemians (Hogarth, $26), which focuses on a group of actors in 1990s London. Eighteen-year-old Eily tells most of the story. Fresh from Ireland to study drama, she’s dazzled by everything about her new life. “I have a heart that I hope art will burn,“ she declares. In fact, her heart is burned—and pummeled, coveted, spurned, and cherished—by Stephen, an established actor twenty years Eily’s senior. But age is the least of this turbulent relationship’s complicating factors, and as the secrets and regrets come out, McBride relentlessly conveys the full charge of their psychological and physical impact. Stephen, especially, with his “body all battle,” is a brilliant portrait of what passion can do; with Eily we watch as it forces him to the edge of self-destruction, then pulls him back—a life-giving force that ultimately enables survival.
Terpsichore, the muse of dance, inhabits Zadie Smith’s kinetic Swing Time (Penguin Press, $27), a novel that launches and lands passages engaging the complexities of racial identity, class privilege, and the psychic half-life of adolescence. Swing Time revolves around a nameless protagonist/narrator and her childhood friend Tracey—both of whom are bi-racial brown girls, of similar means, who share a burgeoning love of dance’s varied forms. These bonds, however, also mark the fault lines of their simpatico sisterhood, which reverberate into other familial and professional relationships, especially the out-of-synch dynamic between the apolitical narrator and her activist mother. With uncanny rhythm, Smith spins the narrative out, back, and through the three decades of the ‘80s, ‘90s, and ’00s, tumbling temporal order and spanning the continents of Europe, America, and Africa. Swing Time also has an intertextual link to several musical routines; Ali Baba Goes to Town, featuring Jeni LeGon, Thriller and Smooth Criminal featuring Michael Jackson, and of course Swing Time, featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, all help drive the plot. Smith’s dance-inspired fiction is a remarkable feat of grace, technique, and verve.