In her outstanding fourth novel, Sabina Murray delivers a charged swathe of the past, studded with nuanced portraits and gorgeous nature writing. The eponymous Valiant Gentlemen (Grove, $27) are the Irish revolutionary Roger Casement (1864-1916) and the British sculptor Herbert Ward (1863-1919). Murray chronicles their thirty-year friendship from their meeting in the Congo in 1884 to its rupture just before Casement was executed by the British for treason. In between, Murray brings these complex, talented, and passionate men vividly to life—as she does with their families, colleagues, servants, and everyone else they encounter, a cast including Joseph Conrad, King Leopold, and Rodin. Following the protagonists from their youthful colonial adventures and budding artistic ambitions through Ward’s rise to upper-class family life and Casement’s lifelong wandering, poverty, and temporary attachments to men, Murray dramatizes many ongoing moral and socio-economic issues. Her characters’ dialogue crackles with wit and intelligence, conveying both their own perspectives on events and Murray’s insights into these figures as she traces the effects of colonialism’s callous arrogance and the blind assumptions of entrenched racism, sexism, and class discriminations. She sums up the historical abstractions in sharp, unforgettable images, from Africa’s “grass that hisses when the breeze stirs” and “the heart-chug of the steamer” on a river to the quaint Irish scene of “a donkey—picturesque with its basket and emaciated child.”
Hanya Yanagihara, who made a wildly creative debut with The People in the Trees, beautifully navigates several perspectives in A Little Life (Doubleday, $30), narrating the lives of four men in New York City. A tight-knit crew in college, Malcolm, JB, Jude, and Willem stick together after graduation, and the story chronicles their lives, complete with the pivotal moments and festering secrets, both shared and hidden, over decades of friendship. Yanagihara supplies little in the way of concrete physical descriptions and straightforward timelines, instead devoting many pages to expertly paced exposition that delivers powerful emotional punches. Most of these focus on Jude, who is the novel’s fulcrum; the other characters are defined by their relationship with this extraordinarily complicated figure. Yet the group itself has a complex dynamic, and the story traces stubbornness, rivalry, anxiety, and outright fear. Jude, however, has an especially traumatic story, and his emotional and physical scars affect the entire group. Even as the men grow into middle age, their relationships continue to evolve, expanding, shrinking—even spiraling out of control.
Observing that we seldom read about a successful marriage in serious literature, Lauren Groff set about changing that. Though she’s confessed she’s no expert on marriage, despite being married herself, she’s birthed a brilliant monster of a novel with Fates and Furies (Riverhead, $27.95). At once a richly layered and inventive portrayal of a relationship, in all its passions and secrets, and a deep well of a tale about loyalty and love, Groff’s third novel lets us deep inside the psyches of Lotto and Mathilde. A story told in two halves, it gives the husband’s and wife’s perspectives separately. We watch as the characters develop, following them from their childhoods to their meeting, witnessing how they stay together and how they form their own identities both within and outside their marriage. With Groff’s trademark breathtaking backdrops—this time the plot unfolds in France, Florida, and New York City—and a colorful (sometimes even grotesque) supporting cast, this amazing novelist gives us her most important work yet. It’s been shortlisted for the National Book Award for a reason—and everybody should drop what they’re doing and read it.