Winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Knopf, $26.95) is a war novel of intense suffering and courage and an ill-fated love story, showcasing a most remarkable, enigmatic, and unforgettable hero. At the heart of this magnificent tale of Australian prisoners of war in World War II is Tasmanian surgeon Dorrigo Evans, a quietly competent officer thrust into leading his fellow soldiers as they’re pressed into slave labor building the Thai-Burma railway. Their Japanese captors, who believe that surrender dishonors a soldier, treat the prisoners with extreme cruelty, indifferent to their fatigue, disease, and death. After the war, Evans remains in the service to help bring Japanese war criminals to justice. The power of Flanagan’s story lies in his characterization of Evans, a hero in the eyes of his countrymen, but far too complex an individual to conform to any stereotype.
Colm Tóibín’s moving Brooklyn was the story of a young Irishwoman who emigrated to America; in his seventh novel, he tells what happened to Nora Webster (Scribner, $27), a woman who stayed. Twenty years after Eilis Lacey left Enniscorthy, Nora, who has spent her whole life there, becomes a widow. Though she has four children and a wide circle of relatives and acquaintances, she feels isolated in “the strangeness of home.” Worse, she feels she can’t escape her neighbors’ officiousness; Tóibín superbly evokes small-town life, where Nora senses that her plans are common knowledge even before she’s made them. Another, stronger refrain is “that she had no idea how to live.” Slowly, she finds her way, taking part in activities—a union, voice lessons—she hadn’t shared with her late husband and discovering unsuspected strengths that allow her to fight, and win, battles with Enniscorthy powers-that-be. Nora’s is an ordinary life, but in Tóibín’s vivid, compassionate narrative it unfolds with the dramatic power and emotional range of the art songs she revels in singing.
Three continents, one decade, many lives, and nearly every attitude about race you can imagine are contained and explored in Americanah (Knopf, $26.95). With a rare mastery of literary craft, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie deftly explores the lives of Ifemelu, a writer/scholar living in America who is surprised by her homesickness for Nigeria, and of her ex, Obinze, a success in democratic Nigeria, but still haunted by his years of having lived as an undocumented alien in London after being shut out of post-9/11 America. As these two grow up, come together, and fall apart, the novel meditates on what it means to have a homeland and a race. This is an utterly compelling story about identity that will have you laughing and marveling, brokenhearted but also triumphant.