Books of conflict, of war, of nations uprooted and the aftermath of that uprooting. That’s what was on my mind with this week’s three selections: two novels with decidedly contemporary settings, and one collection of essays wherein the memory of war, and of geographic displacement, is never far below the surface. It’s a weighty selection of subjects, but one to which all three of these do justice.
Though the mood of J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence is meditative, the threat of violence — both manmade and in the natural world — looms heavily. One of his two main characters is an intelligence agent held captive by Islamist terrorists; the other is preparing for a dive deep into the ocean. It’s a less overtly hazardous situation, but one that can still hold numerous dangers. Ledgard’s meditations on the ocean are captivating to read, and at times I wished the balance of the two narratives tilted a bit more in favor of the exploration plotline. Though “plotline” may be less than accurate: although both of his major characters are in theoretically nerve-wracking situations, Ledgard is less interested in the thriller-esque aspects of the book, and more in their philosophical implications.
The spirit of Robert Bingham’s Lightning on the Sun can be felt there; the same is true for Masha Hamilton’s What Changes Everything. For a relatively short novel, Hamilton features a number of major characters, and at times they threaten to become painted in overly broad strokes. Nearly all of the components of this novel could stand on their own: Todd, an aid worker kidnapped in Afghanistan; his family in New York, dealing with his abduction and working with the government to recover him; Amin, his assistant, attempting to find redemption after a failure over a decade before; Danil, a graffiti artist channeling his grief over his brother’s death into a series of politically charged murals. Some of these ultimately became more compelling (to me) than others: Amin and Danil in particular both stood as figures carrying the weight of more history than anyone should bear. And Hamilton’s descriptions of isolated stretches of Brooklyn geography at odd hours of the night are highly compelling.
Aleksander Hemon’s The Book of My Lives came highly recommended, and I will probably surprise no one in saying that I found it to be fantastic. It traces his life from Eastern Europe to Chicago through a series of essays; each stands on its own, but collectively they pack a huge impact, with moments of elation and tragedy commingling. Heartbreaking and stunning, this stands as one of the best books I’ve read this year.