ForeWord Reviews

great books independent voices

First Novels Hinge on Issues of Choice and Fate

Essential Truths

Family sagas are more than incidents recounted at holiday dinners—stories shape lives, and altering those tales, however slightly, can have grave consequences. Secrets have the power to forever change a person’s outlook and even turn entire worlds upside down. In contemplating his past, Charlie, the narrator of Christopher R. Beha’s new novel, longs for his earlier years when there was “the sense that we could choose our fate, as though the absence of choice weren’t exactly what made it fate.” Choice and fate are brought to bear in each of the following debut fiction titles, all of which revolve around the link between past and present and wrestle with questions of responsibility and blame, as well as what—and who—is worth holding on to.

“I didn’t want to recover the past. It was the incompleteness of it that haunted me. The story wasn’t finished.” These lines, spoken by Charlie, are the crux of Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder (Tin House Books, 978-1-935639-31-2). The book is told from the points of view of former lovers, Charlie Blakeman and Sophie Wilder, whose grief over parental deaths and mutual passion for writing pull them into an intense affair during college. Afterward, they lose touch for a handful of years until she suddenly reenters his world. This unexpected reappearance causes Charlie to rehash their past relationship and figure out what it means for the future, while attempting to uncover the secrets Sophie accumulated during their time apart. Beha’s writing is clean, unpretentious, and commanding in its seeming simplicity. He knits Charlie and Sophie’s stories together in a seamless, intricate weave, offering an exploration of just how powerful stories can be.

Charlie may not want to recover the past, but that’s exactly what’s on the mind of Tommy Hull, the narrator of Jesse Jordan’s novel Gospel Hollow (Casperian Books, 978-1-934081-36-5). Tommy and Henry’s mother disappeared when they were children, and her unanswerable absence has kept Tommy in a state of constant anxiety ever since. He believes he’s finally devised a plan to find out what happened to her, but it means dragging Henry to visit their estranged father, as well as seeking out the man with whom their mother was having an affair before she vanished. This novel holds nothing back—neither in the language nor the gritty details of the characters’ lives—and that raw quality is what gives the story its edge and authenticity. Tommy says, “My whole life—our whole lives—turned out this way because I ignored one sentence Henry said. One sentence on one day … has plotted the trajectory of most of my life.” The book brings the terrifying significance of details to an ultimate head.

Clearing up a murky family history is also at the forefront of Jürgen Fauth’s novel Kino (Atticus Books, 978-0-9832080-7-5), which gives the reader a glimpse into a side of Nazi Germany not often seen: the movie business. The novel begins in present-day New York, when Mina Koblitz returns from her honeymoon to find a canister containing one of her grandfather’s films, all of which had supposedly been destroyed during World War II. Before she knows it, Mina’s in Berlin, where the more she learns about her grandfather and his films, the more convoluted the story becomes. But the uncertainty only drives her deeper into her quest, and soon she’s exhibiting the obsessive behavior for which her grandfather was infamous. While the novel is a bit far-fetched at times, it has heart and explores the lengths one will go to in order to preserve a family legacy. Of Mina, the narrator says, “She knew better than to wish for a different ending to the story. She reminded herself that she already knew how it ended.” This book questions how much—and at what cost—the truth about the past matters when the outcome is already a fait accompli.

Peter Kahle’s Passage of the Kissing People (74th Street Productions, 978-0-9655702-6-8) also centers on the recovery of lost objects. Set in Sonoma, California, it tells the story of two families, the Marossis and the Kohlers, whose tight-knit bond is rent when one of the children tragically dies. “The Kissing People” refers to the brooch Mama Marossi wears as a good luck charm, an item that is lost when the Kohlers move away. The book is narrated by the Kohler’s son, Michael, who departs from Sonoma at age seven with his family and doesn’t return for forty years, when a mysterious e-mail forces him to dive back into the past and try to recover what’s been lost. Humorous and heartfelt, this book explores the weighty implications of truth, lies, and even simple misunderstandings. It opens with a choice of origin for the word Sonoma: “An ancient word, in Miwok or Suisun, or Wappo, or else some tongue that predates them all. There are four possible translations … according to which source you choose to believe.” That question of interpretation, of whose words to rely on, echoes throughout the novel.

The bond of family is fierce and deeply implanted in Tom Wright’s novel What Dies in Summer (W.W. Norton & Company, 978-0-393-06402-5). Jim and L.A. are cousins living under their grandmother’s roof due to their unstable and, at times, abusive parents. They have enough to cope with already, but when the two stumble upon the body of a raped and murdered girl they’re forced to begin grappling with even more gruesome realities. This book puts a twist on the coming-of-age tale in fresh and often disquieting ways, which never feel forced or contrived. Speaking of the danger that he feels is close at hand, Jim says, “It was nearby, I could tell, breathing softly, waiting. Somehow knowing me, knowing all of us, hungrily accepting the touch of my thoughts, purring like distant thunder with anticipation.” For a story riddled with menace and death, it’s remarkable how Wright’s novel tugs at the soul and shudders with truth on every page. The book is a frightening but wonderful ride through Jim’s heart and mind, as he tries to come to terms with truths he can never unlearn and determine what they mean for him, his family, and the rest of his life.