When Me and God Were Little by Mads Nygaard, trans. by Steve Schein

A rocky childhood on the Danish North Sea is rendered in weird but apt terms by an extraordinary young narrator.

Mads Nygaard’s When Me and God Were Little, translated by Steve Schein, is a stark portrayal of a hardscrabble childhood in a blue-collar, small town in Denmark, on the coast of the North Sea. Its narrator is seven-year-old Karl Gustav (who would rather be called Big Ox), and his distinctive point of view is filled with preposterous details that make perfect sense to him. “In our town you couldn’t drown barefoot,” he begins, and yet his big brother, Alexander, has managed to do just that, permanently upsetting Karl Gustav’s worldview.

His father is a drunk, but owns his own business building houses, and “Our house was so big that Mom still hadn’t gotten around to vacuuming all the rooms.” “Dad weighed 250 pounds and it was all muscle, except for the hair,” but then Dad goes to jail (something about the papers in his file drawers; the young narrator isn’t concerned with the details), so Karl Gustav and his mother move into a county-owned house in a new town. Unperturbed, the child carries on obsessing over soccer (he plays alone over four fields through the winter) and terrorizing his teachers. Years pass, very few friends come and go, and readers follow Karl Gustav’s experiments with porn, disastrous employment, grifting, a doomed love affair with another damaged young person and a developing relationship with his father. The loss of his brother will always loom large, for Alexander was a hero: “He just smiled, knowing everything.” But other losses accrue, as Karl Gustav learns more about the wide, perplexing world. By the book’s end, the narrator is a teenager, perhaps still ungainly, but wiser for the trials he’s seen.

This is an unusual novel, its narrator’s voice colorful, unpolished and unforgettable in Schein’s gruff translation. It is Karl Gustav’s singular perspective that makes When Me and God Were Little the memorable, bizarre, poignant adventure that it is. It’s absurd and often fantastic, as this narrator delivers an earnestly nonsensical account of events that readers know to be impossible. And yet it rings true, because what is childhood if not nonsensical? Karl Gustav is all bluster and pain, bluffing in the face of forces bigger than he is. His story is gritty, messy but real, and there are no happy endings on this harsh coastline. The novel is filled with cigarettes and swagger and masturbation literal and figurative, often unbeautiful but somehow still lovely in its authentic, unvarnished view of a difficult coming-of-age.


This review originally ran in the October 29, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 hedgehogs.

Maximum Shelf: Vladímír by Julia May Jonas

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on October 18, 2021.


Julia May Jonas’s Vladímír is a compelling debut, discomfiting and riveting, and timely in its themes. With dark humor, pathos and sly references to art and literature, this smart, edgy novel challenges assumptions and forces fresh perspectives.

In small-town upstate New York, an unnamed narrator teaches English at a small college. She lives an easy enough life, reading, writing, teaching, exuding “Big Mom Energy” and enjoying the admiration of her students, whose earnest eagerness for improving the world she appreciates. Then a scandal erupts: her husband, John, chair of the English Department, is revealed to have had sexual relationships with a number of his former students. The narrator herself is quick to point out that these all took place before such relationships were explicitly forbidden. She and John had always had an understanding about their extramarital activities. She is surprised to find that her colleagues and students disapprove not only of John but of the narrator as well, and finds herself increasingly resentful: of John, of the academic machine, of her students and of herself.

Into this upheaval comes Vladimir Vladinski, newly hired junior professor and up-and-coming experimental novelist. Vladimir is 20 years or so the narrator’s junior, sexy, flirtatious and married. The narrator is quickly captivated, then obsessed. A two-time novelist with generally disappointing reviews, she has largely turned to literary criticism and book reviews, but now feels inspired to write fiction again. For the first time she feels the work flowing from her effortlessly, and credits Vladimir as her muse. “There was a burning in my body, an extra level of excitement keeping part of me fed and running that required no sustenance. It was longing for the love of Vladimir.” She writes, masturbates and surreptitiously follows Vladimir one day and her beleaguered husband the next, and then even Vladimir’s wife–beautiful, traumatized, a masterful writer herself. Sexual, romantic, literary and workplace jealousies overlap. Things fall apart: John’s hearing (people keep calling it a trial) at the college looms as their already distant and fractured relationship continues to crumble. Their adult daughter moves back home, in dual personal and professional crises of her own, which throws the narrator into new light as a mother. She neglects her work, becoming increasingly reckless until, consumed by her fantasies, she finally commits a shocking act that precipitates a life-changing event for all involved.

That this narrator is a 58-year-old woman is significant, and provides opportunities to consider issues of gender, age, societal and literary expectations and subversions. Her troubled body image provides an undertone from the very first pages, with near-constant references to weight control and her evening skin care regimen. “I prefer to conceal my neck,” she confides, as she compulsively grooms and criticizes her body before each meeting with Vladimir. “A man could always make me feel worse than anything a woman could ever say to me,” she reflects, as she struggles to align her own sexual revolution with the values of her students. Vladímír questions gender and generational tensions, and the intersection of art and morality within the bubble of academia. In the family, household and larger social realms, it addresses every permutation of human relationship and the relationship between power and desire, while also carrying a strong thread of disturbed body image and issues around aging. In other words, this novel is as varied and harried as life.

As a novel so rooted in English departmental affairs should be, Vladímír is also jam-packed with literary references. Vladimir is compared to Jay Gatsby. “Enraged at my vapidity,” the narrator laments, “I forced myself to sit down and read several articles in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books.” Insisting she’s not jealous or bitter about her own novels’ failure to impress, she notes however that “Margaret Atwood wrote exciting books that practically lived inside of a uterus.” Vladimir’s wife says of her own mental health struggles, that her story is “like Nurse Ratched, like Girl, Interrupted, like The Bell F**king Jar.”

Jonas’s narrator has a strong, assured voice, incisively thinking through her decisions and the surrounding issues while simultaneously–and with self-awareness–mucking up her life. The narrator and the novel take on any number of thorny topics. Were the college students who slept with John seizing agency and free love in an empowered, feminist stance? Or were they taken advantage of by an older man with the power structure on his side? What are the pros and cons of an open marriage? Is our cultural hang-up about intergenerational affairs perhaps a little overblown? Some of these questions and perspectives are decidedly uncomfortable, but Jonas consistently pushes those edges, leaning always away from easy answers and toward nuance. Vladímír‘s central characters are rarely likable but they are always captivating; this story harnesses formidable momentum to pull readers through even its most uncomfortable moments. It is a rare victory in a novel to wrestle with such prickly issues and yet be as entertaining as this. Jonas’s prose is clear, forceful and unflinching, and highly sensual: food, drink and sex are ever-present and frankly, complexly evoked.

The narrator writes of Vladimir’s own debut: “The book was funny, clear, awake, vivid. The prose was spare but the voice was not sacrificed in his exact word choice. It felt both like life and beyond life.” The same comments might be made of Vladímír, a clear-eyed treatment of academia and the human condition.


Rating: 7 caipirinhas.

Come back Friday for my interview with Jonas.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Real Life centers around Wallace, a biochemistry graduate student in an unnamed Midwestern town. He feels unmoored and isolated despite having a group of “friends” (he’s not sure how true this term really feels) from school; he is one of the only Black people in this town, running from a traumatic past in Alabama. This novel takes place over the course of one weekend, when Wallace (who is gay) hooks up with one of his male friends (who insists he is straight), and tries to navigate this intrusion into his closely protected personal sphere alongside micro- and macroaggressions at work and among the friend group. The title refers to Wallace’s persistent worry that what he is living is somehow not “real life”; he is considering leaving graduate school but doesn’t know where to turn instead.

What gazes up out of the lapping black sea of his anger? What strange dark stones make themselves known to him?

It is a book of few joys, certainly. Rather, Wallace and his friends experiences large and small traumas and frustrations, hurting themselves and each other. It is a book of beauty, though, in its precise, quietly evocative writing and close observations. As Wallace carefully watches the miniscule creatures he breeds and destroys in the university lab, he likewise tracks the moves, desires and motivations of the people around him, from whom he feels removed. His tennis partner has just discovered that his boyfriend is on “that gay app” and may be cheating on him. A female friend is on the rocks with her Tolstoy-studying boyfriend. His colleagues are generally toxic, mildly if not overtly racist, except for the one woman of color, who is horrified that Wallace would consider leaving her there alone.

Gifted is the sweetness meant to make the bitterness of failure palatable–that a person can fail again and again, but it’s all right, because they’re gifted, they’re worth something. That’s what it all tracks back to, isn’t it, Wallace thinks. That if the world has made up its mind about what you have to offer, if the world has decided it wants you, needs you, then it doesn’t matter how many times you mess up. What Wallace wants to know is where the limit is. When is it no longer forgivable to be so terrible? When does the time come when you’ve got to deliver on your gifts?

A friend-of-friends is blatantly racist, and none of the group (all white) will speak up to even the most obviously offensive comments. We get the sense that Wallace would happily quit this scene if he could identify another option in the world.

The most unfair part of it, Wallace thinks, is that when you tell white people that something is racist, they hold it up to the light and try to discern if you are telling the truth. As if they can tell by the grain if something is racist or not, and they always trust their own judgment. It’s unfair because white people have a vested interest in underestimating racism, its amount, its intensity, its shape, its effects. They are the fox in the henhouse.

These characters are compelling and memorable, and the writing is indisputably fine. If there is a final takeaway, perhaps it is that this is real life – all of life is – and that we are all more or less miserable, whether quietly or demonstrably. It’s an admirable book but not a pleasurable one.


Rating: 7 nematodes.

Yolk by Mary H. K. Choi 

This review from Shelf Awareness prompted me to buy and read this book, and it delivered. I felt fully involved and invested in the lives of Jayne and June Baek, Korean-American sisters born in Seoul and raised in San Antonio, Texas, now living as young adults in New York City. They haven’t been close for years, and now Jayne (our first-person narrator) avoids her sister’s phone calls as she does their mother’s, until June tracks her down on a disastrous third-wheel date and demands they meet. June is very sick. Outwardly, Jayne is the sister with more obvious problems – self-loathing, squalor, harmful sexual practices, generally low functioning as an adult (and some more serious issues that are only gradually revealed). Now that they are sharing increasing challenges, the estranged sisters might just come together again.

As an only child, I have always been fascinated by siblings, whose various dynamics I can only watch from outside, generally with jealousy. One of my favorite things about this novel is its intimate, insider look at the sisters’ relationship, which is troubled (but aren’t they all), love and dislike intertwined with violence and yearning. One of Yolk‘s great strengths overall is immediacy and intimacy, how close we feel to Jayne, in all her messes and flaws. I also really appreciated the writing about place. New York feels right to me, but what do I know; brief sojourns home to San Antonio I am in a better position to judge, and I think Choi (who shares geographical background with her characters) gets it just right. The humid night air and the big skies make me a little homesick, too. The tone of young twenty-somethings dealing with all the madness of life feels pitch-perfect.

Choi includes a brief note at the book’s beginning about some difficult subject matter, acknowledging that she shares some of Jayne’s difficulties and that “for those struggling with body image and food, this story might be emotionally expensive for you.” I had to pause at that phrase, emotionally expensive: I like it. “Sensitivity is a superpower,” Choi instructs us. It is not a novel with an overt message, but I appreciated this one.

I also need to note the loveliness of this hardback book as a physical object: I love the design, the dust jacket, what’s under the dust jacket, and the print on the edges of the pages that continues the image on both dust cover and hardcover. It’s a beautiful piece that feels good in the hand and I’m glad to own it.

Sensitive, funny, raw and often painful – I worried a little early on that I’d taken on something sadder than I needed at this time. But Yolk is a beautiful book about love and hope, too, and with a thread of unlikely romance to it as well. I found it delightful and do recommend.


Rating: 8 glasses of water.

did not finish: The Ecstatic by Victor LaValle

After The Changeling, I thought I was in for anything and everything LaValle, but it turns out he offers a whole range, and it is not all for me. I went 100 pages in (with Nancy Pearl’s slightly misremembered Rule of 50 in mind), out of love for Changeling, but decided to stop there. The Ecstatic reminded me very strongly of A Confederacy of Dunces, which to be fair I read a really long time ago, and itself won a Pulitzer. Both books have won much praise, but all the things are not for all the people, and this one didn’t work for me.

There were some wonderful lines. To begin chapter 1:

They drove a green rented car into central New York State to find me living wild in my apartment. Wearing shattered glasses and my hair a giant cauliflower-shaped afro on my head.

That is an opener to stick with the reader forever, right up there with “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

They held hands absently, but firm; one set of fingers like kudzu, the other like dirt.

What a delightful image to evoke firm handholding, as a force of nature. And,

My sister and I turned out such heathens I’m surprised we didn’t bubble when baptized.

That one just made me laugh.

But I couldn’t get behind the woes of this protagonist any more than I did Ignatius J. Reilly (sorry). It was sort of interesting but not appealing; I do not always require likeable characters but definitely missed having one here… so I gave up. I’m not done with LaValle, but will be more careful with my next selection.

As ever, your mileage may vary.


No rating for this DNF.

Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu

A young woman must chart her own way, even while quietly craving belonging and home, in this subtle, wise debut.

Kyle Lucia Wu’s first novel, Win Me Something, is a wrenching evocation of yearning in a slim, artful package. The story of Willa Chen, a young woman unmoored in New York City, is defined by liminal spaces and a wish to belong.

In the opening pages, Willa interviews to become a nanny to a wealthy family in Tribeca, even though she can’t quite conceive of what a nanny does. “Maybe I couldn’t imagine these moments because when someone asked about my childhood, my mind clenched and closed like two fists in a pool–fingers squeezing for something to come up with when everything around them was a different kind of matter.”

Willa’s father is a Chinese American immigrant whom she barely knows, her mother a blonde-haired white woman, detached and depressed, who can’t comprehend the microaggressions her daughter faces. Since their divorce when Willa was very young, each has begun a new family, and she feels she belongs to neither. Thus adrift, she enters the Adriens’ household, where she cares for the charming, innocently privileged, nine-year-old Bijou, who studies Mandarin and the violin and cooks coq au vin. Willa feels as unbelonging as ever, but also entranced by the family’s ease, their wealth, their things. “When I looked around their apartment, my veins filled with rushes of want, as if I could see the price tags on everything, as if they would increase my own value.” It’s not that Willa is materialistic, but that she is drawn to the idea of worth suggested by those around her: “I often found myself in friendships with people like this, self-absorbed and sparkling.”

Readers will be engrossed by Willa’s troubled desire to please and her pervasive unease, as she seeks and then deflects the slightest attempt at connection. As she begins to meld into the Adriens’ household, she reconsiders her own childhood and family homes in a series of flashbacks. The subtle racism she encounters is but one thread of Willa’s distress; her estrangement from both of her half-families, and her half-hearted attempts to join the Adriens’, presents a greater challenge on its face, but also stands in for the larger estrangement she feels everywhere she goes, as the in-between spaces of family and race in culture echo each other.

With an eye for just the right detail, Wu offers an understated protagonist, self-defeating but still searching. Win Me Something is a nuanced story of longing, of the paired desires to belong and to strike one’s own path. Willa is a quiet heroine, but unforgettable.


This review originally ran in the September 28, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 dresses.

The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson

I know Crystal Wilkinson mostly by reputation; I’ve read a few of the stories from her well-regarded collection Blackberries, Blackberries, and listened to her reading her lovely essay “Praise Song for the Kitchen Ghosts,” here. The Birds of Opulence is her second novel, set in the fictional small town of Opulence, Kentucky. It focuses on a handful of women (and the odd man or two), over a few generations: mostly the Goode and Brown family, and their adjacents.

It opens with these lines:

Imagine a tree, a bird in the tree, the hills, the creek, a possum, the dog chasing the possum. Imagine yourself a woman who gathers stories in her apron.

Isn’t that brilliant? In this chapter, a baby is delivered in a squash field, and the story is told by that baby.

The birds of the title are sprinkled throughout as a throughline, something to watch for; sometimes they are women or girls themselves, sometimes just bystanders or witnesses. They also offer something to the titles of chapters: “The Known Bird,” “Wild Birds on Easter Sunday.” Sometimes these chapter titles are like short prose poems unto themselves: “Warming of Old Bones. New Ways. That Hurting Place.” Wilkinson is a decidedly lyric writer with a gift for resonant lines:

A feeling seeped into Mama Minnie’s bones, a feeling like the return of everything lost. Old-time people from across the waters gathered all around her. She put her bony hand on her hip. Every yesterday converged.

The clamor of her own house grows as faint as secrets while she lets her mind ride the night.

Her mind follows the worn path back to the beginning, and she’s only a little surprised that at this moment she can only think in small disconnected spurts, like an old movie reel spinning: a blue sweater, the smell of pine, a large bird’s nest.

Come to think of it, I think I see myself again attracted to lists, as in that last example.

Chapters also refer to the character(s) whose perspective will be featured, so we move from Mama Minnie (a matriarch and rather a seer) through the generations and to neighbors as well… One or two chapters feel more town-focused than character-focused. “Dinner on the Grounds” in particular reminds me of that story I’ve written about before, “Appalachian Swan Song” by Jon Corcoran, for its unusual first-person-plural point of view. This chapter doesn’t actually take the ‘we’ voice, but has the same feeling of a communal gaze. (I wonder if I sense something common between Wilkinson and Corcoran that is Appalachian in nature.) Finally, chapters are also headed under years: the book moves from 1962 to 1995.

Lovely, lyrical writing and evocation of place and culture are the biggest wins here, but the characters and their interlocking relationships, the trouble in those relationships, feel like they will stay with me for some time. Wilkinson is channeling something that feels a little otherworldly here.


Rating: 8 little black bugs flying at the corners of her eyes.

Maximum Shelf: Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on August 23, 2021.


Bewilderment by Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Powers (The Echo Maker; Orfeo; The Overstory) is a novel of great pain and empathy. Focusing on a nuclear family but also concerned with ecological collapse and the possibilities of distant space, this is a heart-wrenching story with an important message to convey.

Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist: he writes programs to explore, hypothetically, distant planets that may host life. His work is at the nexus of science, coding and imagination. But readers meet him first in a still more important role: that of single parent to Robin, who is just turning nine. Robin is a special child: artistic, caring, intelligent. “So far the votes are two Asperger’s, one probable OCD, and one possible ADHD,” but Theo resolutely resists the push to medicate him. Bewilderment begins with father and son in the Smoky Mountains on a camping trip, intended as alternative therapy following yet another outburst at school. It helps Robin immensely, but the larger world awaits. “The cars, the asphalt, the sign listing all the regulations: after a night in the woods, the trailhead parking lot felt like death. I did my best not to show Robin. He was probably protecting me, too.” Robin will not tolerate lies. But how can Theo tell the truth about just how vicious our world really is?

Theo’s wife, Robin’s mother, is absent. Aly was a tireless animal rights lawyer-activist, fierce and indomitable and loving; both man and boy are daily devastated by her loss, which readers slowly piece together: a car accident, swerving to avoid an opossum. “I didn’t know how to be a parent. Most of what I did, I remembered from what she used to do.” The novel is told in Theo’s first-person voice, in constant interaction with Robin; but Aly is ever present, too, as a voice in Theo’s head and to whom he turns for advice. On leaving the Smokies, he appeals to her: “We’re fine together, in the woods. But I’m afraid to take him home.”

Indeed, back in Madison, Wisc., Robin struggles at school and Theo, trying to care for him, falls behind at work. Planetary exploration and the sciences in general are underfunded and under attack by a government administration that blusters and crows on social media. Theo’s research partner refers to Robin as “the boy.” The school pushes harder to medicate him. Many evenings, Theo and Robin travel together in imagination to distant, dreamed-up planets that just might support life. These interludes are gorgeously rendered demonstrations of love and inventiveness. But the real world continues to rattle.

Another colleague makes an unusual offer. Decoded Neurofeedback, or DecNef, allows patients, or “trainees,” to mimic the moods of “target” subjects using real-time, AI-mediated feedback: emotional training via carefully monitored neural states. At nine, Robin is an unusually young subject, but he also has a unique opportunity. Before her death, his mother Aly allowed her own neural activity to be recorded. Now the precocious, troubled, earnest Robin has access to her mental state.

Theo and Robin share an appreciation for the Daniel Keyes story “Flowers for Algernon,” and its implications are not lost in Robin’s own unprecedented experience. Theo continues to agonize over his parenting, life on Earth and life in the beyond: “Decoded Neurofeedback was changing [Robin], as surely as Ritalin would have. But then, everything on Earth was changing him.” Robin sees enormous improvement in his ability to handle his rages and his blues, enjoying learning widely about the natural world, with a switch to home-schooling. He shows an uncanny harmony with and knowledge of his mother’s mind, enough to unnerve his father. But there will come a reckoning. Theo and Robin live in a recognizable version of the contemporary United States, beset by climate disasters, political upheaval and hate, wildfires, ignorance. Even as Robin makes his way as an increasingly well-adjusted young activist, bad news bombards their family from all sides, until disaster strikes. Bewilderment circles back to the Smoky Mountains for a gut-wrenching finish in the same place where it began. “From behind us, upstream, the future flowed over our backs into the sun-spattered past.”

Powers deserves his reputation as a consummately talented writer. His careful, lyrical prose conveys precisely the intended emotion and tone at the right time, and weaves meanings and significances in complex layers. This superlative novel invites readers to meditate on the natural world, human and animal rights, the potentialities of deep space, the role of science and technology in human societies, the challenges of modern childhood and more. “Maybe humanity was a nine-year-old, not yet grown up, not a little kid anymore. Seemingly in control, but always on the verge of rage.” Robin is a delightful character, a bright, sincere, intense child, lovable and challenging. Theo is deeply sympathetic in his dual tendencies toward far-thinking astrobiology and the care of his child (“They share a lot, astronomy and childhood”), and in his fear that he will fail his son. Powers pulls no punches: he portrays a brutal world that will damage Robin, Theo and all humanity in profound and irreparable ways. Bewilderment is a beautifully told story, but one that hurts, too.


Rating: 8 opossums.

Come back Friday for a follow-up in Powers’s own words.

Snowflake by Louise Nealon

Coming of age from an oddball Irish country family in the chaos and snobbery of Dublin’s Trinity College has never been so sweet, funny, moody and real.

Louise Nealon’s Snowflake is a novel that keeps readers guessing, a madcap family drama and coming-of-age saga for Debbie, who has grown up on a dairy farm outside Dublin in an eccentric household. “My uncle Billy lives in a caravan in a field at the back of my house,” it begins. Billy is a bit of a drunk with an unusual interest in constellations and Greek mythology; he keeps the farm running and is devoted to his niece. His sister, Maeve, Debbie’s mother, is less stable. She considers herself a writer and a prophet, fanatically recording and interpreting her dreams. Maeve’s much younger lover, James, “was stitched into his John Deere overalls when he came out of the womb and was born into a family without any land.”

Debbie is now off to Trinity College as a commuter student to study English, but she is deeply self-conscious and without city skills; she spends “half the day scoping out toilets to squat in and take a break” and cry. Her first friend on campus is Xanthe, a young woman of greater experience and privilege but, to Debbie’s surprise, with problems of her own as well. The idea that everyone is suffering something, even unseen, is not a new one, but it is refreshingly presented by this cast of wonky, wonderful, traumatized characters in a chaotic, beautiful, flawed world.

Debbie’s first-person narrative is self-deprecating and endearingly messy. Her life is constantly off-kilter, one wrench thrown after another, and this quality could be too much, but Nealon’s earnestly wacky protagonist pulls it off. Sometimes life is too much, but Billy will have another pint and Maeve will take to her bed and Debbie will muddle through–at least until tragedy strikes. An Irish country farm (with side trips to Dublin and to a dubious beach house) provides backdrop to an unlikely list of themes: mental illness, social awkwardness, art, class, guilt and different kinds of love.

The title offers layers of meaning: a little fun at the expense of millennials like Debbie? A fascinating shape worthy of study and analogous to the stars Billy so loves? Something precious, unique, ephemeral? Snowflake is that sort of novel: twisty-turning, multifaceted, smart, funny even when it is at its most serious. Nealon’s debut shows an expert eye for detail and pitch, and an appreciation for the absurd, the profound and the ridiculous–especially when they converge.


This review originally ran in the August 20, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 pink dressing gowns.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

It was such a treat to return to the revelatory writing of Brit Bennett with this one – I read The Vanishing Half first but this one was earlier, her debut. The two novels definitely feel like they come from the same hand; The Vanishing Half spanned generations, while this one covers only two decades or so, but still feels expansive, because of the narrative voice (more on that in a minute), and both zoom out to accommodate cross-country travels, so that their scope is large. Both deal with a defined but largish cast of characters and decidedly big issues. In under 300 pages, The Mothers gives the impression of being about capital-L Life in a way that is powerful and well done.

The narrative perspective in this novel is unusual. For good chunks of the text it feels like close third-person, meaning the pronouns are ‘she’ and ‘he’ but the reader has intimate knowledge of the thoughts and feelings of the character highlighted at any given time. But occasionally we get a first person plural perspective: the pronoun ‘we,’ which is rare in fiction. Much is said of the rarity of the second person (‘you’), but I think we see more of that than we do ‘we.’ It made me think immediately of “Appalachian Swan Song,” the opening short story in Jon Corcoran’s collection The Rope Swing, which I love and have taught twice now. In Corcoran’s story, the ‘we’ is not quite defined; my students and I discuss it and feel that it’s the townspeople, or the town itself, the community, in some way. It’s a story very much about place, and the town or some representative(s) of it get to speak. In The Mothers, the ‘we’ gets better defined, although not right at first. ‘We’ are the Mothers of the Upper Room Chapel in Oceanside, California, where the story is most solidly set. These Mothers are the church’s elder women, and they offer nosiness, wisdom, and a long view; they are a Greek chorus of sorts. I really appreciate the effect.

I love the different ways the title works, too. These Mothers who tell the story are an obvious reference point; the book is about motherhood in many other ways, too. Our chief protagonist is Nadia Turner, who we meet at 17, when her mother has just killed herself in rather spectacular fashion (gunshot to the head). She has gotten pregnant with the help of the pastor’s son Luke (that’s the pastor of Upper Room), and had an abortion just before going off to college in Michigan. The couple’s relationship, such as it was, did not survive the abortion, but each remains caught up in the other without knowing it’s mutual. That same fateful summer, Nadia becomes friends with a girl her age named Aubrey. Aubrey is also motherless but by different means: she lives with her older sister, because their mother was guilty of some severe mistreatment (trying to avoid spoilers here). The girls understand early that motherlessness is part of their bond. “Aubrey wondered if they were the only ones who felt they didn’t know their mothers. Maybe mothers were inherently vast and unknowable.” Nadia’s choice not to become a mother at 17 will affect her life, and Luke’s, and Aubrey’s, for years to come. Nadia wonders about her mother’s choice to keep her own accidental teenaged pregnancy. Imagining a world in which she, Nadia, hadn’t been born, and her mother hadn’t turned to suicide: “Where her life ended, her mother’s life began.” You see the layers of significance around “the mothers.”

The novel mostly follows Nadia, but we get to spend time with Aubrey and Luke as well. The community that surrounds them, in Oceanside and at Upper Room, are of secondary importance. It’s a story about family ties and secrets (“After a secret’s been told, everyone becomes a prophet”) and obviously motherhood but much more besides. Race is a background issue – these characters are Black but that’s a simple fact and not The Point of the book. The quietly reset default in that is one I value and I’m trying to mix a little more of it into my reading.

This is a writer I’ll follow anywhere. I hope there are many more to come.


Rating: 9 crab bites.
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