The Council of Animals by Nick McDonell, illustrated by Steven Tabbutt

A council of animals decides the post-Calamity fate of humans in this wise, witty, perfectly compelling tale of adventure and survival.

In the witty and compelling The Council of Animals by Nick McDonell (Twelve), humans are nearly extinct following an unspecified disaster (“The Calamity”) of their own making. The animals, also sorely suffering in a changed world, gather to debate and vote on the next steps: to allow the humans to live, or to kill and eat them all. This council includes a grizzled, arthritic bulldog; a not-so-bright horse; an underfed grizzly bear; a religious crow; an aloof and possibly turncoat cat; and a bully of a baboon. The belated seventh council member is the source of some trepidation and mystery. When the humans (who mostly remain offscreen) appear doomed, a motley alliance must form, swelling the ranks of animal characters to encompass a trio of moles, a giant lizard that thinks it’s a bat, a small but important scorpion and more. To save humanity, these intrepid creatures will travel and adventure together, learning interspecies trust and new animal facts, and finding hilarity and danger along the way.

This story contains both whimsy and life-or-death consequences, charmingly related with humor and sagacity by a narrator, “a humble historian (or animal contextographer),” who conceals their own identity until the very end. The details of this animal-centered world are endlessly entertaining, as reference is made to “the wallaby who taught Elvis how to sing. The lobsters who elevated Salvador Dalí’s conceptual practice. The raccoon who, quite disastrously, advised Calvin Coolidge.” Steven Tabbutt’s deceptively simple illustrations reinforce the storybook impression and advance character development, as when the bear classically addresses a human skull during an existential crisis. While frequently playful, this narrative is not all fun and games: the dog might have PTSD, the baboon has disturbingly dictatorial tendencies and the stakes couldn’t be higher. McDonell’s clever, lively prose and snappy pacing propels readers onward.

The Council of Animals has the feel of a fable, both a romp with sweetly goofy animal characters and a serious and clear-eyed story about the real world and its dangers. “It is the duty of the historian to face the hideous facts, and violence is one.” Ultimately, this is a tale about community and cooperation. Humans may have something to learn from the animals about communication and mutual responsibility: “Even bony zompompers at the bottom of the Marianas Trench like to chat with blue whales now and then.” Thought-provoking, captivating, funny, instructive: this is a book for readers who have ever yearned for a little extrahuman wisdom and cheer.


This review originally ran in the June 21, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 crustacean colonial novels.

Born Into This by Adam Thompson

These cunning, clever, piercing stories of marginalized indigenous Australians are both compelling and illuminating.


Adam Thompson’s Born into This is a striking collection of hard-edged, penetrating stories set primarily in the Australian state of Tasmania and wrestling with issues of race, colonialism and individual agency. Every story features Aboriginal characters, generally in the central role; the various experiences and complexities of this identity (which the author shares) form the heart of the stories’ combined impact. The collection is loosely linked by recurring characters and settings: an act of angry protest at the center of one story reappears as a minor annoyance in another. An island on the Bass Strait is home to a family over generations.

The collection opens with “The Old Tin Mine,” a story about a bitter, aging guide at a “survival camp” for city youth, who may be nearing the end of his career. “Honey” offers a cold, brutal, satisfying justice in the face of hate. In “Aboriginal Alcatraz,” a man wrestles with a life-changing decision in the midst of a storm, building to an ironic conclusion. Some stories lead with forceful blows, others sneak in to nag at the back of the reader’s mind: an alcoholic recalls the worst thing he’s ever done; a young man views a current love affair with cynicism. In the title story, a young woman fights an inherited losing battle involving eucalyptus plants. Working in the woods “was like looking into a mirror.” In “The Blackfellas from Here,” a young activist proposes an extreme and perhaps unrealistic, but also perfectly reasonable, resolution to a controversy. These punchy tales question family ties, infidelity, superstition and who has the right to claim Aboriginal ancestry.

Thompson’s characters are stoic, taciturn, often blue-collar. They struggle with racism, exploitative economic systems, class tensions and the disappearing natural world that a culture once depended on. Their reactions to these challenges range from rage to lethargy; their stark stories are frequently, quietly, brutal. The lives and attitudes of these characters vary, offering a revealing set of perspectives on the contemporary landscape. It is not all bleak: Born into This contains as well dark humor and even slim strands of hope. Thompson’s prose style appears blunt at first glance but shows nuance. His 16 stories are unyielding in terms of their values, yet somehow deft, even delicate in their storytelling and various voices. The overall effect is understated: simple, unglamorous lives and events crescendo toward a thought-provoking and memorable whole. Even (or especially) in its quietest moments, this is a haunting debut collection by a skilled writer.


This review originally ran in the June 11, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 eucalypts.

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin

This strangely delightful debut novel, with its charming, anxious, bumbling hero, crackles with warmth.

Emily Austin’s spellbinding and unforgettable first novel, Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead, stars an unusual hero: Gilda is so profoundly socially awkward, anxious and depressed as to be practically nonfunctioning as an adult. She is perhaps too kind for her own good.

The story begins with a car wreck, when Gilda, who narrates, is struck from behind by a beige van. When she arrives at the emergency room (having driven herself, with a broken arm, because “I do not like to be a spectacle”), she is told, “You are a lot calmer than you usually are when you come in here.” Readers begin to understand that Gilda is a little odd.

From this misfortune, she follows an ad for free counseling and is dismayed to find that it is being offered at a Catholic church (Gilda is an atheist). She is too polite to disappoint the priest who thinks she’s there for a job interview, and finds herself working as the church’s new receptionist–therefore living a double life, posing as a Catholic and sort-of-dating a parishioner’s abhorrent brother-in-law (Gilda is a lesbian). While keeping up this increasingly complicated act she also finds time to worry about her brother (drinking too much) and a missing neighborhood cat, among countless other stressors; topping that list may be the fate of the church’s previous receptionist, Grace, who died under suspicious circumstances. Gilda is obsessed with death, her mind on an endless loop: hit by a bus, choke on a piece of bread, clogged arteries, cancer, apartment fire, malaria, carbon monoxide, lightning strike. Almost without meaning to, Gilda begins investigating Grace’s death, and because she doesn’t have the heart to break bad news, posing as Grace in e-mails to the woman’s old friend. What could go wrong?

Gilda’s anxiety and social ineptitude could hardly be overstated, and she bumbles through life with such painful clumsiness that her story should be hard to read. But somehow, Austin’s remarkable narrative is engaging and snappily paced even when its first-person narrator is lying in a dry, empty bathtub without the will to move. Gilda’s voice is frequently extremely funny, with gut-laugh punchlines made more effective because they are so surprising.

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is disarmingly sweet even in its grimness. Gilda is a singularly memorable character. She ponders big questions–“I feel simultaneously intensely insignificant and hyperaware of how important everyone is”–and remains open to all possibilities, sometimes even the good ones.


This review originally ran in the June 7, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 pots of macaroni.

The Woman from Uruguay by Pedro Mairal, trans. by Jennifer Croft

Part picaresque, part tragedy, this critical day in the life of a hapless Argentine writer and would-be lover is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Pedro Mairal’s The Woman from Uruguay follows a contemporary Argentine writer named Lucas for a single fateful Tuesday, as he travels from Buenos Aires to Montevideo and back again. Lucas narrates these events, with flashes forward and back in time, in a lengthy direct address to his wife, Catalina. “You told me I talked in my sleep. That’s the first thing I remember.” He is stumbling, if not entirely failing, as a writer, in debt to nearly everyone he knows, and fairly sure that Catalina is cheating on him. The purpose of the day trip to Uruguay is ostensibly to collect a significant sum of money in cash (advances on two books), which Lucas expects will change his fortunes. His hidden, secondary purpose is to visit the titular woman with whom Lucas has been captivated since they met at a writers’ festival months earlier. He calls her Guerra–war–and is obsessed by their so-far-unconsummated affair.

Lucas is not an entirely likable narrator. He is self-pitying, a bit sleazy in his adulterous aspirations and at best a mediocre husband and father. He resents his wife for her ability to support him financially, and his young son for disrupting his work (“How am I supposed to write with my kid dangling from my balls?”). But readers will be drawn in by the mysterious Guerra and the pathetic and darkly comic narrative of Lucas’s unlucky day. He can be woefully misguided by desire (for Guerra, for escape from responsibility), artful in his telling (Lucas is a writer, after all), wry, clever and even wise. In buying a ukulele for his son: “I realized I’d rather play the ukulele well than keep playing the guitar poorly, and that was like a new personal philosophy. If you can’t handle life, try a lifelet.” The translation from Spanish to English by Jennifer Croft (Homesick) handles such moods and idiosyncrasies perfectly. Lucas’s child is a “tiny little elderly man, that haiku of a person,” “a drunken dwarf.” Readers may not be precisely rooting for Lucas to get what he wants (which is a bit unclear even to Lucas), but they will certainly be eager to find out what happens next.

In just 17 hours, this luckless protagonist experiences great hopes and severe losses, navigating both a marital crisis and an existential one with limited grace but great ardor and intensity. Challenged in love, marriage, parenthood, finances and fantasy, he makes a mess but comes away with a story to tell and, for a writer, there are worse endings. “May death be to know all,” he muses in hindsight. “For now, I can only imagine.”


This review originally ran in the June 4, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 hopes.

This Shining Life by Harriet Kline

A family struggles to honor the loss of one of their own and a remarkable boy works to solve the puzzle of the meaning of life in this poignant, loving debut novel.

Harriet Kline’s This Shining Life opens with a brief prologue: a happy family, a joyful party at sunset. Then the tone shifts. “My dad died. He gave everyone a present before he died. He gave me a pair of binoculars. They smell of books that haven’t been read for a very long time.” This is the voice of Ollie, a boy with certain gifts (sudoku, puzzles, literal meanings) and challenges (socks, hugs, turns of phrase). As the novel considers the death of Ollie’s dad from various points of view and at different points in time, Ollie’s chapters will always begin the same way. “My dad died.”

Ollie’s dad, Rich, was spontaneous, fun-loving, kind and a great lover of cheese. He was a devoted husband to Ollie’s mom, Ruth. Ruth’s sister, Nessa, originally set them up; she and Rich had been best friends since college. Ruth suffers from depression, like their abrasive, troubled mother, Angran; Nessa believes in charging in and grasping life in a firm grip, consequences be damned. Rich’s parents, Gerald and Marjorie, are starched and proper where Angran is bohemian (Gerald says it as if it’s a dirty word) and brusque. They are a motley crew, but all devoted to Rich. In this engrossing story of grief, love and mix-ups, Ollie fixates on the puzzle he believes his father has left him, in the presents he left behind. Because of something Rich said, Ollie believes these gifts hold the secret to what it means to be alive. “I want to do that puzzle now. I want to feel happy like he did. All I have to do is get the answers right.” Time jumps around, so that Rich is dead and alive again, as Ollie attempts to track the gifts Rich has sent to his loved ones and discern their hidden meaning.

In a novel about grief and love and continuing on, these characters are heartbreakingly flawed: Nessa’s pushiness, Angran’s rudeness, Gerald’s blustering into dementia. Shifting perspectives do the essential good of enforcing empathy even in the face of quite bad behaviors. As Ollie single-mindedly pursues the solution to his father’s puzzle, the adults around him seem too caught up in their own struggles to aid him; will they rally in time?

This Shining Life is attuned to the importance of setting, including natural spaces like the waterfalls that dominate this family’s neighborhood, and the deep potential significance of objects, like those fraught gifts that Rich gives. It is a sad story, of course, but also joyful, in the style of Rich delightedly offering cheese at his final party. It proposes that grief and love are inextricable, and that there may be light even in pain.


This review originally ran in the May 27, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 threads.

Home Stretch by Graham Norton

This novel of strong bonds, secrets and small-town Irish life is both sweet and horrifying, and completely absorbing.

Home Stretch by Graham Norton (Holding; A Keeper) wends its way from small town to big city, from Ireland to England and the U.S., and back again, tracking family and community. This aching saga begins in 1987, in a small village in Cork, when six young people are in a car wreck on the way home from the beach. Three are killed, one lies comatose and two walk away unscathed–physically, at least. But their lives, and those of everyone in the village of Mullinmore, are changed forever.

The novel follows these characters over the ensuing decades, most centrally Connor Hayes, the social outcast who was inexplicably driving the car when it overturned, and his younger sister, Ellen. Turned out of town by shame, blame and guilt after the tragedy, Connor lives and works in Liverpool, London and New York City, wrestling with his past and self-loathing. “The task of untangling the mess of secrets that he had created seemed so impossible.” Ellen stays in Mullinmore. A chance encounter in a Manhattan gay bar will eventually reconnect Connor to his distant past and see the next generation get another shot at correcting certain mistakes.

Norton rotates the novel’s point of view so that readers see the impact of the car wreck from many angles. The Hayes family suffers Connor’s survival alongside the grief of the families of the dead, two of whom were on the eve of their wedding. But it is that tangled mess of secrets that will most haunt these characters, and readers, as Norton doles them out teasingly into the final pages.

Home Stretch is by turns charming and harrowing as it accesses some of humanity’s darkest moments and impulses, as well as some of the best. That expert balance of comfort and pain is perhaps the most memorable feature of a novel with complex plotting, twists and turns and characters who do not fit easily into likable and unlikable categories. This is a story of the many kinds of love and betrayal that can hold and haunt people, of filial and community ties and the meaning of home. “This is what homecoming meant. Arriving in a place to discover you’re fluent in a language you’d forgotten you ever knew.” Home Stretch is a riveting narrative, a character study, a love letter to a place and a culture, and a moving coming-of-age story.


This review originally ran in the May 21, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 pints.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Tracey Lange

Following Monday’s review of We Are the Brennans, here’s Tracey Lange: Family Loyalty.


Born in the Bronx and raised in Manhattan, Tracey Lange comes from a large Irish family. She graduated from the University of New Mexico, then, with her husband, owned and operated a behavioral healthcare company. Lange lives in Bend, Ore., with her husband, two sons and their German shepherd. Her captivating debut novel, We Are the Brennans, will be published by Celadon Books on August 3, 2021.

Did this family come to you whole, or did it begin with Sunday?

(photo: Natalie Stephenson)

It started with Sunday, really, and with the idea of someone coming back into the family fold after being gone for years. And then all the questions started, like, why did she leave? What’s going on? Why’d she come back? And it just went from there. I pictured a big-ish family; but she was the one I started with.

Or, really, it started with the situation. I wasn’t even sure if this would be a male or a female character at first, it was just the idea of someone coming back into the family. And then the more I sat on it, it just started to present itself. It’s the situation I landed on first.

Is Sunday your favorite, or the one you feel closest to?

That’s a tough one! I suppose I relate a lot to her in some ways, but I also relate to Denny, I love Kale, I love Jackie! Jackie was fun. I would have liked to actually spend more time with him. It’s hard to say, but I guess when I think of who I relate to the most, it would be Sunday.

What do you feel makes the Brennans so compelling?

It’s just that idea of family and what it means to them. That’s what fascinated me. Because every family works so differently, and it gets passed down through generations, and it changes as it goes. Part of that is my own experience: I have a huge family, and a lot of them are in Ireland–they’re spread out, really, but we try to stay in touch. And we’ve got our messes and dysfunction, too, but at the end of the day I feel like I could knock on any of those doors and be welcome, or if they needed something, I’d do anything I could to help. There’s just this loyalty that I see with the Brennans, which is why they’re able to work through this stuff and ultimately forgive each other and come together. It just starts with family and what it means to them.

There’s a real sense of magnetism in this family center, an alchemy.

That’s what I was going for. My dad was one of 15–he has this huge family in Ireland, and that’s how I felt whenever I’d spend time there. They were just such a special clan unto themselves, and it was very cool to be part of that and around it. I’m sure that helped influence what I was going for here.

Is West Manor based on a place you know?

In terms of location and size and the flavor of the place, it’s largely based on Briarcliff Manor in Westchester. But I felt like I needed to change it up a little bit. I couldn’t call it Briarcliff Manor. That’s where I pictured it; it’s loosely based there. I grew up mostly in the city, but I spent a lot of time in Westchester, Long Island, that whole part of New York, and I felt like I had a good feel for that kind of town and that environment, and who would be attracted to living there and what they would be looking for. I didn’t grow up in that town, it was more the city for me, but I had a sense of that place.

Influences have come in from my family members. Mickey’s history is a lot of my dad’s history, coming in from Ireland and working in construction, but my dad was not a member of the IRA or anything like that.

How do you manage the task of switching between points of view? Is that an organizational challenge, or one of voice?

I worried a little bit about distinguishing between each voice, because it was a lot. And of course I got a lot of warnings, you know, oh, that’s a lot of points of view, it could be distracting or throw people off. But for this story it helped me put it together. It gave me a structure. Moving immediately to that next point of view was helpful. Sunday’s the protagonist, but it’s about this family, and they all have secrets. And this was a great way to get in on those secrets without the other characters knowing. So at least in this story, it felt like that worked, because it is so much about the dynamics between all these people.

It might have been Hemingway who is credited with saying you should stop writing each day right before you want to, so you know where to start when you pick back up…

That’s a good idea. I should do that more. Then I wouldn’t procrastinate when it came time to sit back down.

What are you working on next? Will we get to check back in on the Brennans?

I’m not closed off to that idea. I’ve thought a little bit about where they might go, but I haven’t started that project. I do love visiting them–whenever I have to make another pass with the book it’s so fun to get in there with them again.

I’m well into my next project now, which is another messy family drama, but quite different in terms of what they’re dealing with and the dynamics. That’s what fascinates me, what I read a lot of and what I love to write about, is family dramas.

You’ll never run out of material!

Yeah. No kidding.


This interview originally ran on May 12, 2021 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

Maximum Shelf: We Are the Brennans by Tracey Lange

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 May 12, 2021.


Tracey Lange’s We Are the Brennans is an utterly riveting debut novel of family ties, secrets and the depths of love. Beware the unintended single-sitting read: this magnetic story has the power to draw its reader from cover to cover in one gulp.

The Brennans are an extremely tight-knit Irish American family living in West Manor, N.Y., just north of Manhattan and “leaning upper middle class.” Mickey Brennan is now widowed, but the memory of his wife, Maura, casts a shadow. They have four children. The eldest, Denny, has a large frame and a large personality. He is half owner of a pub called Brennan’s (or Ó’Braonáin’s, in the Gaelic), begun on a loan from Mickey and Maura and very much the family business. Next in age is Sunday, the only child to have left the neighborhood, much to the family’s chagrin. Jackie is her Irish twin, at just 14 months younger: recently in trouble with the law, he’s moved back home to save money and help out. Shane is the youngest, genial and developmentally disabled, around whom all the Brennans rally. And then there is Kale: Denny’s business partner, a neighbor since childhood, an honorary Brennan–and Sunday’s former fiancé. Aunts and cousins cycle through as well; the charismatic Brennans have a large, comfortable household with a strong center of gravity.

As exceptionally close as they are, the Brennans also specialize in secrets. Denny has not been honest with his wife or Kale about the pub’s poor financial situation. Jackie is the only one who knows why Sunday really left town.

Chapters alternate perspective among these characters, chiefly the four siblings but also the other Brennans and Brennan-adjacents. There is an argument to be made for Sunday as main character; she was the glue that held this clan together, and it is her homecoming that sets the novel’s events in motion. But the book’s title points toward the family unit as central; their inextricability is compelling, unique and apparently infallible. Each chapter ends with a line of dialogue that also opens the next chapter, but from a different point of view, which contributes to the momentum that will keep you up all night to finish this book in one go. The effect is nearly cinematic, as if the camera shifts to show the same scene from another angle. This technique also highlights the impact of a deeply bonded family insisting on keeping secrets.

The Brennans are captivating, even hypnotic, for readers as well as for those who enter their orbit in the world of West Manor. In her debut novel, Lange shows a sure hand with characters both flawed and complex: Jackie loves bartending and is a talented painter, although only Sunday supports his art. Kale’s devotion is complete, even when he’s had to navigate the relationship of his best friend (Denny) and his childhood sweetheart (Sunday). Kale’s wife is challenging, but nuanced. Denny’s daughter Molly is sweet and spirited: she embraces her new Aunt Sunday wholly (after sitting her down for a serious talk about the preexisting plan for her to inherit Sunday’s room when Molly turns five). These damaged, fierce, loyal Brennans and their intricate problems will capture readers’ hearts entirely and not let go. Their story has everything: intrigue, crime, heartbreak, therapeutic awakenings and a romance that feels both impossible and inevitable.


Rating: 9 broken glasses.

Come back Wednesday for my interview with Lange.

Honeycomb by Joanne M. Harris, illus. by Charles Vess

Fairy tales for grown-ups, allegories, visions and horrors: these gorgeously illustrated linked stories are guaranteed to transport.

With Honeycomb, the prolific Joanne M. Harris (Chocolat; Peaches for Father Francis), who has written fantasy, historical fiction, suspense, cookbooks and more, offers an enchanting collection of darkly delightful, imaginative fairy tales and parables of the modern world. (These stories began as a series on Twitter.) Illustrator Charles Vess (Stardust; Sandman) brings to life Harris’s Silken Folk, “weavers of glamours, spinners of tales… whom some call the Faërie, and some the First, and some the Keepers of Stories,” in richly detailed images.

In the world of Honeycomb, the Sightless Folk (regular humans) unwittingly often share space with the numerous and diverse Silken. “There are many doors between the worlds of the Faërie and the Folk. Some look like doors; or windows; or books. Some are in Dream; others, in Death.” These 100 stories form a whole that is magical, fanciful, enchanting and occasionally nightmarish. Some center on single-appearance characters, and some characters are revisited, but all belong to the same universe. “Dream is a river that runs through Nine Worlds, and Death is only one of them.” In special moments, “all Worlds were linked, like the cells of an intricate honeycomb, making a pattern that stretched beyond even Death; even Dream,” and the stories are likewise linked cells.

Some act as allegories, as in “The Wolves and the Dogs,” in which the Sheep elect a Wolf to protect them because at least he is honest. In “The Traveller,” the titular character passes quickly by many delights in pursuit of his destination, which turns out less impressive than he’d hoped. “Clockwork” is a horrifying tale in which a husband rebuilds his wife piece by piece. “The Bookworm Princess,” on the other hand, ends with deep satisfaction. There is the Clockwork Princess and the watchmaker’s boy; a girl who travels with a clockwork tiger; and a mistrustful puppeteer who manifests what he fears. A recurring farmyard is packed with colorful animal characters–a troublesome piglet, a petulant pullet–and allegory, Orwellian and otherwise. The connecting character is the Lacewing King, whom readers meet at his birth in “The Midwife” and follow for hundreds of years, as the fate of Worlds hangs in the balance. “There are many different ways to reach the River Dream. One is Sleep; one is Desire; but the greatest of all is Story….”

Completely engrossing, exquisitely inventive, brilliantly illustrated and thought-provoking, Honeycomb is a world, or Worlds, to get lost in. “Some of these tales have stings attached. But then, of course, that’s bees for you.”


This review originally ran in the May 3, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 candied cockroaches.

Nervous System by Lina Meruane, trans. by Megan McDowell

This complex novel moves between outer space and private torments to embrace bonds forged in pain.

Lina Meruane’s Nervous System is a novel both fanciful and visceral, pairing the study of the cosmos with medical mysteries and wounds on earth. It is set dually in “the country of the present” and “the country of the past,” the latter swimming with political violence and trauma, and bearing a resemblance to Meruane’s native Chile. Megan McDowell’s translation from the Spanish establishes an eerie tone, both emotional and detached.

The protagonist is Ella. Her partner is El: Are these names, or the Spanish pronouns She and He? El is also known as “the bone guy,” a forensic scientist combing through mass graves, “more migrant bodies made to disappear piece by piece,” to determine cause of death. Ella’s father is simply the Father, her stepmother the Mother; only gradually the reader becomes aware of the Firstborn and the Twins (Boy Twin and Girl Twin), completing a family filled with holes and secrets. Ella is supposed to be writing her doctoral dissertation in astrophysics, but she has stalled. “This final attempt would be spent on stars that had already lost their light and collapsed in on themselves, forming dense black holes.” Instead, she winds up tracking not solar systems but the systems of her own body, as an undiagnosed condition contributes to her long, slow downfall.

The narrative unfolds in a bit of a fever dream, as Ella’s thought process combines words in lyric but not-quite-literal forms, and chronology moves backward and forward. Chapters are set in “future time,” “restless present,” “between times” and “past imperfect.” “The universe has never known harmony, has never been a perfect mechanism, it’s no good for measuring time precisely.” Ella’s “voice is many voices, her question is nervous nebulous shooting short circuit of stars.”

The novel is narrated in a third-person perspective close to Ella’s own consciousness, and characterized by a dreamy, distant way of describing even horrendous events, “women hacked to pieces and children lost in arid lands.” Eventually readers understand that illness, injury and all sorts of damage manifest in the body and in the memory, and great love and animosity can and frequently do exist side by side. Amid these personal and political traumas, family and history, lies commentary on the modern world, relationships, grief and connection. “Maybe with time everything would be restored, but maybe not, because there in the night the stupid stars still hung and sprinkled calcium over the universe.” Nervous System is filled with anguish and unease, but also starlight, which touches Ella at its close.


This review originally ran in the April 27, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 treacherous rats.
%d bloggers like this: