This Week’s Hot Reads: July 16, 2012

From a debut novel about an extended Sri Lankan family that immigrated to England to a portrait of an infamous psych ward in Brooklyn.


By Roshi Fernando

A complex debut novel that presents the challenges that an extended Sri Lankan family faces in southeast London, from the '70s to the present day.

In a country whose cultural consumers are more or less recent immigrants, we are certainly familiar with stories of the immigration experience. But it can be easy for us to forget that the tale of America isn’t the only one worth telling. In her debut novel, Fernando weaves the intricate narrative of an extended Sri Lankan family struggling in southeast London, from the ’70s to the present day. The book displays an impressive complexity rarely seen in debuts, and the huge constellation of characters can be difficult to keep straight when starting out. But the book’s episodic nature means that each chapter can be enjoyed on its own. (The one entitled “The Fluorescent Jacket” was a finalist for the Sunday Times Short Story Award.) Her prose is wonderfully evocative and effective at accessing the inner lives of her characters, but this is no dusty family study; she wastes very little time before the knives come out, literally, and the family’s secrets are dark and dangerous. Together they present a larger picture of the distinct challenges of a particular ethnic group, reminiscent of Louise Erdrich’s classic of Native American desolation, Love Medicine.

The Absolutist

By John Boyne

The author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas tells the story of a World War I veteran who has two secrets: one is that he’s the lover of his slain comrade, and the other will break your heart in the conclusion.

Boyne, the author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, opens The Absolutist with a familiar frame: a young World War I veteran named Tristan Sadler rides a train from London into Norwich to deliver a package of letters to the sister of his slain comrade, Will Bancroft. The heaviest luggage he carries, though, is that he and Will were lovers. Another secret isn’t revealed until the book’s heartbreaking, gut-wrenching conclusion, during which you will be forgiven for shouting at the page.

Boyne paints a lovely picture of an England that fans of midcentury British fiction will enjoy, of rail travel and eating in darkly lit public houses, and the scenes of war are filled with false machismo and the requisite sense of needlessness. But what is most memorable here is the timelessly doomed relationship between Tristan and Will, marked by tenderness and confusion and cruelty in the face of their own internalized repression, as British as it is of its time. This is a wonderfully crafted tragedy that will stay with the reader for days.


By Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy

A history of rabies, an ancient disease that’s transmitted primarily through bite and turns its victims into ravenous, mindless monsters before leading to almost certain death.

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There’s been a resurgence over the last few years of our fascination with zombies, but we don’t have to leave the realm of reality to find an ancient disease, transmitted primarily through bite, that turns the victim into a ravenous, near-mindless monster before leading to a terrible and nearly inevitable death. In their new book, Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, husband-and-wife team Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy (Wired editor and public-health specialist, respectively) offer an in-depth look at a disease so insidious that it even turns our best friends—dogs—against us. The pair convincingly link the history of rabies (which can be traced back almost to the dawn of codified laws) with the history of man’s fear of nature and the unknown, and our own latent capacity for beastliness. There is a dash of science here, but, of course, the real selling point is the zeal with which they relate the dozens of tales of fauna gone mad and human victims suddenly repulsed by the very idea of water.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

By Rachel Joyce

In this debut novel, a retired man walks across England to visit his friend who’s on her deathbed. He also leaves behind his wife, who goes on an interior journey of her own.

The titular character of the debut novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a simple man, content to live out his post-retirement years in quotidian peace with his wife in the south of England—until one day he receives a letter from an old friend named Queenie, who regrets to inform him that she is on her deathbed. Taking his brief letter of reply down the street to the mailbox, he decides to walk to the next one, and then the next one, before he realizes that he must walk the length of England to visit her bedside, in the hopes that a reckless act of faith will keep her alive, simply because it must.

As he encounters various Homeric episodes along his walk, Harold’s imperfect life is replayed in a series of flashbacks, and the reader learns how Harold became the way that he is. What begins almost as light beach reading becomes much heavier in the third act, when Harold is forced to confront both his lingering regrets and the facts of his life as they are today. The most interesting relationship here, though, isn’t the one between Harold and Queenie, but rather between Harold and Maureen, the wife he leaves behind on his odyssey, abandoning her to an interior journey of her own.

Brooklyn Zoo

By Darcy Lockman

A levelheaded account of an infamous Brooklyn psych ward where the Son of Sam killer and the rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard once stayed. Lockman offers an indictment of a system through a sympathetic portrait of its damaged patients.

After abandoning her journalism career for one in psychotherapy, Lockman found herself as an intern in the storied G Building of Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, which a sensationalist New York Post article once described as a “Dickensian nightmare” of filth and forcible medication. Her new book, Brooklyn Zoo: The Education of a Psychotherapist, is a far more levelheaded account of what she saw there, part bureaucratic horror show, part inspiring human-interest story. The prologue sees her rightly admonishing a cabbie for referring to her patients as “cuckoos,” and the comparisons with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are unavoidable. But Lockman is no Nurse Ratched; she describes the cast of damaged characters who rotate through the building with the sympathetic touch of a born caregiver, rather than as a voyeur, and the reader is brought to share her frustration with a system that, unfortunately, cannot always afford to be more human.