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book review

Things We Lost in the Fire

By Mariana Enriquez, translated by Megan McDowell

Hogarth, 208 pages, $32

A well-published author in Spanish, this collection is Mariana Enriquez's English-language debut and, according to translator Megan McDowell, the work in which Enriquez comments most closely on the legacy of Argentina's 20th century. Latin American writing is, for many, still synonymous with magic realism. But as we saw last year with Guillermo Saccomanno's Gesell Dome, a writer can just as effectively address Argentina's history of state violence through noir – or, in the case of Enriquez, gothic. Enriquez was born in 1973, meaning she lived through the Dirty War but came of age during the tumultuous era of democratization (depicted here in The Intoxicated Years). In Things We Lost in the Fire, Enriquez is light on the supernatural – there are ghosts of torture, skeletons mixed in concrete, ghouls of medical experimentation – but these brief visitations from the past only add to the prevailing sense of malaise. The real horror, with the spectre of poverty and gender-based violence, is the present.

The Skin Above My Knee

By Marcia Butler

Little, Brown, 272 pages, $35

Rare is the new New York story. Some cities are so saturated with reference, few are the opportunities to sight-read the place – we've already read it too many times before. Sari Wilson's debut novel from last year, Girl Through Glass, managed to make New York new again. So does Marcia Butler in The Skin Above My Knee, a memoir alternating between revelations from Butler's life in music, including her 25 years as a professional oboist, and her rocky personal life, starting with her childhood in an abusive household. As in Wilson's novel, the city is not the focus of Butler's memoir, but it could happen only in New York. In a particularly poignant juxtaposition, Butler visits a boyfriend at Rikers Island jail one day and plays a church service in Harlem the next. This moment, and indeed the entire book, teaches us that life is not easily compartmentalized. Butler seeks requited love; she finds in music universal connection.

A Word for Love

By Emily Robbins

Riverhead, 304 pages, $36

A naive American student travels to Damascus just as unrest against the Syrian President stirs – a setup that may give readers pause, but don't dismiss A Word for Love out of hand. Bea doesn't exactly fit the trope of the ignorant American; it's because she has just enough knowledge as a young scholar of Arabic that she presents a danger to her host family. Lured to Damascus by the promise of an "astonishing text" – a version of the love story of Qais and Leila said to move readers to tears – Bea witnesses a blossoming romance between the family maid and a policeman, and feels compelled to act. Bea's crime is not ignorance but "carelessness with information." Although set in Damascus prior to the civil war, Emily Robbins's debut novel is not about Syria so much as dictatorship in general and the unintended consequences of interventionism. It is also a lyrical study of love and loss, one not to be overlooked.

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