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book review

Cities I've Never Lived In

By Sara Majka, Graywolf, 192 pages, $18.50

In a living organism every element has multiple functions, such that describing each element as separate from the others in a sense obscures it. Words are alive or dead only metaphorically, but fiction that seems alive shares this characteristic with living things. In living fiction, character is also structure is also style is also setting is also theme. Cities I've Never Lived In lives in this way. The word I returned to while reading these interconnected stories was "drift": the narrator, a recent divorcée, is emotionally unmoored; the stories are about people moving without destination, though mostly they stay around Portland, Me., or somewhere else by the water. But the main drift is structural. Sentences, paragraphs, stories drift seemingly without trajectory, but on analysis this is by design. It makes for uncertain reading that allows for brushes with the uncanny and a larger story about attempts to restore a shattered life.


By Jung Yun, Picador, 336 pages, $29.99

On the cusp of Kyung and his wife Gillian renting out their house to pay off their debts, Gillian spots out their back window a naked woman who appears to be Kyung's mother. While we later learn his parents suffered a traumatic home invasion, in his rush to help, Kyung translates his mother's Korean as "Your father hurt me" – words that set off a series of painful memories and a chain of unforeseeable tragic events. Shelter is a novel that's difficult to categorize. It's an immigrant story – about a 36-year-old Korean-American man trying to make space for his mixed-race family – but also an abuse one; which aspect takes precedence is likely a matter of perspective. In other hands, this material could fall apart or lose steam, but Jung Yun keeps it together through pitch-perfect but flawed narrator Kyung and a high-tension storyline. Such a thoughtful, emotional literary work is an unexpected page-turner.

Girl Through Glass

By Sari Wilson, Harper, 304 pages, $23.33

Summer, 1977: New York is burning. Within the dirt, the dark, the hardness of the city are bubbles of light and delicate things – ribbon and tulle – but this is a world of only seeming softness, because the girls of the city's ballet schools have muscles, and resolve, of steel. Mira is only 11, but she is fast becoming one such girl when she enters the spotlight, and with it the gaze of a man four times her age. Jump to the present: Kate is a visiting professor of dance history at a Midwestern university. Having spent an anxious number of years as an itinerant teacher, she's quick to apply when a permanent position comes up. Then she makes a disastrous mistake. Often in novels that weave past and present, the present drags, but not so here. A dramatic, evocative novel about a girl under glass and a woman breaking through.

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