The Story of a Brief Marriage
By Anuk Arudpragasam, Flatiron Books, 208 pages, $34.99
A young man receives a marriage proposal while digging a mass grave. In another story, in another place and time, either part of this situation would be cause for high emotion, but in Anuk Arudpragasam's debut novel, set in an evacuee camp during the final months of the Sri Lankan Civil War, Dinesh is impassive. He has no time to think on these things, "for the pit he was digging needed to be finished as quickly as possible, in order to free up space in the clinic for the new arrivals from the morning's shelling." In this landscape of bare life, Dinesh feels both wonder at, and detachment from, his body's continued existence (witness the scene of great tenderness concerning what he imagines to be his final shit). With his spontaneous marriage to Ganga, however, Dinesh is reborn to feeling, to memory, to possibility, which makes him vulnerable. Told over the course of a single day, this one has the feeling of a new classic.
By Laia Jufresa, translated by Sophie Hughes, Oneworld, 273 pages, $31.95
Umami is that fifth taste often described as "meaty" though not exclusive to meat: soy sauce is umami; so is Parmesan cheese. First described by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908, "umami" translates simply, maddeningly, as "delicious." In Laia Jufresa's Umami, set in early 2000s Mexico City, an anthropologist of pre-Hispanic diets lets a block of flats, each named after one of the five tastes. (He, of course, takes Umami for himself.) A novel of the apartment block's interconnected family dramas, told from five perspectives – anthropologist Alf, art student Marina, preteens Ana and Pina, and five-year-old Luz – Umami is true to its whimsical premise, the narrative a little sweet, a little salty, by turns bitter and sour. Very umami, and very funny at times despite the tragedies that mark each household. The setup could admittedly become tired over 250-plus pages, but Jufresa also works an innovative structure that leaves the reader questioning until the end. A satisfying read.
Running on Fumes
By Christian Guay-Poliquin, translated by Jacob Homel, Talonbooks, 160 pages, $16.95
Shortly before the electrical grid goes down, a man, a mechanic at a refinery in the west, receives a phone call from his father. "Hello?" The father is unsettled, frantic. Black holes eat at his mind. Then the grid goes down completely, possibly across the country. The man must leave immediately to reach his father on the opposite coast. Christian Guay-Poliquin's debut novel opens with a series of vignettes retelling the classical myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, pared down: this is myth as archetype, not myth as story. Within this psychic landscape, the labyrinth is "A place without landmarks, where the erasure of the outside world is stronger than any memory." In such a place, a highway can be a labyrinth. Despite the explicit comparison to Theseus, our unnamed narrator is a more focused Odysseus, another wanderer trying to return home through a path strewn with peril. A taut story of mental and civil collapse.