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book review

Unearthed: Love, Acceptance, and Other Lessons from an Abandoned Garden

By Alexandra Risen

Viking, 304 pages, $24.95

A secret garden. Shortly after her father dies, Alexandra Risen and her husband purchase a home in downtown Toronto. The house is unremarkable in itself; what inspires is the acre of land backing onto a ravine – land so overgrown the couple can't view much of it before buying the property. What Risen later discovers is an abandoned, century-old garden – complete with pagoda, koi pond and bridge – once part of a much larger estate. While undertaking the immense challenge of reviving the backyard, Risen stumbles across family secrets, revealed because of her mother's failing health. The youngest child of Ukrainian immigrants, Risen grew up in a house filled with silence (her father never spoke a direct word to her). Her upbringing filled her with resentment toward her parents, but a cache of old documents forces her to see her family history in a new light. A moving memoir about forgiveness and the potential for personal growth.

Gesell Dome

By Guillermo Saccomanno, translated by Andrea G. Labinger

Open Letter, 600 pages, $27.50

A Gesell dome is that setup, familiar from American cop shows, where a one-way mirror separates two rooms, facilitating observation for one side. A long series of polyphonous vignettes, Gesell Dome is the testimony/confession of the 40,000 denizens of Villa Gesell, a seaside resort town 325 kilometres southeast of Buenos Aires. For two months of the year, Villa Gesell makes its living off tourism. The other 10 months it turns on itself. Gesell Dome is literary noir, and like all noir, it resists the claim that crime is singular. In Villa Gesell it is a bath. Guillermo Saccomanno's Villa is a pit of racism, despair, passion, jealousy, violence and corruption – hell itself – with momentary tenderness. For the reader, who might encounter the same story 10 different ways, truth is elusive: 600 pages is enough for one book, but not enough for the Villa. Saccomanno requires no introduction in Argentine lit; for English-language readers, this is his startling, epic debut.

Children of the New World

By Alexander Weinstein

Picador, 240 pages, $22.99

Speculative fiction has a reputation, perhaps unfair, for tending toward extremes: dystopian societies (utopias inevitably reveal their dystopian natures), postapocalypses in which cataclysm demarcates present from past, instead of disaster being the very fabric of human history. The future presented in Alexander Weinstein's stories is not so outlandish. Its technology is an extension of what we have now, its role unchanged: The thrilling becomes mundane, a job, a chore. The ecological catastrophe is everything we've been told to expect. What interests Weinstein is the relation between people. In the title story, the new world is a Sims-like virtual environment where a childless couple starts a family. Their children are data; the couple's feelings for them are not. Several stories suggest societal deterioration only to undercut such pessimism. Suffering, then as now, is unevenly distributed. What is new about this new world is its expression, which is why reading these stories fills one with intense recognition. This new world is ours.