In Nigeria mental illness is often attributed to ogbanje, or evil spirits, and is deeply taboo. Enter “Freshwater”, a courageous debut novel by Akwaeke Emezi (above), one of a new young generation of Nigerian novelists who are braving forbidden themes, including homosexuality, drug-taking and mental illness. Her grim tale of loneliness and self-destruction tells the story of Ada, a young woman whose mind has been inhabited by ogbanje since she was born. When she goes to university in America, the voices begin to bend her to their wishes as Ada takes up drinking and has unprotected sex.
“Tian hei de hen man” (“Getting Old Slowly”) by Zhou Daxin is China’s first major novel to tackle ageing. By 2030, a quarter of the country’s population will be over 60: because of the one-child policy, which prevailed from 1979 to 2016, a single child often supports a large number of family elders. “Getting Old Slowly” introduces Uncle Xiao, a retired judge who has lost his only child. As he makes new friends at his nursing home, with whom he celebrates his 86th birthday, he slowly realises that despite his growing frailty he no longer feels alone.
A mysterious, long-lost epic
“Historia del Huérfano” (“The Orphan’s Story”) was originally slated for publication in 1621. Some 400 years later, the epic from the Spanish Golden Age is finally seeing the light of day. The book was written in Peru by a missionary, Martín de León y Cardenas. After several scholars died after working on the text, rumours emerged that it was cursed, and no one would touch it. Belinda Palacios, a Peruvian philologist, is made of sterner stuff: readers can now enjoy the odyssey of the plucky 14-year-old hero as he leaves Granada to seek his fortunes in the Americas. Jumping across Spain’s empire he is swept up in the tide of history, witnessing the sacking of Cádiz and Francis Drake’s attempted invasion of Puerto Rico. A miscellany of fiction, poetry and biography, critics have praised its colourful, pacey prose and its insights into the viceroyalty of Peru.
“Kim Ji-Young Born 1982”, a novel by Cho Nam-Joo, tells the story of a 33-year-old “everywoman” whose experience of life will be familiar to many women in South Korea (Kim Ji-Young was the most common name for Korean girls born in that year). We meet Kim on the therapist’s sofa where she reveals her troubles. As a child her parents favoured her brother. As an adult, an office security guard secretly filmed her and her female colleagues with cameras hidden in the women’s bathroom. Compelled by convention to give up work after becoming a mother, she is taunted by passers-by for being a “parasite mum”, living off her husband’s income. The novel has clearly struck a chord: it was Korea’s bestselling book of 2017 and continues to dominate bestseller lists.