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The best new books

The best new books

A literary juggernaut skewers contemporary China, blood and banditry in Trinidad and other literary notes

A literary juggernaut skewers contemporary China, blood and banditry in Trinidad and other literary notes

December/January 2019

Yan Lianke, one of the most important literary interpreters of contemporary China, combines shocking satire and sharp imagery to address the moral vacuum at the heart of the country’s extraordinary transformation. His new book, The Day the Sun Died, offers a bleak vision of environmental and human catastrophe that takes place over a single summer night.

Li Niannian lives in Gaotian village in central China, where his parents run a funeral business. This is a period of “enforced cremations”, when families are not allowed to bury their relatives. In a typically surreal scene, Li Niannian’s father discovers that his wife’s brother, who owns the local crematorium, is siphoning off oil from corpses as part of a nefarious trading scheme – a metaphor for a people being eviscerated and commodified by progress.

“Everyone believed in dreams, but didn’t quite believe in reality,” writes Li Niannian, an observation that turns out to be both premonition and realisation. Late one afternoon the sun disappears and the exhausted town residents succumb to sleep, or, in Carlos Rojas’s excellent translation, “dream walking”. This “night of the great somnambulism” becomes a nightmare of chaos and despair. It serves as a riposte to the ruling party’s relentless promotion of “the Chinese dream” to its citizens and as a form of redemption, most significantly for Yan himself, who makes a cameo appearance as an author with writer’s block. ~ CATHERINE TAYLOR

Blood and bodies
Claire Adam’s gripping debut, Golden Child, is set in Trinidad in the 1980s, when anyone with money hid it from bandits who invaded people’s homes and left their chopped-up bodies to be found in pools of blood.

Amid this chaos, Clive Deyalsingh is a proud man who believes in self-reliance. He works at an industrial estate. The smell of petrol, grease, ammonia and rotten eggs seeps into his bones, following him back to the home he shares with his wife and twin sons, Peter and Paul.

Paul – slower and wilder than the brilliant Peter – mysteriously disappears at the start of the book. What follows is a devastating account of loss, love and sacrifice, written in a lucid, atmospheric prose. “Thin curtains seem to inhale and exhale as the air moves,” framing a view of the smothering green tropical landscape and the rising swells of the water beyond. As a storm rages across the island and family members betray one another, dogs bark to warn of danger but the violence and cruelty still come as a shock. ~ IMOGEN WHITE

Stalking party
Narcissism, fantasy and fame collide in Adam Foulds’s fourth novel, Dream Sequence. Handsome Henry Banks is a television actor on the brink of breaking through to the big screen, but only if he gets to star in a new film by a celebrated Spanish director. Self-absorbed and ambitious, Henry will do anything to ensure he is picked for the part.

He stalks the director after spotting him in the street. In the evenings he likes to have sex with women who throw themselves at him at parties. At the same time, he has unwittingly become the love-object of Kristin, an American divorcee who is convinced that she and Henry are destined to be together – she even plans to fly to London to make that happen.

The lives of these two stalkers are destined to cross – and crash. The reader longs to turn away from the impending disaster but cannot stop reading. Supporters of the #MeToo revolution may dislike the fact that, among the two, it is crazy Kristin who comes off worst, but that doesn’t detract from the pleasure of the writing. Foulds’s observations are spot-on and his prose is deliciously sharp. ~ FIAMMETTA ROCCO

The misfits
Many novelists explore the lives of refugees, but few have done so with the delicacy of Nuruddin Farah, Somali winner of the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature, whose work has been translated into more than 20 languages. Farah’s 13th novel, North of Dawn, is dedicated to his younger sister, who was killed by the Taliban in 2014.

Gacalo and Mugdi, who come from an older generation of Somali immigrants, have long lived peacefully in Norway. Their daughter thrives, but their son, an alienated soul, feels drawn to return to their homeland and live the jihadi life. After he is killed in a roadside suicide-bombing, the older couple reluctantly invite their deeply observant daughter-in-law and her two children to join them in Norway. But right-wing neo-Nazis are waging an anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant campaign, and the young family finds it hard to fit in. Farah’s novel explores different versions of love, loyalty and liberalism. ~ FR