Death With Interruptions (Harcourt, $24) is José Saramago’s “true yet untrue story of death and her vagaries.” It begins with the fantastic premise that the people of a small country stop dying. Good news? But the hiatus, which lasts seven months, wreaks havoc with life insurance policies, causes doubts among the faithful who need physical death to reach everlasting spiritual life, and leads to overcrowding in hospitals and nursing homes. As he examines the ramifications of life without death, the Portuguese Nobel laureate offers sharp social commentary and philosophical meditations on mortality, as well as introducing a death who, though cold, can learn to care for those she comes for.
Set in post-9/11 Afghanistan, The Wasted Vigil (Knopf, $25) is a powerful novel of the loss of and search for loved ones. A Russian woman comes to Usha to look for her brother, a Soviet soldier. She stays with Marcus, a British doctor, convert to Islam, and lifelong resident of Afghanistan. His Muslim wife and daughter dead, he hunts for his missing grandson, as does David, a former CIA operative who was briefly involved with Marcus’s daughter. What these characters find is Afghanistan’s brutal recent history and its rich ancient culture. In often stunningly beautiful language, Nadeem Aslam tells the stories of these survivors, the pain they’ve experienced, witnessed, and sometimes inflicted, and the ongoing bloodshed in a land torn between rival warlords, the Taliban, and Western armies. As he did for the complex British Pakistani community in Maps for Lost Lovers, Aslam brings to life a wide range of characters, dramatizing conflicting views of religion, nationalism, and devotion.
W.S. Merwin has earned his distinguished place in American letters. A prodigious poet, translator, and essayist, he has both a phenomenal output to his credit and an instantly recognizable lyric voice, one with rhythms so assured that Merwin can write poems without using punctuation. The Shadow Of Sirius (Copper Canyon, $22), his latest poetry collection, focuses on late-life themes like memory and time; in Merwin’s hands, each moment is both singular and rich with archetypal resonance. In a Proustian spirit, Merwin draws beautiful lyrics from a remembered patch of sunlight, a reflection in a tile, the sound of a trolley. While these moments inevitably pass, they also linger in a timeless transcendent state, and Merwin evokes this paradox in his many nature poems, celebrating the endless cyclical recurrence which, like the sky overseeing all, is “never unknown and never known.”