Mrs. Caliban has got a little bit of everything: a Frankenstein-ian parable of scientific missteps and empathetic oddities on one hand, and on the other a lived-in, naturalistic portrait of a woman at a crisis point in her marriage. And the elements fit together so neatly! In and out in one-hundred pages, no faulty pieces, and numerous thoughts and emotions to untangle once the story reaches its end. Few books can feel so cozily familiar and so bracingly idiosyncratic in the same breath.
We all could use a good wake-up jolt now and then, and Belladonna has at least one on every page. It’s got some of the most pressing subject matter you can think of — Europe cozying back up to a fascism it never wholly forsook (and how coziness itself is crucial to fascism) — and like Andreas Ban, the mournful lead character, it never refrains from tackling the issue head-on. But you never know quite how it’s going to launch its attack: through grainy photo documentation here, through journalistic accounts of Nazis’ remorseful progeny there, and a few pages later through music notes scrawled on the page or studies of animal psychology. Belladonna is unique and urgent and, once all the pieces have been added together, impossible to shake.
In Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean (Penguin, $27), Marina Willett’s husband, a famous-turned-infamous literary historian, has disappeared, seemingly a suicide case but maybe that’s just what he wants people to think. From this hook, the book’s tentacles spread into a kaleidoscopic series of investigations, as Marina double-checks her spouse’s leads to get to the bottom of a mysterious bit of H. P. Lovecraft apocrypha called “The Erotonomicon.” Cameos extend from Lovecraft to William Burroughs, Isaac Asimov, and more, becoming something like “The Savage Detectives of American weird fiction.” To follow this book’s incredible story, you don’t need to like, or even know, these figures, which are all fictionalized creations anyway, despite the author’s deep knowledge of their histories. La Farge critiques and parodies but does not romanticize these writers. He’s deeply attuned to how our human sympathies toward icons we learn about from afar can morph into blind obsession despite our best intentions. His narrative is a seamless combination of trickster humor and utter heartbreak, plumbing the depths to which people will go to forgive, embody, and take revenge upon their former idols, all while preserving their own reputation. The best writing lives inside you —even possesses you. The Night Ocean does just that.