With The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk took fiction one step further than usual by building an actual structure—open to the public—to house real objects his invented characters might have used. His eighth novel gains a similar richness by putting its fictional elements into the documentary trappings of timelines, family trees, and an index, as well as letting the characters interrupt the narrator to add and revise details, as in an oral history. The multi-layered A Strangeness in My Mind (Knopf, $28.95) starts as a fairy-tale love story that soon fractures and takes decades to resolve. The book is also an intimate love letter to Istanbul, charting events from the 1950s to the present. While Istanbul may be the main character, the focus is Mavlut Karsas, one of the many poor villagers who come to the big city to seek their fortune. If that means financial security, Mavlut never quite attains it, and after twenty years he feels “still a stranger” in Istanbul. But he works hard, loves his family, and likes to watch people and try to guess their stories. His own includes many set pieces of Turkish cultural history, including topics like matchmaking, headscarves, the role of street vendors in urban life, and the long saga of boza, an ancient drink Mavlut sells every winter, topping it with chickpeas and cinnamon, and holding the perennial debate over the extent of its alcohol content; such things stabilize both the characters and their city as they go through times of often turbulent change.
No stranger to the future, Margaret Atwood has outlined different possibilities, from The Handmaid’s Tale to her recent Maddaddam trilogy. There’s hope for the world she envisions in The Heart Goes Last (Nan A. Talese, $26.95), which addresses its rampant unemployment and homelessness, if not the abusive surveillance, by inviting people to move to Consilience, a high-security gated community where residents, for promising never to leave, are guaranteed a home and a job for life. Two jobs, in fact: one in town and one in the Positron Project, aka prison, where they spend every other month. This allows two families to share each living space, gets work done that benefits the group, and weeds out undesirables. The Procedure (and a brisk trade in body parts) also takes care of the latter, a group defined solely by the CEO of this for-profit social experiment. As dystopian shadows creep across the relentlessly sunny community, one couple in particular is caught in more than they bargained for. Their marriage is first tested by old fashioned seduction, then by a Brain Intervention that wipes out one love object and imprints another, and finally by the wife’s willingness to perform The Procedure on her husband. Atwood’s novel is an unsettling yet often funny satire, mixed with a bawdy romp and traces of Milton’s Paradise Lost.
There is another world separated from ours by a veil called Peristan or Fairyland, inhabited by nonhuman beings made of fireless smoke and smokeless fire known as jinn, who, from time to time, cross over to our world. At least, that’s what Salman Rushdie tells us in his new novel Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (Random House, $28). In the year 1195 Dunia the jinnia from Fairyland met Ibn Rushd, the philosopher in exile, fell in love, and had myriad half- human, half- jinn children. Some eight hundred years later, a great storm descends on our world and, as the slits between the worlds crack open, a strangeness begins—in the collision of the two worlds, a battle between light and dark starts. Dunia returns, enlisting her descendants to fight the dark jinn. With curses that date back centuries, dead philosophers who talk beyond the grave, a man who walks on air, a baby that identifies corruption with her mere presence, and that everlasting fight between good and evil, Rushdie masterfully combines magic realism, fantasy, science fiction, and mythology—all the while tackling immediate questions of faith and reason, philosophy and religion, love and humanity.