Small-town life has the reputation of being constrained by neighbors who know everyone else’s business. This truth is taken to an extreme in the impoverished provincial Chinese town of Muddy River, the setting of Yiyun Li’s powerful first novel, The Vagrants (Random House, $15). It’s 1979, a decade after the Cultural Revolution and another ten years before the Tiananmen Square uprising. Democracy Walls are springing up in Beijing, but no one knows how far they will go. When a young woman is executed as a counterrevolutionary after her boyfriend reports the once-fervent believer’s doubts about the Party, her village is split between those who want to protest and those who fear the authorities. In Li’s vivid portrait of a repressed society, even schoolchildren can become informers, and personal acts bear political consequences.
In the gorgeously imagined Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón followed an eccentric group of readers and booksellers into spooky corners of postwar Barcelona. Ruiz Zafón returns to his beloved city in The Angel’s Game (Anchor, $15.95)—but this time, he’s interested not in those who sell books, but those who produce them. After a mysterious publisher offers the young prodigy David Martin an astoundingly lucrative commission, the writer finds himself consumed by the manuscript. Martin—convinced that he’s bartered his soul in exchange for his talent—soon suspects that his client is the Devil himself. Ruiz Zafón plumbs questions of writing, craftsmanship, and obsession in this darkly beguiling tale that has all the intrigue and beauty of its predecessor.
Jeff In Venice, Death In Varanasi (Vintage, $15), by Geoff Dyer, is a book that stayed with me long after I finished it. In the first of the novel’s two parts, Jeff, a mediocre freelance journalist, is hired to cover the Venice Biennale. Everything about this event is over the top: the parties, the art, the drinking, the sex--even the weather is overheated. For part two Dyer moves the action to Varanasi. An unnamed journalist on assignment gradually feels the slow, spiritual workings of the holy city transform him. He ends up staying longer than he’d planned. Is this the same pseudo-slacker Jeff from part one, or is this someone else entirely? Give yourself over to Dyer’s (and Jeff’s) sensuous journey to find the answer.