Alina Bronsky follows her beautifully defiant debut, Broken Glass Park, with another story about women determined to build a future despite limited prospects. Told from the unself-conscious perspective of a wily, domineering matriarch, The Hottest Dishes Of The Tartar Cuisine (Europa Editions, $15) describes Rosalinda’s well-meaning, yet dysfunctionally tragic-comic efforts to secure financial stability, which to her means chocolates, stockings, and a better apartment. She tries to declare her hapless daughter, Sulfia, unfit so that she can raise her adored, strong-willed granddaughter Aminat, and arranges meetings for them with useless, self-absorbed men whose only marketable quality is their foreign passports. A cynically humorous, compellingly honest glimpse of post-Soviet realities.
Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) started writing a stunningly new poetry when he was sixteen; by age twenty-one, he’d given up literature forever. Why? What happened? Bruce Duffy tackles the first question by way of a powerful fictional dramatization of the second in Disaster Was My God (Doubleday, $27.95). As he did with Wittgenstein in The World as I Found It, Duffy brilliantly rides the line between fact and fiction, revitalizing legend with prose so vivid and muscular that every character it touches springs to energetic life. Equally evocative of place, Duffy’s narrative captures the seamy side of late-19th-century Paris, the rigors of a provincial French farm, and the myriad treacheries of an African desert. The novel interweaves several strands of Rimbaud’s episodic life, letting us in on his scandalous dalliance with the older poet Verlaine, his career as an arms merchant in Ethiopia, and his fraught relationship with his battleaxe of a mother—the only one of the many people he abandoned that he returned to. It was a wild, messy life; this is an exciting, beautiful novel.
A finalist for the Orange Prize, Jamrach’s Menagerie (Doubleday, $25.95), by Carol Birch, is a beautiful and magical tale of the sea. Jaffy Brown is an eight-year-old street urchin in 19th-century London. A chance encounter with a tiger leads the boy to meet Mr. Jamrach, an importer of wild animals. Years pass. The teenage Jaffy and his best friend Tim join a whaling ship bound for the South Pacific. They are not seeking to become whalers (though their experience of the hunt is masterfully told) but to find and capture a dragon for one of Mr. Jamrach’s clients. What follows is a truly enthralling saga—there’s not only a dragon hunt, but a terrible storm, and a struggle for survival on the cruel ocean. With sophistication and a superb eye for detail, Birch describes the wonders and horrors of Jaffy’s voyage and also explores his innermost thoughts and feelings. A stirring love letter to both sea and land, Jamrach’s Menagerie is the perfect adventure tale for the beach or by the pool.