When I started thinking about the great novels I’ve read lately, or I should say, the most memorable, I realized that all of them were written by women. I will list a number of them because you should pick them all up.
Aminatta Forna’s Happiness: A marvelous gem of a novel, where every character, every storyline, every sentence, falls into its right place.
Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room: If nothing else, you should read this novel to look at a world that we would rather not. Kushner directs her unblinking gaze at the prison industrial system in this country of ours and doesn’t flinch.
Pola Oloixarac’s Savage Theories (trans. Roy Kesey): In some ways, the opposite of Happiness. It’s a glorious mess of a novel. She takes everything you think a novel should be and throws it out the window. Out, out, baby, bathwater, you name it. It works.
Dorthe Nors’s Mirror, Shoulder, Signal (trans. Misha Hoekstra): Wonderfully understated novel. Her Karate Chop was a revelation since I hadn’t read anything like it. This one is less surprising because I now know her work, but it’s quite a bit more sophisticated. A writer who improves with every sentence.
Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream (trans. Megan McDowell): I still have no idea what it was that I read, what the book was about, or what happened. Yet I can’t stop thinking about this novel. Was it a novel? I can’t tell you. Simply magnificent.
Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone (trans. Susan Bernofsky): I picked this book up because I was writing about refugees, and it knocked me out. Its scope is both intimate and grand, microscopic and expansive, touching without a smidgen of sentimentality, and ever so human.
But the best novel I’ve read in years is Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (trans. Jennifer Croft): Most great writers build a novel as one would a beautiful house, brick by brick, wall by wall, from the ground up. Or using another metaphor, a writer gathers her yarn, and with good needles and structure, knits a wonderful sweater or scarf. I tend to prefer novels where a writer weaves her threads this way and that, above and below, inside outside, and ends up with a carpet. Flights is such a novel.
When I read something this incredible, my mind immediately attempts to make comparisons in order for it to feel safe. This is not new, I know what this is, I have seen this before. And with the great books, my mind fails. I thought at first that Flights was similar to two of my favorite books, Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Sepharad and Claudio Magris’s Microcosms, but the association doesn’t hold up. Flights feels much less structured (of course, it isn’t), as if Tokarczuk was simply throwing tales into a giant pot. Pardon me, while I add a touch of a family story, a smidgen of a euthanasia story. She takes all her threads for a walk, and I merrily go along, tra-la-la-la-la. Until suddenly I realize that the carpet is not beneath my feet, but in my blood.
Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights is a masterpiece.
The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.