In his fifth book, An Unnecessary Woman (Grove Press, 304 pages), San Francisco author Rabih Alameddine examines the past and present life of a 72-year-old Lebanese divorcee and translator, Aaliyah, who has distanced herself from family and lost her only two friends. As she holes up in her spacious Beirut apartment and braces for bombs during the Lebanese Civil War or wanders the streets of her city decades later, Alameddine’s novel stays lodged within the confines of Aaliyah’s erudite mind, where she bounces effortlessly between Fernando Pessoa and Bruno Schultz. Literature is her only salve. For sticking with Aaliyah, the reader is rewarded with gorgeous moments of wonder and cranky humor that ripen a narrative and a life.
Nelly Reifler’s joyride of a first novel, Elect H. Mouse State Judge (Faber and Faber; 103 pages), joins the pantheon of morality tales centered on rodents—Aesop’s Fables, Maus, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. Her slim volume sets itself apart from the pack with a riveting detective story that remixes Dashiell Hammett and Toy Story, along with a freakish sense of humor. This kooky playground disturbs all the more for its seeming innocence. As it turns out, our childhood toys are fallible, sinful, and even slutty.
Far from cartoonish, the mice and dolls that people Reifler’s novel transcend their plastic or furry bodies. H. Mouse, politician and adoring father, becomes a conflicted soul. Through him, Reifler embodies one of the story’s central moral questions: What are the limits of empathy? In the beginning, H. Mouse maintains utopian beliefs and policies: “Rocking on his porch, he thought of the word parity, and about how he believed that each of us is basically good, equally so—no matter how some may stray because of their stressful circumstances.” What happens next tests the bedrock of H. Mouse’s worldview.
Laleh Khadivi’s The Walking (Bloomsbury; 258 pages), the second novel in her projected trilogy about Iran, follows two Kurdish brothers who escape Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in search of a paradise that doesn’t exist. Khadivi’s mellifluous prose traces a gripping journey, one ranging from the fleeing of a mountain town to traveling across a desert, the making of an overseas voyage on a freight ship, and, finally, arriving on the unforgiving streets of Los Angeles.
This is a story about illusions. The two brothers worship different ones that goad them onward — Ali betrays his family to defend his hopelessly ravaged Kurdish community, and Saladin follows the dazzle of cinema to Hollywood. Their exile begins when eleven Revolutionary Guards assemble the brothers’ fellow Kurds and neighbors for wrongful execution. Sweet-natured Saladin is unable to prove his loyalty to Khomeini by finishing off Babak, a peddler of German soccer balls. Instead, Ali fires three shots in the direction of the Guards, grabs his brother, and runs.