Books Briefing: The World Through a Surrealist Lens

Strange worlds in strange times: Your weekly guide to the best in books

During quarantine, the social limits of home confinement can impose a surreal texture to simple everyday experiences. Many authors are great at conceptualizing the illusory nature of reality in odd circumstances: They build fluid worlds that fuse time, place, and perception.

Maisy Card’s multigenerational debut novel, These Ghosts Are Family, uses the spirits of Caribbean folklore to weave together unreckoned colonial history with the fractured identities of present-day characters. The novel Autumn by Ali Smith jumps back and forth between post-Brexit Britain and the World War II era. Smith sketches the life of the book’s protagonist and her much older friend partly through mystical dream sequences juxtaposed against historical events.

Short stories by Carmen Maria Machado use elements of fantasy to capture the mundane psychological horrors that many women face every day. The alienation of the characters in Yukiko Motoya’s short story collection, The Lonesome Bodybuilder, sparks flights of imagination that reveal their inner selves. Lesley Nneka Arimah’s “What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky”—the title story of her debut collection—takes place on a dystopian Earth where the remaining inhabitants are toying with the laws of nature in an attempt to reverse the post-apocalyptic state.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading

An epic novel haunted by the ghosts of colonialism
These Ghosts Are Family takes a wide-ranging approach to its depiction of undead spirits. The titular beings aren’t just malevolent boogeymen who show up to frighten the living, as in a Halloween tale. Rather, they drift in and out of the humans’ perception, shifting people’s relationship to the world around them by compelling overdue reckonings.”

📚 These Ghosts Are Family, by Maisy Card

Yukiko Motoya’s surreal world of alienated characters
“These stories, tinged with magical elements, see characters toeing the line between independence and isolation: A teardrop of blood or a shape-shifting rock can unmask deep-seated realities that they’re tempted to ignore in favor of unfulfilling marriages and quotidian chores.”

📚 The Lonesome Bodybuilder, by Yukiko Motoya

Ali Smith’s Autumn is a post-Brexit masterpiece
“As the novel proceeds, [Ali Smith] layers together fragments of books and paintings and song lyrics in an act of literary decoupage, as if to mimic the fragile patchwork of national identity.”

📚 Autumn, by Ali Smith

How surrealism enriches storytelling about women
Her Body and Other Parties features eight stories that manage to be both eerily familiar and also unlike anything you’ve ever read, refurbishing tropes from science fiction, fairy tale, and Law & Order: SVU with formal innovations and psychological insights that make them feel genuinely new.”

📚 Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado
📚 The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

The powerful pessimism of What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky
Lesley Nneka Arimah “delivers affecting accounts of parent-child struggles, and sketches surrealist scenarios in which dolls come to life and the dead haunt the living. An undertow of grief pulls hard on all of the book’s tales, most of which feature characters who are in some way bereft.”

📚 What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, by Lesley Nneka Arimah

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Myles Poydras. The book he’s reading right now is Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson.

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