FORGIVING THE ANGEL: Four Stories for Franz Kafka
By Jay Cantor
Knopf, 209 pp., $24.95
The subtitle of Cambridge author Jay Cantor’s “Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka” has a whiff of pretentiousness about it, but Cantor means it in a friendly way.
As he explains in an author’s note, Kafka’s work has been welcome company to him. This book is a thank-you for that, and it’s fine company in its own right: airy somehow, and peppered with humor.
Cantor builds these linked stories around Kafka and his real-life circle. In the book’s most affecting story, “Lusk and Marianne,” the daughter of Kafka’s lover Dora Diamant prizes the dead author, whom she never met, above her own father.
“He was only ever a bewildered man, just like the rest of us,” her father tells her. “More terrified and bewildered than the rest of us, maybe.” But more intriguing, too. Cantor harnesses that fascination and compounds it.
WHAT I HAD BEFORE I HAD YOU
By Sarah Cornwell
Harper, 288 pp., $24.99
A woman brings her children to the hometown she left long ago in Sarah Cornwell’s first novel, “What I Had Before I Had You.” Guilt and fear have tracked Olivia ever since she abandoned her mother there in order to save herself, and they intensify as her 9-year-old son goes missing.
The boy’s bipolar disorder is a legacy inherited from his mother, who inherited it from hers. Twining Olivia’s teenage past with her grown-up present, Cornwell tells a sensitive, clear-eyed, and ever so slightly supernatural story of a family shaped by mental illness.
THE CORPSE EXHIBITION: And Other Stories of Iraq
By Hassan Blasim
Translated, from the Arabic, by Jonathan Wright
Penguin, 208 pp. paperback, $15
The very first story in Hassan Blasim’s superb collection “The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq” is Kafkaesque: a bureaucratic explanation of acceptable murder methods and proper public display of the remains. “Every body you finish off,” the man says, “is a work of art waiting for you to add the final touch.”
Blasim, who has lived in Finland since 2004, was born in Baghdad in 1973. He was a little boy when Saddam Hussein came to power. The Iran-Iraq War lasted through eight years of his childhood. In these tales — sardonic, tormented, and absurd — regular Iraqis are terrorized, beaten down by perennial war. Some are implicated in the destruction. None are untouched by it. Madness is a recurring theme. And yet the existence of this book is reason for hope, proof of the power of storytelling.
BOY IN THE TWILIGHT: Stories of the Hidden China
By Yu Hua
Translated, from the Chinese, by Allan H. Barr
Pantheon, 208 pp., $24
There are tales it’s best to read with a hand clapped firmly over the ending, so as not to spoil the surprise. Yu Hua’s “Boy in the Twilight: Stories of the Hidden China” is filled with these.
Some are gently comic or bittersweet sketches of the quotidian: young couples floundering, parents having trouble with their children. In others, cruelty is a blood sport — though the pushed-around hero of “Timid as a Mouse” does at last pick up a kitchen implement to seek revenge.
Collected from the 1990s, these are expertly drawn sketches of a time and a place, the people thoroughly recognizable.
By Rachel Urquhart
Little, Brown, 345 pp., $26
In Rachel Urquhart’s suspenseful, deeply researched debut novel “The Visionist,” a teenager long abused by her savage father seeks sanctuary in a Shaker settlement. It is 1842 in Massachusetts, and Polly is soon believed to be a divine instrument, capable of seeing angels.
But Polly’s house burned with her father in it the night she left home, and the fire is under suspicion. Concealing her history is paramount.
Shame does powerful damage in these pages, bringing misery to Polly, her devoted new friend Charity, and the fire inspector, who views this case as a mission to save his own soul.
“The past is a tar pit,” a villain of the piece says. He’s got that right.