What would you do to survive? Three recent novels provide three different answers.
In Samantha Mabry’s wrenching sophomore effort, “All the Wind in the World,” life is something you fight for, love something you hide. Mabry’s American Southwest forms a dry and brutal landscape where society is divided between rich plantation owners and the workers who harvest maguey from their fields.
Sarah Jac Crow and James Holt are jimadors, field hands who move from one plantation to the next, struggling to scratch out a living under relentless wind and heat. A deadly incident at one camp teaches Sarah Jac and James the danger of showing your love in a world of few joys. When the young couple arrives at The Real Marvelous, a plantation known for its cruel owner and cursed fields, they pretend to be a pair of hard-bitten cousins.
A series of near-biblical events (dust storms, clouds of bees) and James’s growing relationship with the owner’s frail daughter shake Sarah Jac’s faith in the pair’s future. Sarah Jac’s pain and her fellow jimadors’ anger build to an explosion of fire, blood, and violence. Mabry’s powerful descriptions haunt, and her sentences pierce. When Sarah Jac asks herself, “What is happening here? We are all breaking. We are broken,” we feel her despair because it has become ours, too.
“Landscape with Invisible Hand,” a fantastic new satire from M.T. Anderson, offers a fresh take on America, one that’s equal parts humor and philosophical rumination.
When the vuvv first arrive on earth, human beings welcome them. After all, the advanced alien species promises they can “end all work forever and cure all disease.” Unfortunately, the earthlings fail to foresee that vuvv technology and health care will prove prohibitively expensive and just plain out of reach once jobs disappear. The wealthy have the means to invest in vuvv businesses and live in floating houses, but most, like Adam Costello and his family, remain firmly earthbound and must scavenge to get by. One day Adam’s girlfriend, Chloe, suggests they bring in money by letting the vuvv, who are obsessed with all things 1950s, watch them go on dates steeped in the style of the period.
At first all goes swimmingly, but eventually Adam and Chloe’s love collapses under the constant scrutiny of a vuvv audience. The break-up is messy, leaving Adam with a flare-up of intestinal disease and legal troubles. With no other options left, he places his hope for a better life in winning a vuvv art contest with his landscape paintings. Ultimately, Adam succeeds in rescuing his family — just not in the way he envisioned.
Finally, with “The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage,” Philip Pullman returns to the world he so brilliantly constructed in the “His Dark Materials” series. “La Belle Sauvage” (the first in a new planned trilogy) serves as a prequel to “The Golden Compass,” the first volume of “Dark Materials.” This new middle-grade novel follows 11-year-old Malcolm Polstead, who lives with his parents at their inn, the Trout, regularly visits the sisters of the Priory of St. Rosamund, and explores Oxford in his beloved canoe, La Belle Sauvage.
Malcolm is the kind of boy who is “liked when noticed, but not noticed much.” After a series of mysterious strangers visit the Trout and an extraordinary baby named Lyra arrives at the Priory, Malcolm finds himself at the center of a struggle between the powerful holy church and a resistance movement known as Oakley Street.
When a flood to rival Noah’s sweeps through Oxford, Malcolm and a kitchen maid named Alice board La Belle Sauvage and risk their lives to get Lyra to her father, Lord Asriel, in London.
Along the way, Malcolm and Alice fight currents, trick a river god, escape a fairy, and face a trove of other dangers to stay ahead of bad guys pursuing Lyra.
Pullman’s saga is, as were his past books, beautifully woven through with threads of philosophy, science, and theology. Those who haven’t read the “His Dark Materials” trilogy won’t be lost, but they will miss out on some of the magic that comes with knowing that this new chapter is part of an epic whole. With “La Belle Sauvage” Pullman has delivered yet another treasure — one with just enough wonder to sustain us while we wait for the next installation.
ALL THE WIND IN THE WORLD
By Samantha Mabry
Algonquin, 272 pp., $17.95
LANDSCAPE WITH INVISIBLE HAND
By M.T. Anderson
Candlewick, 160 pp., $16.99
THE BOOK OF DUST:
La Belle Sauvage
By Philip Pullman
Knopf, 464 pp., $22.99
Chelsey Philpot is the author of “Even in Paradise” and “Be Good Be Real Be Crazy.” She can be reached via her website, chelseyphilpot.com.
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