The brother of the man that Meursault killed in Albert Camus’s The Stranger; a hunter who wins a contest to kill a lion that is attacking women in a small village in Mozambique; a celebrated painter whose hobby is thievery; and a computer programmer who has written an algorithm that can summon dead people: these are some of the characters from my favorite books published in 2015.
The links below take you to my reviews of each book.
My favorite work of fiction from 2015 is Fortune Smiles, Adam Johnson’s follow-up to the 2013 Pulitzer winner The Orphan Master’s Son. The six stories in this masterful collection chronicle the lives of tortured characters forced to contend with a host of tragedies, from a frustrated novelist undergoing a double mastectomy to a UPS deliveryman whose girlfriend abandons their two-year-old son during Hurricane Katrina. This material would have been depressing in another writer’s hands. Johnson’s characters have it rough, but they all have reason to hope.
In Confession of the Lioness, the Mozambique author Mia Couto’s brilliant new novel, lions are killing women in the village of Kulumani. Three of the dead are daughters of the Mpepe family. Only 32-year-old Mariamar is left. Village elders recruit Archangel Bullseye, a hunter from Maputo who saved Mariamar from danger 16 years earlier, to end the attacks. Now, as she wonders whether she wants to see the hunter she once loved, Mariamar suspects that spiritual forces may be the cause of the village’s troubles. A thrilling adventure tale that is also a trenchant commentary on the repressive treatment of women in post-colonial Mozambique.
For a quiet novel of family life, consider Ann Packer’s excellent The Children’s Crusade. The book tells the story of the Blair family: a pediatrician father; his frustrated wife, who yearns to be an artist; and their four adult children, the youngest and wildest of whom returns from Oregon to the family home in California in desperate need of money. The Children’s Crusade is about, among other topics, whether we enjoy our children, even when they grow up into adults whose company we might not otherwise accept. A beautiful work that treats its complex, nuanced characters with sympathy.
The Meursault Investigation, a novel by the Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud, is a response to the killing of the man known only as “the Arab” in Albert Camus’s The Stranger. The novel is told from the perspective of Harun, who has mourned his brother Musa since Musa’s death seventy years ago. Harun is angry, at Musa’s killer as well as at his country. This brief work is chilling in its depiction not only of an Arab family’s suffering but also of the effects of colonialism on all Algerian citizens.
The interconnected stories in The Tsar of Love and Techno, Anthony Marra’s follow-up to his brilliant debut A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, are set in Russia and span more than seventy years, from World War II to the present. They begin with the tale of Roman Markin, a “correction artist” who airbrushes images of political dissenters out of photographs and paintings. But Roman is a sly character: He slips portraits of his brother Vaska, one of the dissenters, into pictures and paintings that appear throughout the book. The result is an intricately structured narrative filled with some of the most vivid writing of the year. (The link is to a review of four of this year’s story collections.)
Finally, for one of the most entertainingly unlikable characters of the year, check out The Blue Guitar, John Banville’s latest. The protagonist is Oliver Otway Orme, a 50-year-old artist with a predilection for “the fine art of thieving.” He has also lost his passion for painting. His latest piece, an unfinished work he has all but given up on, is a picture of a blue guitar. But he’s still a thief of sorts: He is cheating on his wife with his best friend’s spouse. Banville’s novel is a meditation on the desire to possess and the complexities of artistic creation.