THE HOUSE OF RUST
By Khadija Abdalla Bajaber
272 pp. Graywolf. Paper, $16.
“The House of Rust” is an astonishing fiction debut and (deservedly) the inaugural winner of the Graywolf Press Africa Prize, awarded to first novelists from that continent. It follows Aisha, a Hadrami girl in Mombasa, Kenya, whose fisherman father has vanished. Known affectionately as a “fishling,” Aisha determines to find him before the end of five days, when he’ll be declared dead. Aisha is convinced he’s still alive, and with the aid of a talking cat she sets sail in a magical boat made of bones, as one does, battling an array of sea monsters along the way.
Aisha is everything you want in a heroine: cunning and headstrong, but also fallible. “You are clumsy,” the cat tells her, “but you have the beginnings of a poem, absurd feeling anguishing in translation.” He wouldn’t wish a poet’s soul on anyone, though: “They grieve for grace, they destroy their hearts with their own hands.” Every sentence of this novel could be a verse.
There are stories within stories here, bursting with truth and wisdom, honoring the rich oral traditions of the Hadrami. “Better blind than to be deaf or dumb,” one sea creature says, telling Aisha the protracted, moving tale of how she knows the fisherman. “A mouth needs to utter prayers and to speak, the ear to take in conversation. It must, it must, or the mind, the spirit, dies.”
Bajaber is a born storyteller, pulling you along Aisha’s epic quest to know her father’s fate. She punctuates the pathos with knowing humor, as when Aisha poses as a “keeper of histories” before the fearsome monster Baba wa Papa, or Father of the Shark. “What historian follows a fisherman?” he challenges her. “One in love with story-craft,” Aisha lies. “He is a character in the story. … I must find him so I know how that story ends.”
Underneath all the action (the novel gives “Jaws” a run for its money), “The House of Rust” is about the power of the sea, but it’s also about the power of family, of fable. It’s a coming-of-age tale about a girl looking both for her father and for her place in the world.
“Tired of suffering,” at one point Aisha loses resolve: “I want to be taken back, I want to not have been made.” The cat, her loyal compass, steadies her onward. If you want a story to end, he says, “then go and meet it.” You will want to meet it. This book deserves to be huge.
THE SWANK HOTEL
By Lucy Corin
363 pp. Graywolf. Paper, $17.
I was slightly disappointed Corin’s latest was not about Hilary Swank’s attempt to start a chain of hotels. Instead, “The Swank Hotel,” like all her previous works, particularly her 2013 story collection, “One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses,” is about unstable people in an unstable world. It is 2001, and Em spends her days working a nondescript “good job” and her nights searching for her younger sister, Ad, who’s gone missing. It’s happened before, more than once: “One time Ad had been so missing that their mother hired a private eye.”
Like Aisha’s, Em’s journey to find a lost loved one involves a host of colorful, madcap characters who may or may not exist. As we learn more about this family, the novel grows increasingly disorienting; though it seems purposeful, the more Em unravels, so does the reader’s attention span. If Corin’s intent was chaos, it worked. Like any book with an unreliable narrator, “The Swank Hotel” makes it difficult to discern what’s real from what’s imagined. The reader must sort out for herself what is actually happening before she can figure out what to take from it.
Corin writes her characters and their plights from direct experience. In the acknowledgments, she writes, “This book is inextricably bound to the life and mind of Emily Hochman,” her sister, a visual artist based in Berlin. But Hochman’s husband has claimed, in a Medium post, that details of his wife’s mental health struggles were used in this story without her consent. It can be argued that novelists often borrow from their own lives, or from the lives of people they know; but the ethics are never clear-cut, especially when the book causes others distress.
Ethical questions aside, there is much to admire in this narrative of adult sisterhood and mental instability, reminiscent of, if somewhat less memorable than, Miriam Toews’s exceptional “All My Puny Sorrows” and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s “My Sister the Serial Killer.” Slow-burning and tender, “The Swank Hotel” conveys the frustration and agony of watching someone you love battle her demons while also battling your own.
By Zoe Whittall
354 pp. Ballantine. $28.
Whittall’s fourth novel begins with Missy, a 21-year-old rock star who tries and fails to persuade a doctor to sterilize her so she can have as much sex as she wants on tour with her punk band, the Swearwolves. Detained at the Canadian border for cocaine possession (“in my defense, there isn’t actually any cocaine left in it, but it isn’t the world’s smallest bag of flour”), Missy reads in a magazine that Carola, the estranged mother who abandoned her at 13, is now involved with a yoga sex cult. (Who among us?) The news prompts Missy to question whether Carola really was that bad a mother after all.
Alternating between the viewpoints of Missy and Carola, “The Spectacular” traces their imperfect reunion while checking many of the boxes of feminist fiction: sex positivity, female bodily autonomy, abortion rallies, lesbianism. Though Whittall’s plot is meaty enough — about the mother-daughter bond that defines us, wrecks us, restores us — there isn’t anything really spectacular here. The book doesn’t add much to the already saturated subgenre of books about the complexities and qualified triumphs of modern womanhood.
For a novel about women defying social expectations, “The Spectacular” renders the women themselves too unsympathetic to root for. “Most depressing birthday ever?” Missy writes in her journal, drawing “a sad, wilting flower before I remember this is probably a hangover mood, not real feelings. In reality, my life is pretty great.” It’s hard to disagree: She’s doing whatever she wants, sleeping with whomever she wants, her only “mission to be likable, fun and perfectly relaxed, even though I am none of those things.” On Carola’s part, even when she tries at long last to be a parent to her child, she still can’t seem to put herself second. Most of us have felt like a failure, have felt we are never quite good enough. But the self-awareness Whittall depicts never leads the women anywhere beyond itself. (The most interesting character, Missy’s octogenarian grandmother, Ruth, gets disappointingly little page time.)
Despite the characters’ ambivalence about motherhood, Whittall has written a competent and highly readable testament to the strength of the maternal bond, even after years apart. “Her concern felt like a drug,” Missy thinks of Carola’s protective warnings, themselves intoxicating. “I was getting giddy from our closeness.”