THE ANGEL OF HISTORY, by Rabih Alameddine. Atlantic Monthly Press, 294 pp., $26.
“I was born homeless, countryless, raceless, didn’t belong to either my father’s family or my mother’s, no one could claim me, or wanted to,” announces Jacob (born Ya‘qub), the caustic protagonist of this new novel by Rabih Alameddine.
Jacob, a gay Arab-American poet, has checked himself into the psych ward of a San Francisco hospital, where he imagines (hallucinates?) a series of conversations between Satan and Death, addresses reminiscences to a long-dead lover and reviews his life in kaleidoscopic fashion.
And what a life. Conceived during sexual relations between a Yemeni maid and the scion of a wealthy Beirut family, Jacob explains that his mother “was kicked out of the palace, which meant I was unceremoniously exiled while still in utero.” Jacob is raised in whorehouses in Sana‘a and then Cairo, sent by his father to a Roman Catholic boarding school in Lebanon (where he is sexually abused by a nun), and winds up in the Bay Area at the height of the AIDS epidemic. We also get snatches of Jacob’s writing, including a story told from the point of view of a drone that crashes along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As in Alameddine’s 2008 novel, “The Hakawati,” “The Angel of History” overflows with stories — though here they are almost sketchlike and haphazardly assembled. As in “An Unneccessary Woman,” a National Book Award finalist from 2013, Alameddine lends his narrator an unforgettable voice — erudite, ironic, profane. That voice pulls you through this restless, dizzying novel. — TOM BEER
MISTER MONKEY, by Francine Prose. Harper, 285 pp., $26.99.
Francine Prose’s 18th novel is broken into chapters devoted to the mostly despondent, self-flagellating thoughts of person after person concerned in one way or another with a shabby production of a would-be uplifting children’s musical called “Mister Monkey.”
Margot, an actor, middle-aged and lonely, is forced to wear purple polyester and a fright wig for her role, and, in a final indignity in her dead-end career, is being sexually molested by 12-year-old Adam, who plays the monkey. He’s not happy either, in his costume made from an old bedspread, or in possessing a superannuated hippie mother who shames him by her very existence. Edward, a beautiful, sadder-and-sadder 5-year-old boy with over-controlling parents, attends the play with his grandfather, who dotes on him obsessively while at the same time grieving his dead wife. Ray, an old roué, is the author of the dreadful though strangely popular book upon which the even more dreadful musical is based.
A few more characters weigh in with their chiefly dismal ruminations, while their lives touch up against the others — bootlessly. The novel presents itself as being funny — the bathos of the musical, the self-regard of some characters, the haplessness of certain predicaments, but it lacks effervescence or wit. Coincidence takes the place of structure and sad-sackery the place of character. Prose has written some fine, entertaining novels, but this, alas, is not one. — KATHERINE A. POWERS
THE MOTHERS, by Brit Bennett. Riverhead, 278 pp., $26.
Just selected by the National Book Foundation for its “Five Under 35” list of debut novelists, Brit Bennett writes the tragic love story of Nadia Turner and Luke Sheppard in two haunting voices. One is a storytelling narrator particularly attuned to irony and hypocrisy. “Luke Sheppard waited tables at Fat Charlie’s Seafood Shack. . . . The winter her mother killed herself, Luke saved Nadia from ordering the crab bites. (Imitation crab deep-fried in lard.)” Luke, too, is reeling from misfortune, his football career ended by serious injury.
The other voice is that of the Mothers, the gossipy, judgmental ladies of Upper Room Church, where Luke’s father is the pastor. They know how wild Nadia has been running since her mother died. “Just tales, maybe, except for one we now know is true: she spent the senior year of high school rolling around in bed with Luke Sheppard and come springtime, his baby was growing inside her.”
They know it now, but they didn’t know back when it happened, and the story follows the unraveling of the secret into Luke and Nadia’s early adulthood. One of the most deeply affected is Nadia’s best friend, Aubrey, a girl taken in by the church community when she flees her mother’s abusive boyfriend, whom Nadia decides early on not to tell.
Don’t keep this beautifully written coming-of-age story to yourself: It is perfect for teenage readers, too. — MARION WINIK