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Stories of climate catastrophe, colonial resistance and dystopian futures

Librarian Tim O’Dell looks at some of the best fiction writing in the last year

Picture of a bookshelf, story on fiction writingThe Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz (translated by Philip Boehm)

Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz was born into a German-Jewish family in Berlin in 1915. Following the rise of the Nazis, he and his mother were forced to flee Germany. They went first to Sweden and then to Norway and France. Expelled by the police from Luxembourg, they travelled to Belgium and eventually settled in Britain.

They were arrested in 1940 in Britain and held in an internment camp as “enemy aliens”. Boschwitz was deported to Australia and imprisoned there for two years. He died when the ship he was returning to Europe on in 1942 was torpedoed. He was only 27 years old.

Although Boschwitz’s first novel was published in Swedish in 1937, The Passenger (Der Reisende) wasn’t published in the German language until 2019. And now it has a new translation for English readers.  

The novel was written in just four weeks following the deadly attacks of Kristallnacht (Crystal Night). So named from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after Nazi thugs smashed the windows of Jewish-owned shops, buildings and synagogues.

The novel is set in Berlin in November 1938. Synagogues are being burnt, Jews rounded up and their businesses destroyed. Otto Silberman, a confident businessman is Jewish. He has managed to evade the escalating violence of the Nazi regime—until now.

With Nazi stormtroopers battering on his door, he sneaks out the back and begins a desperate race to escape this homeland that is no longer home. Colleagues turn against him and the Brownshirts outright violence isn’t the only attack he has to face. “No one resists,” the novel reads. “They all cringe and say—we have no choice, but the truth is they’re happy to go along because there’s something in it for them.”

Otto is forever travelling but going nowhere, a Kafkaesque nightmare with his destination always eluding him. Leaving Germany becomes impossible as no country is willing to take fleeing Jews. It is with terrifying insight that Boschwitz wrote in 1938, “Perhaps they’ll carefully undress us first and then kill us. So our clothes won’t get bloody and our banknotes won’t get damaged”. .

Boschwitz writes with an urgency, which reads like a thriller and plunges the reader into the despair of Nazi Germany just as the darkness was descending. The novel sits wonderfully amongst rediscovered classics such as Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française or Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin.

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Richard Powers won the Pulitzer Prize in 2019 for The Overstory, a brilliant cry for action over climate change.

He returns to the fight for a sustainable world in his latest novel Bewilderment. At its heart is a young boy seeking answers to why humanity would allow the extinction of innumerable species of animals—and in the end its own destruction. 

Robin is a funny, loving nine year-old who thinks and feels deeply. He is transfixed by the work of his late mother, environmental campaigner Alyssa, and adores animals. Robin cannot see why something isn’t being done to stop the decline in biodiversity and logically wants to do something about it.

Robin is neurodivergent. He is on the verge of being expelled from school for his violent outbursts while psychoactive drugs are the only solution put forward.

Robin’s father Theo Byrne is an astrophysicist modelling possible life on other planets. But the US is moving towards an anti-intellectual authoritarianism and government funding for such research is drying up. Theo decides to home-school Robin and support his activism. And in this, Powers finds some of his most beautiful writing. As Theo and Robin work through the possibilities of different worlds out in space, so the potential for this world to be different is made real.

In the Trumpian—second term!—world of Bewilderment dissent can be an imprisonable offence and freak weather events are the norm. How does a father explain to his child a system that is so in love with its own destruction?

My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

In 2017 Heather Heyer was murdered by a Nazi driving his car headlong into an anti-fascist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia. In the immediate aftermath of the horror, president Donald Trump declared that there were “very fine people on both sides”.

Fast forward some years, and ecological disasters are battering the US, oceans are rising and power failing. Armed white men in jeeps booming, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and shouting, “OURS!” set fire to the mostly black neighbourhood of our protagonist, student Da’Naisha Love.

A band of friends, families and strangers led by Da’Naisha batter their way through and flee together in an abandoned bus and head for the hills above town. They arrive at Monticello, the now deserted historic plantation-home of Thomas Jefferson.

But Da’Naisha has a complex relationship with the house. We discover she is a young black descendant of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who bore a number of Jefferson’s children. Johnson brilliantly draws out Jefferson’s position on slavery.

Jefferson is perhaps best known for the Declaration of Independence and its emancipatory statement that “all men are created equal”. In truth, he owned 600 enslaved people during his lifetime and believed that black and white couldn’t live together.

My Monticello is fraught with tension and fear—will they be discovered? “What if nobody comes,” asks Da’Naisha’s white boyfriend. “What if somebody comes,” replies Da’Naisha, encapsulating their different racialised experiences of life.

Johnson’s debut novel is a painful story of US racism past, present and future—and a powerful vision of resistance and hope.

Palmares by Gayl Jones

In 1975 a Random House editor named Toni Morrison read the manuscript of Gayl Jones’ first novel Corregidora. She wrote “that no novel about any black woman could ever be the same after this”—and Jones also received high praise from James Baldwin and Maya Angelou.

In the late 1980 she disappeared in controversial circumstances until her first new novel in over two decades appeared this year. It’s an epic tale of love and liberation set in 17th century colonial Brazil.

Palmares is written in a series of short chapters detailing the life, thoughts, humiliations, dreams and loves of Almeyda, a young, enslaved girl who travels from one plantation to another, sold and re-sold. Jones writes in such an extraordinary way that we are immediately at one with Almeyda as she navigates the brutal and magical world around her.

 Our main character’s grandmother has brought with her “old ways”, magic, and usefully, medical knowledge. From plantation to plantation, the name Palmares is whispered, a hidden settlement where fugitive slaves live free.

During the Atlantic slave trade, Portuguese rule in Brazil led to the transportation of more enslaved Africans than any other country. An estimated 4.9 million people. The average enslaved African only lived to be 23 years old because of the terrible work conditions, brutal treatment and disease.

Enslavement also brought resistance. Escaped slaves formed communities called Quilombos, usually located near colonial towns. They relied on raids to feed and clothe themselves and presented a real threat to the colonial social order.

Historically Quilombo dos Palmares was the most famous community, attracting between 6,000 and 20,000 people aiming to build an alternative free society. Though Palmares was eventually defeated, its existence and success saw the continuation of African traditions in Brazilian culture today.

Jones eventually gets her Almeyda to Palmares and conveys the struggle in all of its multifaceted and disorienting complexity. In a society so riven with division, can Palmares live up to the dream of freedom? On route and when fleeing Almeyda meets black Muslims, witches, women with wives, Christians, Jews, Tupis and Guaranis. And miners, female English journalists, voyeuristic Dutch painters, mercenaries and free black men and women—from Europe and Brazilian born.

Some have said Palmares is best read in parts over a period of time, as in the west African and Afro-Brazilian oral tradition. And this feels the right way to tackle such an odyssey. It’s a beautifully complex and enlightening tale of the horrors of colonialism and the fight for freedom.

The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century by Olga Ravn (Trans: Martin Aitken)

Maybe not for everyone, this beautiful little piece of science fiction is set in a workplace. It’s a spaceship sometime in the future, staffed by humans and “humanoids” looking after some objects found on the planet New Discovery. This is a novel longer in the thinking than the reading—at a sparse 136 pages.

Revealing its secrets through brief, poetic reports made by the employees to unknown assessors—a Workplace Commission—we are drawn into the world of the Six-Thousand Ship. On board something is happening between those that were born and those who were made, those who will die and those who will not—all “employees”.

Their brief statements to the Commission build a sense of fear and comfort, weariness and compassion, threat, desire and grief. Through the patchwork of the statements, we start to sense a coming together as well as division between the employees.

The ship’s mission is clearly doomed and gradually human and humanoid start to realise the role of the Workplace Commissioners. They’re assessing the reasons for a declining productivity and ultimately the fate of all things aboard the ship. 

A companion piece to a 2018 art installation by Lea Guldditte Hestelund, Olga Ravn asks big questions about sentience and the nature of humanity. She imagines not only a possible future, but also examines the contemporary workplace and the dehumanisation in the corporate language of today. Rebellion, division, and unity are all parts of the workforce response.

One passage reads, “You want to know what I think about this arrangement? I think you look down on me. The way I see it, you’re a family that’s built a house. And from the warm rooms of that house you now look out at the pouring rain.

“Safe from menace, you delight at the rain. You’re dry and snug. You’re reaping the rewards of a long process of refinement. When the storm gets up, it only heightens your enjoyment. I’m standing in the rain you think can never fall on you… I’m the storm you shelter from.

“I may have been made, but now I’m making myself.”

Ravn is a Danish novelist and poet who runs the feminist performance group and writing school Hekseskolen. The Employees was shortlisted for the International Booker prize 2021.

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