This week, the National Book Awards finalists were announced, 25 books in total for fiction, nonfiction, translated literature, poetry and young adult literature. You can find the comprehensive lists on the National Book Foundation website. Here you’ll find three of the finalists and one that didn’t make the cut but bears mentioning for its scandal concerning “reality literature”.
This is the longlisted book that didn’t make the final shortlist. Will and Testament, translated from the Norwegian and longlisted in Translated Literature, is unforgettable and intense for the relentless family drama playing out over an inheritance and the protagonist’s struggle with sexual abuse and estrangement from her family. It’s published as a novel (the author claims it’s fiction), but there’s a scandal going on in Norway about the story being thinly veiled autobiography. Vigdis Hjorth’s sister Helga wrote and published a rebuttal to Will and Testament in her novel Free Will. From “Notes on a Scandal” in The New Yorker: “In Helga’s novel, a family is torn apart when the narrator’s histrionic writer sibling makes false allegations of incest in one of her books.” Free Will is not translated into English. Both novels are bestsellers in Norway. On the back of Will and Testament, The Guardian blurb captures the literary storm: “This is a novel that people can enjoy either as high literature or as a work of down-and-dirty revenge.”
Khaled Khalifa’s Death Is Hard Work is shortlisted in Translated Literature, a powerful novel of a father’s request to be buried beside his sister and the journey his children take to honor it. He dies in Damascus, and while his ancestral village of Anabiya is only a few kilometers away, it takes his children three days to transport his shrouded corpse through the many checkpoints. Also holding them back are the alarming and incomprehensible troubles they encounter, such as when regime authorities arrest the dead body and jail the children for their father’s revolutionary allegiance. I found this story to be a beautifully written, compassionate and compelling illustration of the civilian struggle to live normally in Syria; I didn’t want to put it down. The author lives in Damascus, and, according to his biography on the book’s dust jacket, he remains despite the danger.
Sarah M. Broom’s memoir about her childhood home destroyed in Hurricane Katrina is one of the five nonfiction finalists. It’s a book I’ve been meaning to read, since the previews circulated several months ago, for its appealing premise of the nostalgic childhood home. The book’s description begins: “In 1961, Sarah M. Broom’s mother Ivory Mae bought a shotgun house in the then-promising neighborhood of New Orleans East and built her world inside of it. It was the height of the Space Race and the neighborhood was home to a major NASA plant—the postwar optimism seemed assured.” In an interview with The Washington Post, Broom said: “What my work tries to explore is this: What is home, and how do you know when you’re there?” The Yellow House is her first book.
Disappearing Earth is another book I’ve been meaning to read. Its publisher categorizes the book as women’s fiction, suspense and thriller, and literary fiction, which makes the story all the more enticing. Shortlisted for the National Book Award in Fiction, Disappearing Earth takes place in the remote area of the Kamchatka peninsula at the northeastern edge of Russia where two girls go missing. From the book’s description: “Taking us through a year in Kamchatka, Disappearing Earth enters with astonishing emotional acuity the worlds of a cast of richly drawn characters, all connected by the crime: a witness, a neighbor, a detective, a mother. We are transported to vistas of rugged beauty…and into a region as complex as it is alluring…” This is the literary debut of Julia Phillips, who studied Russian literature in college and spent time in Kamchatka on a Fulbright scholarship. You can learn more about Julia Phillips and her book in an interview with The Paris Review.
Winners for all categories in the 2019 National Book Awards will be announced November 20.