For readers in search of tales that step outside familiar viewpoints, there is an abundance of fiction by women unraveling the big themes of conflict, religion, race and love — from new and different angles. The five novels I'm recommending offer up-close-and-personal engagement with characters who are often at odds with their communities or whose lives are so far on the periphery that we can be sure history books would pass them by. They make far-flung places and faraway lives feel immediate. This, for me, is the magic of good fiction: that outsiders — a child from the slums, an executed zealot, a reluctant immigrant, a guilty survivor and a suffering mother — can take center stage and make the world a bigger, yet more knowable, place.
In her previous books Aminatta Forna focused her attention on her father's native land, Sierra Leone, where she'd spent part of her turbulent childhood. The Hired Man is set in the fictional town of Gost, Croatia. It opens with the arrival of Laura, a British woman who has bought a dilapidated house on the outskirts of town. With her teenage son and daughter in tow, she plans to spend the summer fixing up what will be their holiday home. It's over a decade since the Balkan wars of the late 1990s; flights from England to Croatia are frequent and property prices are low. This is the dream of the affluent middle classes, and Laura does not ask why this house has lain abandoned for so long. The story is narrated in the distant, laconic voice of Duro, a local hunter and handyman, and it's his connection with the house that forms the core of this absorbing and disturbing book. As the season progresses with the plastering of ceilings and the re-tiling of a fountain, truths about the town and the war its inhabitants survived are revealed. Forna's unwavering gaze compels a close look at the complexities of our shared histories. We are not provided with answers, but the questions she asks — What is the price of memory? How do we bear the burden of forgetting? — demand attention.
Alderman's first novel, Disobedience, told the story of a prodigal Orthodox Jewish daughter returning home after the death of her father. In this, her third book, Alderman solidly claims her place as a writer of bold imagination and abundant skill. The Liar's Gospel is a distinctly Jewish telling of the life and death of Jesus (Yehoshuah in the book), an approach that makes the well-known story feel immediate and compelling. A year after he has been crucified, Yehoshuah's body has never been found, but the focus here is not the unraveling of a mystery. Rather, Alderman is concerned with an altogether gritty, intricately conceived recreation of a time, a place, a people and a life long subsumed by the exigencies of religious creed. Miryam, Yehoshuah's mother; Judas, his disciple; the high priest Caiaphas and the freedom fighter Barabbas each tells of his or her relationship and encounters with a man who is, by turn, an ungrateful son, a naive idealist, a misguided irritation and a failed revolutionary. Alderman grafts sinew and muscle to the bare bones of an ancient tale and writes an entirely credible account of a time of occupation, social turmoil and a nation at the crossroads.
Darling and her friends are on an expedition to steal guavas in "Budapest," a suburb of Harare, Zimbabwe, where the gardens are bountiful and the inhabitants all wear shoes. The guavas will, in all likelihood, give them stomachaches if they eat too many but the children stuff themselves regardless. At least they will be full for a time. NoViolet Bulawayo's narrator shrugs off self-pity. Indeed, the children are more worried that 11-year-old Chipo can't keep up because of her heavy, pregnant belly; waiting for her could get them all caught. This tale of a young girl's dreams of escape is a devastating indictment of the politicians whose greed has closed hospitals and schools and robbed generations of their future. But even as she writes with clarity and brutal honesty of life "after things have fallen apart," Bulawayo's debut affords her young heroine a dignity and spirit that is impossible to forget. We Need New Names is an often funny, raw and highly original book that makes the exile into diaspora a teenage journey of discovery as Darling joins her Aunt Fostalina in America and discovers a new accent, shopping malls, Internet porn and the shocking possibility that escape may mean never being able to return home.
Ifemelu, the protagonist of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's fourth book, is a blogger, and her no-holds-barred postings on life as an African in America allow for bold interrogations of race and the delightful spilling of black women's hair secrets, along with intimate postings about love, life and family. Adichie is a writer who, from her first book, has always been confident of her voice, but in this audaciously contemporary novel there is a tone and a challenge hitherto only glimpsed in her short stories. While Ifemelu leaves Nigeria for America, Obinze, her "soul mate," seeks to make his life in London. The chapters narrated by Obinze offer a sober, ultimately heartbreaking account of his disappointment with immigration and his return home, where the compromises he endures in search of success threaten to steal his soul. No one is spared Adichie's biting wit — from the white suburban housewife who prefaces any description of a person of color with "beautiful" to the returned "Americanahs" who are identified by their shapeless vintage clothing and pining for sushi. But there is also real generosity in the writer's examination of the fluid and sometimes contradictory nature of identity and acknowledgement of the choices we are forced to make in search of happiness.
Hattie is 17, recently arrived in Philadelphia from Georgia and newly married. Her twin babies are dying and, with little money and even less experience, she is determined to save them. The babies, Philadelphia and Jubilee, along with the nine children and grandchild she will go on to have, form the "tribes" in the title of a book that packs an epic into 250 pages. With multiple narrators and as many viewpoints, Mathis takes the reader through the decades from Hattie's arrival in the North in the 1920s through to her old age. There is love here, passion and betrayal; poverty and sacrifice; transgression and fortitude. Mathis' prose has a distinctly biblical lilt that transforms a tale of one family's trials and comes close to achieving a universal relevance. The spare glimpses of the characters' lives leave the reader longing for more of these stories that skirt the sidelines of history. And here is the truth of it all: Viewed in comparison with the great sweeps of history, these are small stories told by the offspring of an easily forgotten woman. But it is within these stories that we see the transformation of a nation.
Ellah Allfrey is deputy editor of Granta magazine. She lives in London.