In the emotionally complex beginnings of Chantal V. Johnson, POST-TRAUMATIC (312 p., Little, Brown, $28), Vivian, the 30-year-old daughter of a black father and a Puerto Rican mother, works as a juvenile state attorney at a public psychiatric ward in New York. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Vivian has a deep empathy for her often rage-filled young clients and a healthy skepticism of the system that keeps many of them hospitalized. When a friend comments that Vivian is “doing God’s work,” she responds with a critique of the American Psychiatric Association’s reference guide for diagnosing mental disorders: “Work hard to dismantle that DSM.”
Vivian’s personal life is governed by her ambivalence about social ties. After a family reunion in Connecticut, Vivian contemplates cutting off her mother and brother to stem the toxic memories and dynamics that have lingered since her childhood. But alone in the city, Vivian craves romantic companionship and continually exposes herself to heartache. “If she could just…be locked into the couple structure,” she thinks, “she wouldn’t need a family.”
Vivian’s past trauma is woven into the fabric of who she is, compromising her relationships with her family and lovers, as well as herself (her eating disorder is a manifestation of a need for control after a awful childhood). When it comes to others, “her tendency was to assume danger rather than benevolence”, and she perceives threats, real or imagined, lurking everywhere. As she coaches her teenage clients toward inner strength and independence, the question is whether she can go in that direction herself.
In its suspenseful debut, WHEN WE FELL APART (357 pp., Dutton, $27), Soon, Wiley navigates between two different points of view on the mysterious suicide of a young woman. Yu-jin is an ambitious student and creative soul thriving in South Korea’s competitive academic ecosystem. But despite her outward perfectionism, inside she harbors secret aspirations that would be intolerable to her father, the country’s defense minister. When she lost her virginity in high school, she thought, “For the first time in my life, I knew what it was to transgress, and it was better than anything I had ever done.
While studying in Seoul, Yu-jin began dating Min, a half-Korean man from Los Angeles who “never wanted to decide which world to occupy. He had never wanted to choose which half to be. Devastated – and suspicious – by the news of his girlfriend’s suicide, Min searches for answers and discovers how little he knew about her. “Throughout their relationship, they had worked tirelessly to maintain their emotional distance,” Wiley writes, “lest they see each other for what they both were: lost souls, desperate to belong. .”
Capital chapters. Let us know that its tragic conclusion doesn’t make its past any less urgent than Min’s quest in the present. It is the story of a young man constrained in his personal development, one by his own internal pressures, the other by social expectations that contradict his true desires.
In THE LITTLE FOXES TOOK MATCHES (360 pp., Tin House, $26.95), Katya Kazbek’s emotional debut is set in 1990s Russia. Twelve-year-old Mitya witnesses the harsh economic realities of the collapse of the Soviet Union at the same time as he undergoes a change in his own identity. From an early age, he was attracted to cosmetics and women’s clothing. “As soon as he saw his painted face in the mirror, he felt a semblance of peace and was able to forget how much of a failure he was.” When his intolerant father, an Afghan war veteran, first discovers Mitya wearing lipstick, eye shadow and his grandmother and mother’s clothes, he hits him like it’s possible to “beat the femininity of his son”. Another ex-serviceman, Mitya’s older cousin, Vovka, returns from the Chechen war a violent alcoholic and sexually rapes 10-year-old Mitya.
Despite the horrors he endures, Mitya maintains a folk belief that a sewing needle he swallowed as a child would “always protect him from harm and make him special”. Throughout the novel is the classic Russian fairy tale of Koschei the Immortal, who “can only be killed if someone breaks the needle which is his death”.
Avoiding danger at home, Mitya wanders the streets of Moscow dressed as a woman and befriends the homeless Valerka, the first person to accept Mitya in female form. When Valerka disappears, Mitia comes to understand that “it was all just a system, rotten and screwed up, in which the little people didn’t stand a chance”. Seeking justice for his friend, Mitya ventures farther and farther from home, expanding his knowledge of the world and his place in it.
Annie Hartnett’s haunting second novel, UNLIKELY ANIMALS (349 pp., Ballantine, $28), begins with a young woman named Emma Starling who reluctantly returns home with her parents. She’s here in her fictional small hometown of Everton, NH, to come to the aid of her father, Clive, who recently experienced symptoms of a puzzling brain condition. Emma was born with what those around her call “the charm” – her “hands weren’t Magic-magic, not exactly, but they sped up the natural healing process” – and the hope is that she can slow down her father’s deterioration. But, having secretly dropped out of medical school before it even started, Emma fears she’s lost her gift and disappoints everyone.
Meanwhile, at Everton, an opioid crisis rages, and Emma’s brother, Auggie, and childhood best friend, Crystal, are both victims of addiction. Clive’s illness causes him to see animals and people who aren’t there, including the ghost of turn-of-the-century naturalist Ernest Harold Baynes, a true historical figure who lived among bears, wolves, foxes and d other wildlife on his sprawling New Hampshire property. Everton’s deaths serve as the refrain of the novel, all-knowing but powerless: ‘If only we were given a little more freedom’, they lament, ‘if there weren’t so many rules and restrictions on death , we could help the living.
As Clive’s condition worsens, Emma joins his obsessive search for the missing Crystal. Amid the literal ghosts of her past, Emma finds herself settling back into her home and finding joy and meaning in unexpected places.