Fiction Reviews


Anna Moschovakis
Coffee House Press

by Joseph Houlihan

Poet, novelist, and translator Anna Moschovakis won the International Booker Prize in 2021 for her translation, from the French, of At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop. Her latest novel, Participation, also has a lot of “French” in it; possibly written as an echo of her previous novel, Eleanor, or the Rejection of Progress of Love (Coffee House Press, 2018), this new work offers a probing meditation on love. Fortunately, the book’s framing device cuts through any risk of it being overly sentimental.

Participation follows a narrator, E, as she vacillates between the gravity of two reading groups, Love and Anti-Love. E explains: “Anti-Love is not, to be fair, billed as Anti-Love. It’s billed variously as resistance, revolt, revolution. Sometimes it’s billed (tentatively or defiantly) as Self-Love.Love bills itself as itself, eponymous and proud.”

Following the Oulipo tradition of expanding through constraint, Moschovakis employs various experiments, letting the novel unspool through thoughts, fantasies, anecdotes, dialogues, and more. Moschovakis gives her characters from the reading groups letter-names without genders, as well: “This missive earned a single black heart from S, one of the members of Love I’d never met. I jolted when I saw their heart, then I liked it back.” The desire that expressed without gendered language ripples in interesting ways, energizing the description of a prelude to a kiss and dispatches from a live blog in the wake of a disaster. As the book accelerates towards its finish, there is increasing entropy and beautiful irresolution.

Throughout, Participation remains smart, frank, and sexy about its subject: “There is an abundance of emotion—enough years, enough fucks and near-fucks and pseudo-fucks, enough expectations unanswered because unheard or unsaid—and it is that abundance that is known: a partial knowing, as excess is always, paradoxically, partial.” This arch sexiness has the appeal of Marguerite Duras in The Lover or The Ravishing of Lol Stein.

As a poet, Moschovakis has effectively employed and interrogated axioms. She does the same in her fiction, animating the ideas in Participation with language. There is the notion of bodies constituted through exchange—“We absorb such unverifiable facts from conversation, and they become a part of us, they become us”—and she

describes mathematical intuitionism as a metaphor for communication: “Intuitionism is based on the idea that mathematics is a creation of the mind. The truth of a mathematical statement can only be conceived via a mental construction that proves it to be true, and the communication between mathematicians only serves as a means to create the same mental process in different minds.

Of course, everybody does not occupy the same reality, and even as we describe the world, we can never describe the whole world. This tension, and the tension between love and anti-love, participation or non-participation, or how to live whenthere is no good way to live, is the central theme of the novel. This tension as it relates to love and desire is enunciated in ways that lead the reader to ponder what might be a “good enough” love.

Participation does not have quotes in the title, but one might well imagine them there. E is a material girl in a material world; she burns, she desires, and she dreams. Her fragmented transmissions ring a warning bell, and the result is affecting.

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Because I Loved You

Donnaldson Brown
She Writes Press ($18.95)

by Eleanor J. Bader               

Conventional romantic plots constantly tell us that love is the only thing we need to be happy and secure, but reality rarely measures up to that promise. This painful truth is central to Donnaldson Brown’s emotionally resonant first novel, Because I Loved You.

The story opens in Tyler, Texas at the beginning of the 1970s. Leni O’Hare is sixteen when she rescues seventeen-year-old Caleb McGrath’s injured horse, and in short order, the two become inseparable. Both have big dreams: Leni hopes to pursue an art career, and Caleb hopes to study physics at an Ivy League college. But almost from the start, there are conflicts and obstacles, with ever-present reminders of death and war hovering over their union.

For Caleb, there’s a palpable fear of being drafted to fight in Vietnam, something that is hammered home whenever he interacts with his volatile, just-returned older brother. For Leni, raised by a French mom who lost most of her relatives during World War II, the family mantra has always been: “Life is loss. . . . And you go on.” This once-abstract concept becomes real for Leni when her older brother dies while playing football, a sudden tragedy that threatens to upend the O’Hare family’s already-tenuous bonds.    

It also mars Leni and Caleb’s romance. In fact, as they cling to one another, lies, secrets, and silences cast a menacing shadow over their relationship. Several months later, when Leni leaves Tyler without telling anyone where she is going or why, Caleb is left to unravel the mystery of her disappearance. 

Caleb ends up attending Princeton University, but rather than study physics, he is seduced by the world of finance and eventually joins a successful real estate firm in New York City. Fast forward to 1984: Caleb and his fiancée have been invited to a Manhattan art opening where, unbeknownst to Caleb, Leni is exhibiting. Suffice it to say that theirs is a bittersweet reunion. 

The unfolding interpersonal drama takes unpredictable turns, and Brown offers no easy resolutions. Instead, Because I Loved You presents an adult assessment of the limits of love alongside a potent acknowledgment of the power of shared history. The result is an unusual mix of a sweeping, decades-spanning saga and an intimate glimpse into the ways two people sustain platonic love when romantic love becomes untenable.

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The Last Days of Terranova

Manuel Rivas
Translated by Jacob Rogers
Archipelago Books ($20)

by John Kazanjian                 

Manuel Rivas’s The Last Days of Terranova opens with Vicenzo Fontana watching a couple collect barnacles from a wall by the sea. Fontana considers the three of them to be bonded by this shared moment. However, he is a voyeur, removed from them; he admits that he is “witnessing something he shouldn’t, from a place he shouldn’t be.” With this, he states the novel’s thematic foundation: that the yearning to connect with other people can result in unforeseen consequences. In this scene, the man scraping barnacles disappears; Fontana calls for help and later learns the man is wanted by authorities. By inserting himself in the lives of the couple, Fontana has only provided them with trouble. Yet, despite the high stakes involved in becoming intertwined with other people, Fontana continually finds meaning by enriching his own tale with those of others.

Fontana has possessed a life-long curiosity about other people—he sees them as containers of stories. As Fontana narrates, he shares an anthology of experiences he has collected from each person that moves him. The novel shifts between Fontana’s life as he comes of age in and out of his family’s bookstore, and the rich cast of characters that have connected with the shop throughout the decades. The recently doomed bookstore, called Terranova, was founded by his father Amato four years before the beginning of Franco’s regime, and has served as a stage for diverse tales of the human condition. Some of these tales were set on paper, smuggled into the country, and delivered to Terranova. Other stories are less accessible, their full truths hidden in the minds of people who enter the shop.

The most compelling storylines feature Amato, an archaeologist, writer, and celebrated thinker whose mysterious background grows more poignant as the relationship between father and son breaks down, and Fontana’s uncle, Eliseo, who tells fantastic tales that form the backbone of the family’s mythos and cause dissonance in the novel as the line between fiction and reality becomes clearer. Fontana’s own experiences—from his time in an Iron Lung, through his stint in a metal band, to his meeting Garúa, an Argentinian fugitive whose story combines hope, loneliness, and tragedy—provide context for the other characters. Garúa finds sanctuary in Terranova as she is pursued by Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance agents, and Fontana’s evolving relationship with her is a rich aspect of the book, allowing Rivas to explore emotional complexity and resilience:

Garúa looks at the photo. It’s almost impossible not to smile when you look at this picture. It’s that spark. You’d have to put up a somber resistance not to fall under its spell. And she falls, she’s with them. Smiling on the inside.

The Last Days of Terranova is like a bookstore: One is pleasantly overwhelmed by the many rich stories that sit near one another. Each chapter begins in a different era of Fontana’s life, blurring the lines between his ordinary world and the realms in which he gains self-knowledge through his interactions with others. Jacob Rogers’s translation presents a strong narrative voice that serves as the uniting element between sections, moving us through Fontana’s earlier life with the same gravitas as more recent storylines. The text contains nuances of language and tone that communicate Fontana’s vulnerability to nostalgia and his tendency to frame events in ways that both torture and soothe him.

Although this narrative voice moves smoothly throughout the book, eventually employing a dramatic tone shift to propel readers into the novel’s plot-driven conclusion, it is frustrating that we are allowed very few moments of deeper access into the lives of Fontana’s loved ones; there are times when it feels the book would benefit from taking the focus off Fontana and delving further into the stories of the other characters more significantly. Ultimately, however, the author’s restraint is strategic: Rivas leaves it up to readers to fill in the full emotional scope of the novel through the lens of Fontana’s nostalgia. The process of doing so reminds us that though we bear witness to many characters’ stories, the narrative mosaic that Rivas has crafted belongs to one person alone. It’s a poignant achievement that Fontana’s story feels connected to our own after our time with him is finished.

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