“The Spy” by Paulo Coehlo (Knopf: 208 pp., $22)
Coelho, author of “The Alchemist,” whose books have sold more than 200 million copies worldwide, has taken the Mata Hari story and fashioned it into a short dynamo of a novel. He starts with the outlines of Mata Hari’s life — Dutch exotic dancer, charmer of powerful men, accused spy for Germany in World War I — and mixes in some of her own self-deceptions to create a letter she might have written before facing the French firing squad that ultimately killed her. Coelho’s Mata Hari explains that she was simply a “woman born at the wrong time” and pleads that if the future remembered her, “may it never see me as a victim, but as someone who moved forward with courage, fearlessly paying the price she had to pay.”
“The Red Car” by Marcy Dermansky (Liveright: 208 pp., $24.95)
In Dermansky’s pitch-perfect novel, Leah’s former boss was a divorced older woman who looked like Liza Minnelli and scared almost everyone in the office. The two have lost touch, but and after the boss' sudden death she bequeathed Leah her red sports car, which was located across the country, and a vehicle Leah had not particularly liked. Leah leaves an oppressive marriage and life of underachievement to retrieve the car — and try to understand the meaning of this mysterious gift. Sprinkled with dark humor and many literary references, Dermansky’s novel is ultimately one of compassion, optimism, and fierce feminism, in which an unmoored young woman enmeshed in bad relationships with men resets her life path.
“The Guineveres” by Sarah Domet (Flatiron: 352pp., $25.99)
In Domet’s charming debut novel, four girls named Guinevere are bound together by coincidence at the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration convent. Each one of the young girls — known as Gwen, Win, Ginny and Vere — has been abandoned there, and they form a provisional family. The world outside the convent’s confines looks gauzy to the girls, but when an unnamed war lands a set of near-dead men in the convent’s sick ward, the girls see the healed men as their escape route. Domet gracefully entwines the individual stories of the girls with those of the female saints, and the result is a richly imagined, emotionally satisfying work of fiction about girls imagining womanhood.
“Valiant Gentlemen” by Sabina Murray (Grove: 496 pp., $27)
From the Belgian Congo to Paris, Murray’s sweeping novel spans four continents and forty years leading up to World War I. PEN/Faulkner winner Murray ingeniously links two young friends, one who marries an Argentine-American heiress, and the other involved in Irish politics who is determined to free Ireland from British rule. Real historical characters including writers W. B. Yeats and Joseph Conrad, as well as whiskey heir James Jameson, root the story in history, but ultimately the novel is an imaginative exploration of the tragedy of lost friendship.
“Do Not Say We Have Nothing” by Madeleine Thien (W.W. Norton: 480 pp., $26.95)
Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” is an engrossing novel that segues back and forth through more than seven generations of cultural and family history. It begins in Vancouver, as a young woman learns of her family’s history from Mao’s Cultural Revolution through Tiananmen Square. Music is a connective thread through this exquisitely structured novel, with teenage sisters working as itinerant teahouse singers in the 1940s, and descendants becoming a composer and a violinist. Thien brilliantly — with both heart and a sly wit — has the young woman reconstruct this history, and come to see how it has been manipulated, distorted and adapted over time.
The National Book Review is an independent online book review founded by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor.