There Is No Such Thing as an Easy Job (Bloomsbury, £12.99) is the first novel by Kikuko Tsumura to become available in English. It is translated by the accomplished Polly Barton, who has also worked on the writer's short pieces for Granta.
The narrator is a 36-year-old woman, recovering from career burnout, who is tentatively looking for a job that requires as little personal investment of thought, feeling or energy as possible. The fantasy of a low-stakes job is familiar to overstressed employees everywhere, but the writer resists a more obvious critique of soulless corporate culture. Instead, through a series of oddball assignments, we see the narrator trying to rebuild her confidence incrementally, looking to the workplace as a source of social contact and everyday creativity.
The protagonist is restless and lacks direction, and at times the narrative feels the same; but this is partly the point. Ultimately, it is through the winding process of self-repair that we get to share in the character’s journey of self-understanding in this altogether human novel.
The Girl with Braided Hair (Hoopoe, £10.99) by Rasha Adly, and translated by Sarah Enany, tells two interconnected stories. One is about a teenage girl, Zeinab, living in Cairo in 1798, who is admitted to Napoleon's inner social circle during the French campaign in Egypt. The other follows Yasmine, an art history lecturer who encounters Zeinab's damaged portrait more than 200 years later and becomes fascinated with investigating its provenance.
Throughout the book are wider digressions into history, art and spirituality
The novel is at its most compelling when following Zeinab, whose passion and inexperience combine to ignite several memorable scenes of heartache. By contrast, Yasmine’s contemporary narrative is more conventional, her crises a question of conflicted interior moments rather than Napoleonic geopolitics.
Throughout the book are wider digressions into history, art and spirituality which, though interesting in themselves, tend to disrupt the momentum and crowd out the main characters. That said, there is still plenty of storytelling brio to make this an enjoyable and engaging read.
Theatre of War (Charco Press, £9.99), the debut by Chilean writer Andrea Jeftanovic, was first published in 2000 and is now available in English thanks to this superbly voiced translation by Frances Riddle.
The story is told by Tamara, whose father has left his war-ravaged country to make a new life on a new continent; however, he cannot leave his trauma behind: “There is a mournful rain inside him … God kneels on his shoulders and asks him for forgiveness.” The momentum of her father’s sadness carries into Tamara’s own childhood, which is marred by material and emotional poverty.
The narrative has a calm clarity to it, deploying its devices wisely to create the illusion of objectivity
As a young woman she connects with a fellow student, Franz, but her adulthood continues the pattern of rootlessness and abandonment: “each new experience breaks the seal and releases old memories.”
The narrative has a calm clarity to it, deploying its devices wisely to create the illusion of objectivity. But for all its stoical poetry, this is not reportage: it is a controlled explosion of all the pain that one life can hold. The result is a memorable novel of devastating poignancy.
Told over three generations, from 1955 to the present day, The Fig Tree (istros, £10.99), by Slovenian writer Goran Vojnovic, is a perceptive and sympathetic search for identity – specifically male identity – set against the crumbling national identity of the former Yugoslavia, a backdrop that gives the novel's themes resonance beyond the personal. Faced with the death of his grandfather and abandonment by his wife, the thirtysomething narrator braces himself for the question: "Who do you belong to, Jadran Dizdar?" But the answer lies hidden somewhere in the unmapped part of himself and must be inferred from the echoes, shadows and reflections that bounce around his family and relationship history.
This novel plays masterfully on the paradox of longing for what lies distant
Switching point of view and time period, the narrative structure resists straightforward lines of cause and effect, though never feels disjointed. The writing has an extemporised fluency to it, and in this graceful translation by Olivia Hellewell, the long sentences are effortless to read.
This novel plays masterfully on the paradox of longing for what lies distant, while living with estrangement at close quarters. There is something ungraspable in the characters’ lives – they see each other most clearly from afar, only to squander moments of intimacy. The question of identity, it seems, becomes complicated when the things you belong to start falling apart.
A consummate novel that explores its subject with depth and sensitivity, The Fig Tree is one of the best books of the year.
Strange Beasts of China (Tilted Axis, £9.99) by Yan Ge is a sui generis novel in which a zoology dropout is drawn deeper into the world of the human-like beasts that live on the fringes of society in the city of Yong'an. Each chapter includes an encyclopaedia-type entry about a particular beast of interest, but the real story lies in the spiralling mystery of the main character's personal background and her quest to understand the role these beasts play in it.
This is not a novel that reveals itself readily, and it toys with the reader's expectations on that front
The writing is playful and darkly subtle, using short sentences and abrupt shifts to disorient the reader: insights are dropped almost accidentally, like clues. Translator Jeremy Tiang does an excellent job of pitching the tone and humour of the book, and sentences are studded with thoughtful word choices: “dewy” eyes, “pellucid” skin, light that is “burnishing”.
This is not a novel that reveals itself readily, and it toys with the reader’s expectations on that front. Though it dazzles the imagination, a more serious undertow pulls you towards something heartfelt. The world shown here is full of chaos and vulnerability. Humans and beasts alike are lost before they can be rescued. Meaning is elusive. You could choose to despair at this, or take hope that Yan Ge cares enough to write so tenderly about it.