Book Stack

Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka's first novel in nearly 50 years

In this monthly feature, The Sunday Times picks out 10 books from around the world that have just hit shelves

Top Of The Stack

1. FICTION

CHRONICLES FROM THE LAND OF THE HAPPIEST PEOPLE ON EARTH

By Wole Soyinka

Bloomsbury/Hardcover/ 449 pages/$42.69/ Books Kinokuniya from Tuesday

3/5

"That the nation known as the Giant of Africa was credited with harbouring the Happiest People in the World was no longer news," writes Nigerian literary titan Wole Soyinka in his third novel.

To this end, the nation has created a Ministry of Happiness. It hosts the annual Festival of the People's Choice, where candidates across the country jockey to be honoured as Yeoman of the Year, a popularity contest that grows to eclipse all other reality television.

Acts of sabotage, even murder, are committed in the pursuit of this award. Candidates show their common touch by eating peasant snacks, giving lifts to the elderly, break-dancing and so on - all conveniently captured on camera.

Never mind that the country is mired in rampant corruption and endemic violence. Its people are the happiest on earth. It has the awards to show for it.

Soyinka, the first black African writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, has produced his first novel in nearly half a century since Season Of Anomy in 1973. The 87-year-old is most prolific as a playwright, though he has tried his hand at nearly every literary medium.

His return to fiction has been long anticipated and he makes the reader work for it. This shaggy-dog story, starting from its mouthful of a title, is no picnic to parse.

There is a prevailing sense of chaos. The language deliberately obfuscates and the reader must dig through a great density of verbiage to excavate the plot, a whodunnit of sorts.

The plethora of characters is hard to distinguish, though some memorable figures rise to the surface: Dr Kighare Menka, a surgeon confronted with a grisly black market trade in body parts; his long-time friend Duyole Pitan-Payne, an engineer from a terrifyingly powerful family; and Papa Davina, a charismatic spiritual conman who holds sway over the country's leadership.

Soyinka's blazing wit and biting satire shines in his skewering of political hypocrisy, or in scenes like a darkly funny sequence involving the casual smuggling of decapitated heads.

The motif of dismemberment runs matter-of-factly through the novel, an allusion to how a corrupt society cannibalises itself.

If you like this, read: The Interpreters (Vintage, 1965, reissued 2021, $29.43, Books Kinokuniya), Soyinka's debut novel set in post-independence Nigeria, as five young intellectuals return from studying abroad to start their careers in a nation struggling with its identity.

2. FICTION

MATRIX

By Lauren Groff

Hutchinson Heinemann/ Paperback/260 pages/ $30.94/Books Kinokuniya

Groff, the two-time National Book Award finalist best known for her 2015 novel Fates And Furies, takes an unpredictable turn into history with this tale of mediaeval nuns.

She takes as her heroine the obscure 12th-century poet Marie de France, imagined here as a rebellious 17-year-old expelled from the French court by her beloved queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and dispatched to run a destitute English priory.

3. THRILLER

A SLOW FIRE BURNING

By Paula Hawkins

Doubleday/Paperback/299 pages/ $29.96/Major bookstores

Hawkins, the British author famed for her 2015 bestseller The Girl On The Train, returns with another murder mystery that revels in its unreliable narrators.

When a young man is stabbed to death on a houseboat, the last three women who saw him alive come under suspicion: Laura, who is disabled from a childhood accident, was seen fleeing the boat covered in blood; Carla, the victim's aunt, is already mourning the recent death of her sister; and nosy neighbour Miriam, who found the body, is hiding secrets of her own.

4. FICTION

TENDERNESS

By Alison MacLeod

Bloomsbury USA/Hardcover/619 pages/$44.13/Books Kinokuniya

In 1930, a dying D.H. Lawrence reflects in exile on the early years of his marriage and his whirlwind affair with Rosalind Baynes, which would go on to inspire his most famous - and controversial - novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Nearly two decades later in New York, a young Jackie Kennedy, yet to be America's First Lady, slips into a hearing on Lady Chatterley's Lover's alleged obscenity.

MacLeod weaves together various stories in this hefty love letter to Lawrence's classic.

5. FICTION

SNOW COUNTRY

By Sebastian Faulks

Hutchinson/Paperback/353 pages/ $30.94/Major bookstores

As Europe recovers from one great war and heads towards another, a lovelorn journalist and a hardened young woman cross paths at the snow-bound Austrian sanatorium Schloss Seeblick.

This is the second instalment of Faulks' Austrian trilogy, following his 2005 novel Human Traces. Its title is a nod to Yukiguni, Japanese Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata's 1930s novel, which was translated into English as Snow Country.

Faulks riffs on Kawabata's iconic opening line: "The train came out of a long tunnel into snowfields."

6. FICTION

APPLES NEVER FALL

By Liane Moriarty

Michael Joseph/Paperback/ 465 pages/$33.17/Major bookstores

Joy and Stan Delaney have four adult children, a thriving tennis-school business and retirement to look forward to.

When Joy vanishes and Stan comes under suspicion, the Delaney children must question if they ever truly knew their parents.

Australian author Moriarty, whose best-selling novels Big Little Lies (2014) and Nine Perfect Strangers (2018) have been adapted for television by Hollywood stars Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, serves up another tense suburban mystery.

7. NON-FICTION

WILDLAND

By Evan Osnos

Bloomsbury/Hardcover/465 pages/ $45.54/Books Kinokuniya

Osnos, a National Book Award-winning staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, spent six years delving into the unravelling of America.

He reports from three places in which he has lived - Greenwich in Connecticut, and Chicago and Clarksburg in West Virginia - and meets people like billionaires, coal miners and former soldiers to draw his portrait of a nation starkly divided by inequality.

8. FICTION

THE MAGICIAN

By Colm Toibin

Viking/Paperback/438 pages/ $33.17/Major bookstores

The Irish writer, who previously portrayed author Henry James in the Booker Prize-shortlisted The Master (2004), takes another stab at fictionalised biography, this time with German Nobel laureate Thomas Mann.

It follows the Death In Venice writer and his family through the early 20th century from one world war to another, as they are forced to go into exile after Hitler's rise to power.

9. MYSTERY

THE MAN WHO DIED TWICE

By Richard Osman

Viking/Paperback/368 pages/ $29.58/Major bookstores

The sequel to Osman's cosy crime mystery The Thursday Murder Club (2020) has already become one of the fastest-selling novels since records began. According to Nielsen BookScan, the British television personality's second novel sold 114,202 copies in its first three days on sale. Osman's septuagenarian detectives, who live in a retirement community, reconvene for crime-solving when one of them receives a letter from an old colleague. Soon, they are embroiled in a plot involving stolen diamonds, drug deals and an angry mobster.

10. FICTION

THE BOOK OF FORM & EMPTINESS

By Ruth Ozeki

Canongate/Paperback/548 pages/$32.64/Major bookstores

Ozeki, the first practising Zen Buddhist priest to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, pens a metafictional tale about book love.

A year after the death of his musician father, Benny Oh, 13, begins to hear voices coming from things in his house.

When the voices follow Benny outside, he seeks refuge in the library, where the objects speak in whispers. There, he meets colourful characters like a street artist and a homeless poet, as well as his own Book, which narrates his life.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 26, 2021, with the headline 'Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka's first novel in nearly 50 years'. Subscribe