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The Watchlist: May 2021

By Tobias Carroll

Each month, Tobias Carroll shares a handful of recently released or forthcoming titles in translation that he’s especially excited about. This month's selection includes books translated from Bengali, Japanese, Spanish, Arabic, French, and Chinese. 


From New Vessel Press | Roundabout of Death by Faysal Khartash, translated from the Arabic by Max Weiss | Fiction | 176 pages | ISBN 9781939931924 | US$16.95

What the publisher says: “Set in Aleppo in 2012, when everyday life was metronomically punctuated by bombing, Roundabout of Death offers powerful witness to the violence that obliterated the ancient city’s rich layers of history, its neighborhoods and medieval and Ottoman landmarks.”

What the Los Angeles Times says: “Among its prime conceits is that, in a city ravaged by war, there is no past or future, just an endless and ongoing present. Narrative has been lost, leaving us with only isolated fragments of experience that refuse to coalesce.”

What I say: Can a novel be simultaneously starkly realistic and utterly dreamlike? I wouldn’t have thought so, but Roundabout of Death makes a convincing argument that these two qualities can coexist within a single book to powerful effect. At times, the shifts between chapters feel like gaps in continuity; over time, though, it becomes apparent that these shifts are the point, the author’s way of illustrating the shocking changes in a wartime city.


From Graywolf Press | Nervous System by Lina Meruane, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell | Fiction | 176 pages | ISBN 9781644450550 | US$16.00

What the publisher says: “In this extraordinary clinical biography of a family, full of affection and resentment, dark humor and buried secrets, illness describes the traumas that can be visited not just upon the body, but on families and on the history of the countries—present and past—that we live in.”

What Kirkus Reviews says: “For all the family drama at play here, though, the novel is less a morbid domestic tale and more a postmodern meditation on how illness and loss forge connections as enduring as a happy marriage or healthy children; if Don DeLillo wrote a family saga, it might read like this.”

What I say: I’d previously encountered Lina Meruane’s superb autobiographical novel Seeing Red. Here, she returns to that (literally) visceral approach to the human body, albeit on a magnified scale that encompasses an entire family. Intimate, thought-provoking, and intricately structured, this is a slim novel that raises haunting questions.


From Europa Editions | Heaven by Mieko Kawakami, translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd | Fiction | 192 pages | ISBN 9781609456214 | US$23.00

What the publisher says: “Bullied because of his lazy eye, Kawakami’s protagonist suffers in silence. His only respite comes thanks to his friendship with a girl who is also the victim of relentless teasing. But what is the nature of a friendship if your shared bond is terror?”

What Publishers Weekly says: “Kawakami (Breasts and Eggs) returns with a searing account of bullying and adolescent angst. In the vast, violent wasteland of middle school, the fourteen-year-old unnamed narrator endures horrific physical abuse from a group of sadistic classmates, assuming it’s due to his lazy eye.”

What I say: If you’ve ever been bullied or witnessed the ways kids can be supremely cruel to one another, Heaven isn’t going to be an easy read. Kawakami’s novel includes a number of scenes in which the protagonist undergoes emotionally and physically harrowing moments, and the book can feel overly immersive at times. But the questions this novel poses about identity, friendship, and trauma are resonant ones, making this a compelling read for those willing to venture into emotionally raw territory.


From Archipelago Books | Acrobat by Nabaneeta Dev Sen, translated from the Bengali by Nandana Dev Sen | Poetry | 120 pages | ISBN 9781939810809 | US$18.00

What the publisher says: “At once compassionate and unsparing, conversational and symphonic, these poems tell of a rope shivering beneath an acrobat’s nimble feet or of a twisted, blood-soaked umbilical cord—they pluck the invisible threads that bind us together.”

What Amitav Ghosh says: “These translations of Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s poems capture her quirky yet profound voice so beautifully that I felt I could hear her reading them aloud. These are the poems of an adventurous and indefatigable traveler, observing the world with deep understanding and sympathy, through the prism of a sensibility that is securely rooted in the culture of Bengal.”

What I say: Acrobat is a powerful demonstration of poetry's ability to express one writer’s vision of the world. The supplementary materials included in the book, from translator Nandana Dev Sen, offer a firsthand look at both the author’s life and the translator’s approach to rendering her mother’s poems in a new language. It’s a moving and at times elegiac study of a singular perspective on the world.


From Seven Stories Press | Arcadia by Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam, translated from the French by Ruth Diver | Fiction | 416 pages | ISBN 9781644210536 | US$19.95

What the publisher says: “At fifteen, Farah learns she is intersex, and begins to go beyond the confines of gender, as she explores the arc of her own desires. What, Farah asks, is a man or a woman? What does it mean to be part of a community? What is utopia when there are refugees nearby seeking shelter who cannot enter?”

What Publishers Weekly says: “While the supporting characters are a bit too thinly drawn, Bayamack-Tam builds out the family’s swift acclimation to Liberty House with clever detail and flashes of humor, as when Farah’s nudist grandmother frolics on the commune’s grounds and her mother claims to suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity. It all adds up to an engrossing and provocative character study.”

What I say: Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam covers a lot of ground in Arcadia. If the novel was just about narrator Farah coming to terms with the knowledge that she’s intersex—and the discovery that the lascivious head of the commune where she and her family live might not be as altruistic as he seems—that would be enough for most novels. But Farah’s coming of age also involves a recognition of the commune’s hypocrisy when it comes to the local migrant population and a growing sense of her own preferred and idiosyncratic worldview. At times, this novel can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t lack for ambition.


From HarperVia | The Secret Talker by Geling Yan, translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Tiang | Fiction | 160 pages | ISBN 9780063004030 | US$23.00

What the publisher says: “A psychological story at its core, The Secret Talker elegantly examines how repressed desire and simmering silence can upend even the most idyllic marriage. As Hongmei pursues her stalker, her identity and agency come into question, and the chase curveballs into a captivating journey of self-actualization.”

What Asian Review of Books says: “The story has a Hitchcockian feel, down to its northern California setting. It’s not terribly difficult to figure out the stranger’s identity, but Yan’s pacing keeps the pages turning.”

What I say: The combination of emotional intimacy with long-hidden secrets often makes for a compelling thriller, and The Secret Talker delivers on a time-honored premise. It isn’t necessarily a groundbreaking work, but for readers looking for a brisk and neatly plotted mystery, this novel has plenty to offer.

Looking for more reading suggestions? Check out Tobias Carroll’s recommendations from last month.

Disclosure: Words Without Borders is an affiliate of and will earn a commission if you use the links above to make a purchase.

Published May 26, 2021   Copyright 2021 Tobias Carroll

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