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The Watchlist: May 2020

By Tobias Carroll

Each month, Tobias Carroll shares a handful of recently released or forthcoming titles in translation that he’s especially excited about. 


From Open Letter | Four By Four by Sara Mesa, translated from the Spanish by Katie Whittemore | Fiction | 230 pages | ISBN 9781948830140 | US$15.95

What the publisher says: “An exploration of the relationship between the powerful and powerless—and the repetition of these patterns—Mesa’s ‘sophisticated nightmare’ calls to mind great works of gothic literature (think Shirley Jackson) and social thrillers to create a unique, unsettling view of freedom and how a fear of the outside world can create monsters.”

What the translator says: “Mesa is similarly unflinching with her readers: her work is tense, intimate, and unsettling. There isn’t much reprieve in her cool examination of human relationships, of the ways we internalize pain and inflict it on others. By focusing on the small-scale systems of our daily existence—family, school, work, neighborhood—she reveals the matrices of power in those places many consider safe. And we can’t look away.”

What I say: In Four By Four, Sara Mesa pulls off the impressive feat of sustaining a mood of ambiguous dread throughout this novel. It’s a work that abounds with deceptions (some more sinister than others) and abuses of power; there’s also a hint of dystopia to the larger world. For readers who enjoy mood, menace, and just a dash of the Gothic, there’s plenty to savor here.


From Seven Stories Press | A Country For Dying by Abdellah Taïa, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan | Fiction | 112 pages | ISBN 9781609809904 | US$16.95

What the publisher says: “Through swirling, perpendicular narratives, A Country for Dying follows the inner lives of emigrants as they contend with the space between their dreams and their realities, a schism of a postcolonial world where, as Abdellah Taïa writes, ‘So many people find themselves in the same situation. It is our destiny: To pay with our bodies for other people's future.’”

What the Los Angeles Review of Books says: “Taïa’s cadence—what he calls ‘written musicality’—is one of the most distinctive features of his writing. He strings together short, terse sentences in a way that brings drama and forces readers to feel the weight of his characters’ loneliness and anxiety.”

What I say: Despite its brief length, Abdellah Taïa’s novel covers a lot of territory, both temporally and thematically. This is a work that concerns itself with intimacy, with desire, and with identity—and which finds multiple permutations of each to discuss. Throw in a plot that grapples with colonialism and generational trauma and you have a complex, thoughtful novel.

Note: due to the COVID-19 pandemic, A Country for Dying will now be published on September 15, 2020.


From Oneworld Publications | Three Apples Fell from the Sky by Narine Abgaryan, translated from the Russian by Lisa C. Hayden | Fiction | 256 pages | ISBN 9781786077301 | US$16.95

What the publisher says: “Three Apples Fell from the Sky is an enchanting fable that brilliantly captures the idiosyncrasy of a small community. Sparkling with sumptuous imagery and warm humour, this is a vibrant tale of resilience, bravery, and the miracle of everyday friendship.”

What Publishers Weekly says: “In Abgaryan’s grim, fantastical debut, the dwindling residents of a tiny Armenian mountain village look back on a series of disasters—drought, famine, a massive earthquake—and find strength in supernatural visions.”

What I say: Narine Abgaryan’s Three Apples Fell from the Sky is centered around a late-in-life marriage that takes two of its characters by surprise, but there’s plenty of other elements also being juggled here, from a restless ghost to the aftereffects of war. It’s the kind of delicate balancing act that could easily topple over into something overly precious, but Abgaryan deftly navigates the emotional complexities of her characters and arrives at something genuinely moving instead.

Note: Three Apples Fell from the Sky will now be published on August 4, 2020.


From Syracuse University Press | The Slave Yards by Najwa Bin Shatwan, translated from the Arabic by Nancy Roberts | Fiction | 302 pages | ISBN 9780815611257 | US$24.95

What the publisher says: “Set in late nineteenth-century Benghazi, Najwa Bin Shatwan’s powerful novel tells the story of Atiqa, the daughter of a slave woman and her white master. We meet Atiqa as a grown woman, happily married with two children and working. When her cousin Ali unexpectedly enters her life, Atiqa learns the true identity of her parents, both long deceased, and slowly builds a friendship with Ali as they share stories of their past.”

What I say: With a structure that takes a circuitous route before its conclusion, Najwa Bin Shatwan’s The Slave Yards explores questions of race, class, and freedom. This is a novel that showcases lives of extreme poverty and lavish wealth, and explores the ways in which its setting—Libya in the nineteenth century—was a particularly fraught time for women.


From Overlook Press | Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith | Fiction | 160 pages | ISBN 9781419744389 | US$23.00

What the publisher says: “By one of the boldest and most innovative voices in contemporary Korean literature, and brilliantly realized in English by International Man Booker­–winning translator Deborah Smith, Bae Suah’s hypnotic and wholly original novel asks whether more than one version of ourselves can exist at once, demonstrating the malleable nature of reality as we know it.” 

What The Guardian says: “A metaphysical detective story, Untold Night and Day is a meditation on the nature of seeking: what drives the quest to find and make something known? Bae’s beguiling story draws on ideas from Korean shamanism—an ancient multidimensional cosmology in which all things are animate—to venture in style and ambition far from the conventions of mystery narratives.” 

What I say: The novels of Bae Suah’s that have been translated into English to date are often cerebral, interior works that delve deep into her characters’ psychology. With Untold Night and Day, these tendencies are taken toward a stylized, surreal novel about the ways perception and the boundaries of art can blur, and the strange results that emerge from that blurring. In portraying a number of characters on interrelated searches, this novel moves toward a haunting, dreamlike climax.


From Biblioasis | The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw | Fiction | 261 pages | ISBN 9781771963190 | US$22.95

What the publisher says: “Born on the Norwegian island that bears her name, Ingrid Barrøy’s world is circumscribed by storm-scoured rocks and the moods of the sea by which her family lives and dies. But her father dreams of building a quay that will end their isolation, and her mother longs for the island of her youth, and the country faces its own sea change: the advent of a modern world, and all its attendant unpredictability and violence.”

What the Irish Times says: “Jacobsen’s translators, Don Bartlett and Don Shaw, have surpassed themselves. Death stalks the pages and the family, because the winter fishing expeditions which Hans sets off on are dangerous and many fishermen are buried in the sea, not the earth.”

What I say: In The Unseen, Roy Jacobsen explores an isolated working-class Norwegian community over the course of several years. Through a host of powerful linguistic choices, the translation evokes an archaic way of life that’s slowly being displaced—and a visceral approach to the natural world that can be bracing and unsettling in equal measure.


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 28, 2020   Copyright 2020 Tobias Carroll

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