It’s best-books-of-the-year time, but I have a problem. Many of my favorite titles of 2009—Dara Horn’s All Other Days, Michael Malone’s The Four Corners of the Sky, Mark Frost’s Game Six, and Wil Haygood’s Sweet Thunder, for example—have already been celebrated in this column. So that leaves me looking beyond the borders of 2009. As new books continue to pour forth, it’s easy to focus only on what’s new. Every librarian knows, on the other hand, that the stacks are full of gold—books that may no longer be on book club A-lists but that need only a readers’ advisor to give them new life. This year, then, I’m going to say a few words about a couple of authors whose books continue to rank high on my cumulative best list.
Bart Schneider’s trilogy of novels set in San Francisco from the early 1960s into the ’70s—Blue Bossa (1998), Secret Love (2001), and Beautiful Inez (2005)—evokes not only the city at a signature moment in its history but also the tortured, passionate lives of a group of entrancing characters. Part of the lure of San Francisco in the 1960s was the availability of the forbidden, and Schneider treats this theme masterfully. Like James Baldwin in Another Country, he uses the drama of forbidden relationships as a way of approaching his real subject: the human heart in turmoil.
Human hearts are also in turmoil in the work of Danish novelist Peter Høeg, but the effects of that turmoil extend well beyond individual relationships. Høeg’s first book to appear in the U.S., Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1993), was best-selling literary thriller, but recently his name has faded a bit as a wave of Scandinavian crime writers, led by Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson, has stormed our shores. Høeg dabbles in almost every genre, but above all, he is that rare thing, a genuinely philosophical novelist with a genius for stretching the bounds of narrative fiction in altogether new directions.
Of the Høeg novels published in the U.S. since Smilla, I’m especially fond of The Woman and the Ape (1996), an audacious mix of fantasy, fable, myth, and love story. It starts out like a save-the-animals saga, but quickly Høeg moves in a very different direction, forcing us to confront the realization that the animals, humans included, can’t be saved. Along the way, though, Madelene, the wife of a zoo director, rescues a special ape from the lab-coated needle-pokers and flees London on the extraordinary ape’s back, soaring with all the magic of E.T. across the city’s rooftops and treetops. She also falls in love with the ape and shares with him an erotic ecstasy far beyond the bounds of that too-cerebral thing we call human sexuality.
Remarkably, we meet each outlandish turn in the story not with incredulity but with excitement and a sense of revelation. This isn’t the first anti-utopian fantasy to remind us that there is no escaping the deathly pallor of civilization, but it shows us what we’ve lost more vividly than we’ve been shown in a long time.