Winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Knopf, $26.95) is a war novel of intense suffering and courage and an ill-fated love story, showcasing a most remarkable, enigmatic, and unforgettable hero. At the heart of this magnificent tale of Australian prisoners of war in World War II is Tasmanian surgeon Dorrigo Evans, a quietly competent officer thrust into leading his fellow soldiers as they’re pressed into slave labor building the Thai-Burma railway. Their Japanese captors, who believe that surrender dishonors a soldier, treat the prisoners with extreme cruelty, indifferent to their fatigue, disease, and death. After the war, Evans remains in the service to help bring Japanese war criminals to justice. The power of Flanagan’s story lies in his characterization of Evans, a hero in the eyes of his countrymen, but far too complex an individual to conform to any stereotype.
Colm Tóibín’s moving Brooklyn was the story of a young Irishwoman who emigrated to America; in his seventh novel, he tells what happened to Nora Webster (Scribner, $27), a woman who stayed. Twenty years after Eilis Lacey left Enniscorthy, Nora, who has spent her whole life there, becomes a widow. Though she has four children and a wide circle of relatives and acquaintances, she feels isolated in “the strangeness of home.” Worse, she feels she can’t escape her neighbors’ officiousness; Tóibín superbly evokes small-town life, where Nora senses that her plans are common knowledge even before she’s made them. Another, stronger refrain is “that she had no idea how to live.” Slowly, she finds her way, taking part in activities—a union, voice lessons—she hadn’t shared with her late husband and discovering unsuspected strengths that allow her to fight, and win, battles with Enniscorthy powers-that-be. Nora’s is an ordinary life, but in Tóibín’s vivid, compassionate narrative it unfolds with the dramatic power and emotional range of the art songs she revels in singing.
Evan Osnos gives his mother credit for raising him to be “at home in the world.” Anyone who’s been a foreign correspondent or lived abroad for a while in some other capacity or has traveled much can relate to that expression. And it’s clear from reading The Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27) that Osnos, who covered China first for The Chicago Tribune and then for The New Yorker, was quite at home there and came to understand and articulate that complicated and often contradictory country in exceptional ways. This excellent book provides a masterful portrait of China, combining stories of many individual Chinese—the ordinary as well as the prominent—with discussions of broader trends. Only China’s censors seem to have had a few issues with the book. A Shanghai publisher, before agreeing to print a translated version, wanted to cut its mention of a number of politically active people. Other publishers sought other deletions. Osnos refused—and went instead with a Taiwan publisher.