The poor Dashwood sisters—deprived of their rightful living, they are forced to leave their home and live sparingly. Marianne is passionate and impulsive, Elinor is calm and contemplative. In typical Jane Austen style, Sense and Sensibility is not just about the story itself, it is also a comment on the society in which its author lived. Is there any better social critic than Austen? I’m always amazed by the way she subtly weaves observations and critiques into an engrossing story. She is a master at creating characters you care about and root for but who are human and fallible. Each year Harvard University Press publishes a gorgeous annotated Jane Austen. This year’s Sense and Sensibility ($35) is not to be missed by Austen fans. As always, the annotations add layers of understanding and context to Austen’s story. If you are collecting these, as I am, you will want to add this one to your collection.
In the hands of Jeanette Winterson, a storyteller attuned to the silences of women and the poor in fact and in fiction, the Lancashire witch trial of 1612 is an opportunity to explore the mechanisms of greed, morality, power, and sex, and how these elements combined in the most famous of the English witch trials. Investigating the gaps in the historical record and weaving a provocative, startlingly raw story, The Daylight Gate (Grove, $24) moves between worlds of excess and poverty, men’s privileges and women’s secondary status, and the mysterious, eerie realm between this world and the next. Love, power plays, and miscalculated judgments force the strong-willed and independent Alice Nutter to defend her values at the risk of losing her life, and her choices endanger both the man and the woman she loves. Winterson’s dark and compelling novel elicits shivers—for the horrifying events in its pages and for the beauty of her simple, elegant prose.
Ursula Todd keeps dying. She also keeps being born. Each time she is reborn, something about her life (and death) is different. Sometimes she lasts only a few minutes, sometimes a few years, sometimes she lives a whole lifetime, dies, and comes back to do it all again, but with variations. Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (Reagan Arthur, $27.99) is one of the most interesting books I’ve read all year. Atkinson makes Ursula’s deaths and births seem completely natural, expected, and, sometimes, hoped for. Atkinson treats her characters with an enormous amount of sympathy and understanding; she knows them so well that they stay true to themselves even through their circumstances continually change. The final chapters of this story take place in London during the blitz. I’ve read many novels set during this period, but Atkinson’s writing is so evocative and visceral, I felt I knew just what it must have been like to live through these events. There is no other book quite like this one.