War and peace

Books that travel from the Mecca to Memphis
By JOHN FREEMAN  |  January 2, 2006

Since September 11, publishers have been rushing to supply Americans with non-fiction books about the war on terror, the war in Iraq, and anything relating to the upheavals in the Middle East. They’ve been much slower about supplying us with imaginative tales from these regions, but the trickle has begun. The winter of 2006 features several new imports that are safer than a trip to Ramallah and almost as intense.

The most notable of these works is The Gate of the Sun (Archipelago, February 1), a novel by Elias Khoury that’s set during the events of 1948, when Palestinians were displaced during the creation of Israel. As the book begins, two Palestinian men remain behind, keeping vigil at the bedside of a leader of the resistance movement. One of them begins a story about what’s just happened, and it gradually expands into a Sheherazade-like yarn of astonishing beauty.

Another superb novel to arrive on these shores from the Arab world is Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Last Friend (translated from the French; New Press, February 1), which describes the friendship between a Moroccan doctor and a professor. The brain drain that resulted from the Islamic revolution in Iran is the focus of Farnoosh Moshiri’s Against Gravity (Penguin, just out December 27), where the lives of a dying intellectual, a social worker, and an Iranian immigrant overlap in Houston.

Closer to these parts, Elizabeth Strout braves the topic of spirituality in Abide with Me (Random House, March 14), which conjures a Maine minister who’s beginning to doubt his faith. New England also figures heavily in Justin Tussing’s debut novel, The Best People in the World (HarperCollins, February 7), in which a young man falls in love with his high-school history teacher and runs off to the woods of Vermont.

The most eagerly awaited British import of the spring is Julian Barnes’s page-turning Booker finalist, Arthur & George, (Knopf, January 14), which is based on a true story involving Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Emily Barton also takes readers back in time with her second novel, Brookland (FSG, March 1), which lures readers to 18th-century Brooklyn, where a woman dreams of a bridge connecting her borough to Manhattan.

Family drama can be found in Ali Smith’s Booker finalist, The Accidental (Pantheon, January 10), which portrays a neurotic English family who shelter an odd guest. And the devout Catholic clan of the Santerres come back to life in Maile Meloy’s second novel, A Family’s Daughter (Scribner, February 14).

Allegra Goodman’s latest, Intuition (Dial Press, March 7), is the suspenseful tale of a Cambridge research institute that gets embroiled in the (perhaps fraudulent) success of one of its fellows. The blue tint of genre also hangs over Kathryn Davis’s The Thin Place (Little, Brown, January 26), in which three girls come across a body in the woods.

Murder likewise kicks off Giller Prize finalist Camilla Gibb’s latest, Sweetness in the Belly (Penguin Press, March 18), which jumps into a gallop when eight-year-old Lily’s parents leave her at a Sufi shrine in Morocco and never return. What follows is a peripatetic journey as Lily attempts to find a home in a world where she’s always a foreigner.

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