Initially, Abbigail Nguyen Rosewood’s CONSTELLATIONS OF EVE (Texas Tech University, 211 pp., $29.95) looks as if it’s going to be a straightforward chronicle of the bad decisions of beautiful people — a romance whose initial meet-cute contains the seeds of its ultimate failure, a female friendship whose intense closeness is linked to its acute toxicity.
But the novel soon reveals itself to be more complex. At one point, Eve, an artist, marvels at a film’s “labyrinthed structure,” in perhaps a signal of Rosewood’s own aims. The tale shares a concept with works of speculative fiction, though not the explicitly speculative gear: alternate histories, in which different versions of Eve lead different lives.
Rosewood’s prose tends toward the figurative and lyrical (describing a child’s recklessness, she writes that he “lunged into the unknown as if the whole world was a bed made of clouds”). Her characters regularly exhibit an idiosyncratic impulsiveness: Eve digs a hole and buries her cellphone from her to stifle the desire to check it; Eve and her best friend walk on a frozen lake’s thin ice. Though these behaviors occasionally ring false, they can also surprise and sometimes terrify. The center of the novel is its strongest section, a horror-tinged story in which Eve’s overpowering compulsion to love (as a wife does her husband, as a mother does her son, as an artist does her muse) strips her of her agency and threatens her sanity.
Both Rosewood and William Brewer, the author of the novel THE RED ARROW (Knopf, 254 pp., $27), quote from the physicist Carlo Rovelli’s book “The Order of Time.” Rosewood does so in her epigraph; Brewer in dialogue by the fictional Physicist, who has disappeared while collaborating on his memoirs with the novel’s narrator. The quest narrative of the search for the Physicist soon gives way to a digressive, detailed first-person examination of severe depression and its consequences. Brewer is particularly concerned with how love can sometimes paradoxically nourish depression rather than diminish it.
The novel is carefully structured, sharply observed and often humorous. Brewer has an understated, melodious style with a confident control of rhythm; one highlight is a description of a cross-country trip in a single two-page sentence. Detours on the way to the final psychedelic encounter with the Physicist include an Italian travelogue, a satirical rendering of the publishing industry, a recounting of a West Virginia chemical spill that reads like a homage to Don DeLillo’s “White Noise” (in which Brewer skillfully depicts images that his protagonist claims not to have the skill to describe), perhaps too many citations of other writers (Michael Herr, Geoff Dyer, Fernando Pessoa and Denis Johnson, among others), and meditations on the anxiety of artistic influence and the unreliability of memory. This book has eccentricity and vigor, executed with remarkable style.
Like “The Red Arrow,” David Santos Donaldson’s GREENLAND (Amistad, 324 pp., $26.99) is a first-person narrative about a writer struggling to complete a manuscript under a publisher’s deadline. Both books are heavily metafictional and intertextual, and in both, psychological pressures blur the boundaries between author and subject. “Greenland” also contains a nested story, of Mohammed El Adl, an Egyptian tram conductor who had a doomed romance with EM Forster during World War I.
The deadline-pressed writer is Kip Starling, who’s holed up in a Brooklyn brownstone a century later, drafting a novel about Mohammed. Donaldson neatly weaves Mohammed’s and Kip’s timelines together, connecting 1917 to 2019 to portray, in Kip’s words, “where we queer, Black, colonial men have come from.” Though Donaldson’s dialogue is sometimes stiff, he is adept at nuances of character, and taking chances here serves him well: Until a transformative journey in the country of the novel’s title, Kip can come off as difficult, sometimes insufferable, and the reactions of his husband and his best friend affirm that this reading is intended.
As a result, Kip feels like a real person on the page, rather than a blandly agreeable representative of the demographics to which he belongs. Mohammed is not quite so richly realized — his chapters of him lean toward melodrama — but this likewise seems intentional, a matter of Kip’s aesthetic decisions as represented by Donaldson. “Greenland” is a refreshing novel from an author who makes unconventional artistic choices to serve his ends. As Kip says: “not necessarily something pleasant, but an honest noise.”
Erin Swan is doing something much different from the other writers reviewed here. WALK THE VANISHED EARTH (Viking, 375 pp., $27) is an epic in the vein of David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” or Namwali Serpell’s “The Old Drift,” whose frameworks allow their authors to flex their skills with both historical and speculative fiction. It is a weird, ambitious novel that takes place over two centuries, its main characters a procession of mothers, its main event a climate apocalypse in which the world in an alternate 2017 “freezes and thaws and floods and burns but does not seem ready to die,” its narrative composed of histories that are misremembered, forgotten, lost or willfully destroyed.
Swan’s staccato sentences can be evocative, as when she a psychiatric ward with “describes girls with faces like shreds torn from paper.” Some of her characters from her see the world through veils of ignorance because of their isolated circumstances. Bea, a mute teenager in Kansas City in 1975, was raised in secret until she escaped her abusive home from her; Moon, a young woman on Mars in 2073, has never known any other sentient beings except for the mysterious Uncles who accompany her on her travels. Swan’s prose wonderfully portrays things they cannot comprehend but whose meanings are nonetheless plain to the reader. This rich, endlessly engaging novel is, one hopes, the first in a long career for an author who has the talent and imagination to write whatever she wants.
Dexter Palmer is the author of three novels, most recently “Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen.”