From New York and England, to Mexico and the afterlife

if You Could Read My Mind: The four novels today take us around the world, and beyond

It’s always interesting to note a new Colson Whitehead novel, while Miles Jupp has been called one of the funniest men in England. Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a Mexican writer turning people’s heads, and TJ Klune has the uncanny gift of blending the unreal with the compassionate.

Harlem and history

'Harlem Shuffle' by Colson Whitehead

I’ve been following the writing career of Colson Whitehead since "The Intuitionist," his very first novel in 1999 where he took an innocuous profession such as elevator inspections and turned it into a stirring commentary about bias and racism. With "The Nickel Boys" and "The Underground Railroad," he truly cemented his reputation as one of the more interesting living novelists of today—with Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction for those two novels the metaphorical "cherries on the top." So it was interesting to read about "Harlem Shuffle," that it would be set in the early 1960’s, and be his foray of sorts, into crime fiction. As it is, it’s still a psychological drama, as much as it’s a crime story.

It’s Harlem of that era, and the novel is written in three sections: 1959, 1961, and 1964. At the center of the novel is Ray Carney, son of a local hoodlum, but now a furniture store owner/entrepreneur. When we first meet Ray in 1959, he’s still a struggling businessman. His wife is the daughter of African-Americans who lived on Strivers Row, where the more accomplished and educated "black folks" live, so it’s obvious his in-laws feel their daughter "married down." Freddie, Ray’s cousin, is the thorn in his side, always pulling Ray to illegal activities, like being a fence for stolen goods. At times a love poem to Harlem, it’s also a slap in the face, a tale of race, power, and ambition, and how the price you pay, the corners you cut, all become part of the game plan.

'History' by Miles Jupp

Miles Jupp has been referred to as one of funniest men in England today. He’s done stand-up, has done theater, movies and television—and this is his first foray into channeling his obviously overloaded creative gifts into the novel form. It’s a light-hearted story, set in the world of private secondary schools in England. If you pushed me against the wall and asked me to describe its tone or search for references, I would venture to say that it reminds me of the novels of early Jonathan Coe and William Boyd, where the comedy is more derived from the situation and the manner in which the author writes, as opposed to the side-splitting, ha-ha moments that are injected into the works of more popular comedy writers.

Clive Hapgood is a History teacher in this private school and he came to it after teaching at a comprehensive. There’s always a veneer of resentment, teaching the rich, privileged and entitled boys at the private school. He’s married with two girls and he feels undervalued by his nemesis, the Head Teacher Julian Crouch. The book is structured over three eventful months, the last month of term, his half-term holiday month, and the month back at school. What we’re treated to is Clive’s life, interacting with his fellow faculty, his students, the strained and precarious state of affairs at home, and the strain of all of the above on his mental health and capacity to cope. To Jupp’s credit, the comedy is never forced, and often arises organically, from how Clive has been presented to us. But it is more about chuckles and knowing smiles.

Death and vampires

'Under the Whispering Door' by TJ Klune

I first discovered TJ Klune via his previous novel, "The House By the Cerulean Sea," and it was a pitch perfect mix of humor, tugging-at-your-heartstrings moments, and crazy adventure—all revolving around a home for kids with superpowers. Ostracized, fragile, and well-meaning, these children represented the unknown, the unfamiliar, and how the world shuns these people who don’t conform. Not one to repeat old tricks, this new one from Klune takes on the afterlife. And while the subject has been done several times over, even via films such as "Soul & Coco," Klune once again exhibits his sly, trademark humor, then elevates the story to talk about life and death in general, about grief and missed opportunities.

Wallace Price is a feared partner in a law firm, the one who’s first in and last out, and given the task of being merciless and firing people when needed. From one chapter which details such a dismissal that he takes charge of, the next chapter has him surprised, attending a funeral service, and viewing his body in a casket. We then meet a Reaper (Mei) and a Ferryman (Hugo) who doubles running a tea parlor to help people cross over. Tasked to help transition Wallace, we’re taken on a tour of the stages of grief, the opportunity eventually given to Wallace via a seven-day reprieve and what he does with it. My only reservation is that it often seems like Klune is stretching, running through themes already tackled in earlier sections of the book. Easily, editing out some 70 pages would have resulted in a tighter, more compelling narrative.

'Certain Dark Things' by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This is from the authoress who gifted us with Mexican Gothic, and it’s easy to see why she’s become such a critics’ and fans’ favorite. Here is a novel that was originally released in 2016, but has been given a new lease on life, with some rewriting done. It’s set in a Mexico City of today that’s very different from the real world Mexico City. In "Certain Dark Things," it’s a city that’s seen as a vampire-free zone, whereas the countryside is teeming with narco-vampires, and all these types and classes of vampires—all dredged up from vampire-lore from all over the world. In this Mexico City, we first meet Domingo, a teenager garbage collector, who encounters Atl, a vampire in hiding who makes the young boy her confederate.

It’s a crazy premise, but thanks to Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s masterful world-building, we suspend disbelief in the course of reading this novel. The characters are richly drawn, such that we understand why a Domingo would be ready to be Atl’s lapdog, her Renfield. And as the Revenant, Bernardino, will remark to both Atl and Domingo, their relationship is doomed, because in the end, what really matters to any vampire is the "hunger." Ranged against Atl and Domingo, is the rival narco-vampire Godoy gang, represented in Mexico City by the young, impulsive Nick. And there’s Ana Aguirre, a police officer who had battled vampires in the North in the past, and alone, realizes that the dictum of Mexico City being a vampire-free zone has been violated. It’s fast-paced, and knows when the pull the punches and when to go all-out.