Ah, to live in the 2020s! To wake up every day and feel like you are living through a historical moment every time you turn on the news or scroll through Twitter. It can all be a little overwhelming—like the world is being thrown at us, and we are forced to smile and move forward as we brave the elements. Luckily, fiction is not only one of the great escapes from the “real world” but also one of the great reflections of it. A good novel can contextualize a moment in history and bring us to understand or accept it with more clarity. Reading can even be a humbling experience, allowing us to discover new perspectives in cultural conversations and challenge our assumptions about the world around us. These six books go a long way toward providing us with a bird’s eye view of our current moment.
6 Novels That Examine the Present
I don’t know about you, but I maintain a healthy level of skepticism when I’m recommended a book that seems too rooted in our current moment. A thought crosses my mind, “How can you write a novel about the present when we are still living so squarely in it?” But my own cynical attitude be damned, Clare Pollard’s DELPHI is whip-smart and finds a lot of value in disarming that very easy narrative about pandemic literature. The unnamed narrator of this debut novel is a middle-aged classics academic navigating life, love, and family during Covid-19. Just as our brains began doom-spiraling after day two of lockdown, our protagonist spends much of her time prophesying about the future through stream-of-consciousness, journal-like musings. It’s a book about how your past, present, and future are all in conversation with one another—and if you don’t maintain a healthy relationship with all three, you might start to believe they are conspiring against you. It’s relatable, funny, and smart, but it’s that ever-present note of dread that keeps you glued to the page. The dread . . . oh, the dread!
For readers of Jenny Offill, Deborah Levy, and Olivia Laing, an exquisite debut novel about a classics academic researching prophecy in the ancient world, just as the pandemic descends and all visions of her own family’s future begin to blur.
Covid-19 has arrived in London, and the entire world quickly succumbs to the surreal, chaotic mundanity of screens, isolation, and the disasters small and large that have plagued recent history. As our unnamed narrator—a classics academic immersed in her studies of ancient prophecies—navigates the tightening grip of lockdown, a marriage in crisis, and a ten-year-old son who seems increasingly unreachable, she becomes obsessed with predicting the future. Shifting her focus from chiromancy (prophecy by palm reading) to zoomancy (prophecy by animal behavior) to oenomancy (prophecy by wine), she fails to notice the future creeping into the heart of her very own home, and when she finally does, the threat has already breached the gates.
Brainy and ominous, funny and sharp, Delphi is a snapshot and a time capsule—it both demythologizes our current moment and places our reality in the context of myth. Clare Pollard has delivered one of our first great novels of this terrible moment, a mesmerizing story of our pasts, our presents, and our futures, and how we keep on living in a world that is ever-more uncertain and absurd.
Jessie Greengrass’s sophomore novel, a marvel of non-linear storytelling, is set in a not-so-distant dystopian future plagued by climate catastrophes. Despite the large-scale destruction that surrounds THE HIGH HOUSE on all sides, Greengrass tightens the scope of her novel to examine a family looking to, quite literally, stay afloat through impending disaster. It’s a piece of literature that excels in equal measure as a compelling, intimate portrait of a family and a sly cautionary tale about what we may be looking forward to in our climate future. Just a humble bibliophile here, but if this book doesn’t scare you straight about taking major climate action NOW then best of luck to you.
Shortlisted for the 2021 Costa Novel Award
In this powerful, highly anticipated novel from an award-winning author, four people attempt to make a home in the midst of environmental disaster.
Perched on a sloping hill, set away from a small town by the sea, the High House has a tide pool and a mill, a vegetable garden, and, most importantly, a barn full of supplies. Caro, Pauly, Sally, and Grandy are safe, so far, from the rising water that threatens to destroy the town and that has, perhaps, already destroyed everything else. But for how long?
Caro and her younger half-brother, Pauly, arrive at the High House after her father and stepmother fall victim to a faraway climate disaster—but not before they call and urge Caro to leave London. In their new home, a converted summer house cared for by Grandy and his granddaughter, Sally, the two pairs learn to live together. Yet there are limits to their safety, limits to the supplies, limits to what Grandy—the former village caretaker, a man who knows how to do everything—can teach them as his health fails.
A searing novel that takes on parenthood, sacrifice, love, and survival under the threat of extinction, The High House is a stunning, emotionally precise novel about what can be salvaged at the end of the world.
The lives of four former high-school classmates intertwine over the course of one night in Stephen Markley’s unforgettable debut novel. Converging on their hometown in northeastern Ohio, activist Bill Ashcraft comes into town equipped with a mysterious package; doctoral candidate Stacey Moore seeks answers about the disappearance of an ex-lover; veteran Dan Eaton has a date with a former high-school sweetheart; and Tina Ross looks to confront a former boyfriend. In addition to intimate characterizations of each player, the author paints a vividly layered portrait of the fictional town New Canaan, and let’s it serve as a stand-in for the exact type of city still struggling to find its footing in post-recession America; the type of city that politicians campaign on promising to help but ultimately neglect. Through much of the OHIO’s moving character drama and searing revelations, it’s also a book about a Rust Belt town left to fend for itself and the ties that bind its characters to its sparse streets.
What if all the phones, computers, and other black mirrors that dictate our lives just went . . . dark? That’s the thought experiment that Don DeLillo, master of postmodern fiction, reckons with in his brisk literary comedy, THE SILENCE. What unfolds across the book’s sharp, wry, insightful one hundred twenty-eight pages is a commentary on our current overreliance on computers that never dips into “those rascally kids and their cell phones”-esque scolding. DeLillo manages to mine so much nuance and piercing human insight from his central logline and clearly demonstrates that, even well into his eighties, he still has his finger firmly planted the pulse of our culture.
From the National Book Award–winning author of Underworld, a “daring…provocative…exquisite” (The Washington Post) novel about five people gathered together in a Manhattan apartment, in the midst of a catastrophic event.
It is Super Bowl Sunday in the year 2022. Five people, dinner, an apartment on the east side of Manhattan. The retired physics professor and her husband and her former student waiting for the couple who will join them from what becomes a dramatic flight from Paris. The conversation ranges from a survey telescope in North-central Chile to a favorite brand of bourbon to Einstein’s 1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity.
Then something happens and the digital connections that have transformed our lives are severed.
What follows is a “brilliant and astonishing…masterpiece” (Chicago Tribune) about what makes us human. Don DeLillo completed this novel just weeks before the advent of the Covid pandemic. His language, the dazzle of his sentences offer a kind of solace in our bewildering world. “DeLillo’s shrewd, darkly comic observations about the extravagance and alienation of contemporary life can still slice like a scalpel” (Entertainment Weekly).
“In this wry and cutting meditation on collective loss, a rupture severs us, suddenly, from everything we’ve come to rely on. The Silence seems to absorb DeLillo’s entire body of work and sand it into stone or crystal.” —Rachel Kushner
In THE STARTUP WIFE, Tahmima Anam sets her sights on the beloved, completely altruistic, never controversial (of course!) tech industry. We meet Asha Ray, a coder and brilliant scientist whose own ambitions are sidestepped when she’s swept into a whirlwind romance with a former high-school crush, Cyrus. But all is not sunshine and rainbows when they get married and endeavor on their tech journey together; the app they are developing becomes an overnight success, and Cyrus welcomes the spotlight that seems to be leaving his wife in the shadows. Anam’s novel is a fresh, biting, and satirical look at the intersection of love and business in an industry where relationships come second to product. We are dropped in a world where power imbalances and white privilege go unchecked, while millions of people trip over themselves to grovel at the feet of a charismatic tech entrepreneur that is benefiting from both—a complete fiction to a society as healthy and structurally sound as ours!
Named a Best Book of the Year by NPR
In this “wise and wickedly funny novel about love, creativity, and the limitations of the tech-verse” (Vogue) newlyweds Asha and Cyrus find themselves running one of the most popular social media platforms in the world.
Meet Asha Ray. Brilliant coder and possessor of a Pi tattoo, Asha is poised to make a scientific breakthrough when she is reunited with her high school crush, Cyrus Jones.
Before she knows it, Asha has abandoned her lab, exchanged vows with Cyrus, and gone to work at an exclusive tech incubator called Utopia to develop an app called WAI—“We are Infinite.”
WAI creates a sensation, with millions of users logging on every day. Will Cyrus and Asha’s marriage survive the pressures of sudden fame, or will she become overshadowed by the man everyone is calling the new messiah?
This “scathing—and hilarious—take on startup culture, marriage and workaholism” (Politico) explores whether or not technology—with all its limits and possibilities—can disrupt modern love.
Our last book examines the present by looking toward our past and drawing new conclusions about age-old conflicts. Reyna Grande’s A BALLAD OF LOVE AND GLORY is a stunning historical epic that focuses on a Mexican army nurse and an Irish soldier who must fight for their survival and love against the backdrop of the Mexican–American War. The ripples of this largely forgotten war are still present today, defining the terms of that ever-controversial, much-politicized border between the US and Mexico. Grande has a real power to drop you in the middle of this conflict through extensive historical detail and fascinating insight, and then knock you off your feet through her haunting and beautiful prose. It will make you reevaluate not only how you view Mexico and US history, but how our countries are currently walking on the track that history laid out for us.
A Long Petal of the Sea meets Cold Mountain in this sweeping historical saga following a Mexican army nurse and an Irish soldier who must fight, at first for their survival and then for their love, amidst the atrocity of the Mexican-American War—from the author of the “timely and riveting” (People) Across a Hundred Mountains and The Distance Between Us.
A forgotten war. An unforgettable romance.
The year is 1846. After the controversial annexation of Texas, the US Army marches south to provoke war with México over the disputed Río Grande boundary.
Ximena Salomé is a gifted Mexican healer who dreams of building a family with the man she loves on the coveted land she calls home. But when Texas Rangers storm her ranch and shoot her husband dead, her dreams are burned to ashes. Vowing to honor her husband’s memory and defend her country, Ximena uses her healing skills as an army nurse on the frontlines of the ravaging war.
Meanwhile, John Riley, an Irish immigrant in the Yankee army desperate to help his family escape the famine devastating his homeland, is sickened by the unjust war and the unspeakable atrocities against his countrymen by nativist officers. In a bold act of defiance, he swims across the Río Grande and joins the Mexican Army—a desertion punishable by execution. He forms the St. Patrick’s Battalion, a band of Irish soldiers willing to fight to the death for México’s freedom.
When Ximena and John meet, a dangerous attraction blooms between them. As the war intensifies, so does their passion. Swept up by forces with the power to change history, they fight not only for the fate of a nation but for their future together.
Heartbreaking and lyrical, Reyna Grande’s spellbinding saga, inspired by true events and historical figures, brings these two unforgettable characters to life and illuminates a largely forgotten moment in history that impacts the US-México border to this day.
Will Ximena and John survive the chaos of this bitter war, or will their love be devoured along with the land they strive to defend?
Photo credit: iStock / xijian