As I was reading through the ten novel openings featured in this issue of Embark, a running theme—coincidental rather than intended—jumped out at me. In one way or another, all of these novels deal with dislocation and isolation within a larger society.
Some of the openings explore geographical dislocation: in Tom Hearron’s novel THE SERPENTS OF PARADISE, a white American wildlife-biologist in Rwanda struggles to communicate with his Rwandan colleagues and neighbors, and when a white woman studying the mountain gorillas is brutally murdered, he becomes the obvious suspect. Dina Greenberg, in NERMINA’S CHANCE, portrays the reverse form of isolation: her protagonist, a young woman in the 1990s living a sheltered life in Sarajevo, finds herself in danger in her own country when the Bosnian War breaks out; with her family destroyed, she has no choice but to flee to America. Rebecca Wurtz, in THE MAPMAKER’S BODY, offers a speculative story about place and dislocation: when the internet is wiped out by hackers, the world grinds to a near-halt, and Mae, a cartographer, starts working for the dictatorial Mayor of “the City.” Determined to resist, she joins an underground movement to preserve the multiplicity of maps and stories.
Isolation can also arise within ourselves, when our minds play tricks on us, cutting us off even from those we know best. In Chelsea Catherine’s RAY OF GOD, Cherry, a reporter in a small town in Vermont, must battle her own spiraling mental illness while also investigating a disturbing rape case and nursing a passionate crush on her coworker JoEllen. Exploring related themes in a vastly different setting, Salvatore Difalco, in ENTER NIGHT, paints a portrait of another troubled person—an aging and solitary hit man for the mafia, Charlie Squillaci, discovers that his increasing dementia is leading him into a surreal realm of danger and confusion. Then there are times when the world itself seems crazy and our minds the only sane points within it. Pete Hadland memorably depicts this phenomenon in HOME OF THE ULTIMATE DEEP-FRIED BUFFET, in which a young man working for a sleazy, pirate-themed casino realizes that he must, at all costs, reveal the casino owner’s corruption and break out of his own life.
Occasionally our own pasts isolate us—our earlier experiences become such vivid memories, so distinct from our current lives, that they separate us from our closest associates. In THE VERMILION SEA, Marylee MacDonald tells the true story of a French artist in the eighteenth century who accompanied a scientific mission to Mexico to observe the Transit of Venus. Decades later, an old man back in Paris, he must come to grips with his own fading reputation. Telling a more sinister tale, Sarah Warburton, in her thriller ONCE TWO SISTERS, portrays Zoe, a woman on the run from her famous and domineering sister. Married in Texas with a fake name, Zoe is floundering in a self-imposed prison of lies when she discovers that her sister has also disappeared.
Sometimes external forces can rip us out of the lives we know, thrusting us into the lonely unknown. Such is the case in THE RULES DO NOT APPLY by Terry Wolverton, in which a prize-winning writer, a woman who seems to have it all, survives two bombings and then must endure not only the trauma of these events but subsequent manhandling by Homeland Security. At other times, we might choose to isolate ourselves only to rethink the decision later. Grace Marcus, in her novel VISIBLE SIGNS, portrays Sister Jude, a nun in a Catholic monastery in upstate New York who finds herself torn between the quiet life of her order and her urge to connect with the larger community beyond the monastery walls.
The characters in all of these openings struggle with loneliness, displacement, and vulnerability. Such themes, alas, feel apt for the world these days. But I was also struck by the many instances in these stories of friendships forged despite obstacles, differences, and misunderstandings. As so often in fiction, the novels featured in this issue articulate some of our deepest worries but also offer a way out: there is hope in human connection, even in the midst of loneliness and fear—and there is great pleasure, moreover, in well-written prose and vibrant imagery. I hope you find these ten openings both heartening and inspiring, just as I did!
— Ursula DeYoung, Founding Editor
Table of Contents
RAY OF GOD – Chelsea Catherine
ENTER NIGHT – Salvatore Difalco
NERMINA’S CHANCE – Dina Greenberg
HOME OF THE ULTIMATE DEEP-FRIED BUFFET – Pete Hadland
THE SERPENTS OF PARADISE – Tom Hearron
THE VERMILION SEA – Marylee MacDonald
VISIBLE SIGNS – Grace Marcus
ONCE TWO SISTERS – Sarah Warburton
THE RULES DO NOT APPLY – Terry Wolverton
THE MAPMAKER’S BODY – Rebecca Wurtz