Spanning from China to Hawaii, Cecily Wong’s debut novel, Diamond Head, follows four generations of the Leong family through wars and betrayals. It’s a saga that takes sees the family through the Boxer Rebellion and World War II, one in which people’s fortunes turn around seemingly overnight. The patriarch of the family is Frank, a savvy businessman in China who disapproves of his brother’s radical inclinations and instead favors stability and wealth. The births and subsequent deaths of his infant daughters are an ominous sign, but the birth of his first son signals a change. Eventually, a move to Hawaii offers their small family a new start and wealth beyond their wildest dreams.
When we first meet the Leong family, however, all of this good fortune is long past. Frank has been dead for over two decades, the victim of a mysterious unsolved murder. The women of the Leong family have gathered for a different funeral altogether, and in their mourning, long-held secrets start spilling out.
I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I have a major soft spot for pachyderms. All those news stories about violence against elephants kill me, so when I read the premise of Tania James’s new book, The Tusk that Did the Damage, I pretty much resigned myself to the fact that it would probably make me cry. Set in South India, The Tusk that Did the Damage weighs the costs of the ivory trade from three different perspectives: a poacher, a documentary filmmaker, and a elephant whom locals fear and refer to as the Gravedigger.
The Gravedigger witnessed the murder of his mother when he was a young calf; he’s captured and sold into captivity and suffers PTSD-like symptoms for the rest of his life. He alternately nods or lashes out violently when he’s overcome by the memories, and most of the handlers who work for his owner liken those actions to those of a madman. Once the Gravedigger breaks free of captivity, he’s known for killing people and then burying them in the gentle way that elephants do (hence his name).
Nerdy D’aron Davenport has never truly felt like he belonged in his tiny hometown of Braggsville, Georgia. He bides his time in high school and sets his sights on getting as far from Braggsville as he can. He’s confident in his decision to attend UC Berkeley but quickly learns that being at the top of his class in Braggsville means little in a place like “Berzerkeley;” it’s a culture shock that leaves him feeling out of his element. Fortunately, he makes friends with three other students early on: Charlie, a Black teen from inner-city Chicago; Louis, a Malaysian comedian from San Francisco; and Candice, a hippie-ish white woman from Iowa who sometimes claims to be of Native American descent. After one of their earliest PC-policing encounters at Berkeley, the four end up calling themselves the “4 Little Indians.”
Coming from a tiny town in the South, the hyper-awareness with which liberal Berkeley students treat political correctness is at times mind-boggling to D’aron. Then, in a radical history class that’s been blowing his mind all semester, he volunteers some information that freaks everyone out: his town still holds Civil War reenactments every year. Suddenly, the 4 Little Indians have a class project on their hands. They’ll stage a “performative intervention” — aka a mock lynching, complete with slave costumes — at this year’s Braggsville reenactment. In their minds, it’s just the kind of protest that people need to see the error of their ways.
Years of hard work are about to pay off for Richard and Ann. Richard is a chef who’s just weeks away from opening his own restaurant in Los Angeles with his business partner, Javi, a hotshot chef with a flair for culinary experimentation. Ann is also on the brink of professional success. She’s a cutthroat lawyer at a big firm and thinks the time has finally arrived for her to make partner. For years, she’s put in long hours and tried to succeed not only to rise through the ranks of the firm, but to support her husband as he paid his dues. It’s taken a personal toll — she doesn’t even like being a lawyer — but both of them know that the restaurant will give them a new type of freedom.
Overnight, thanks to Javi’s unscrupulous actions, their dream crumbles and they find themselves flying to an island in the middle of the South Pacific to get away from all their troubles. They wind up on a remote atoll run by Loren, a drunken Frenchman. For a couple thousand a day, they get an upgraded Robinson Crusoe experience: a small private hut with no electricity, phone, or internet connection. The only other people of significance on the island are Titi and Cooked, two locals who are betrothed to one another and run the daily operations; Dex Cooper, the aging frontman of the rock band Prospero; and Wende, Dex’s young and attractive muse.
After being introduced to Thrity Umrigar via her last novel, The World We Found, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on her latest book (neither could my mom, who promptly swiped my copy). The Story Hour hooks you from the beginning. Lakshmi, an uneducated immigrant woman from Indian who’s trapped in a loveless marriage, narrates her side of this story in broken English. She’s depressed and so desperately lonely that she tries to commit suicide. This event introduces her to the other narrator of the story, Maggie, the psychologist assigned to break through Lakshmi’s stony silence.
It’s a culture shock for Lakshmi, who has never interacted with an African American woman before. Meanwhile, this new assignment is somewhat of an annoyance to Maggie, who feels she was given Lakshmi’s case just because she’s married to a man from India. But the more the two talk to each other, the more each woman begins to change. For the first time in her professional career, Maggie feels like Lakshmi is getting under her skin somehow; she’s more drawn into Lakshmi’s story than she should be as a psychologist. Lakshmi doesn’t fully grasp the concept of therapy even though she knows that Maggie is trying to help her. She goes to Maggie’s house every week because that’s where Maggie’s practice is located, but so for Lakshmi, divulging her life to Maggie during this hour seems more like the beginning of a friendship rather than some kind of treatment.
Inevitably, that doctor-patient wall does come down. And I can’t say much more than that, because STUFF. HAPPENS.