Ellis Island by Małgorzata Szejnert, translated by Sean Gasper Bye
This history of the iconic gateway – and barrier – to the US is stitched together with previously unpublished accounts of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, as well as testimonies from its workers. The veteran Polish journalist Małgorzata Szejnert uncovers stories with a reporter’s instinct: we learn that Brits were the pushiest newcomers; the “first” arrival – a young Irish girl – was a prejudiced choice (there were 77 Russian Jews on the original ship compared to just eight Irish migrants); and Scandinavians packed the most luggage.
Scribe, 400pp, £20
Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Sayaka Murata’s compact 2018 novel, newly translated into English, is a tragedy, but is told with such authentic detachedness that you could almost miss it. It follows Natsuki, whose only antidote to gut-wrenching childhood trauma – sexual abuse, parental antipathy – is to remove herself from both her experiences and society. Soon she becomes increasingly convinced she is from a Martian planet. Her eventual union with kindred spirits is surreal and darkly comic, but, most of all, deeply sad.
Granta, 256pp, £12.99
[See also: How class defines British food]
Dark Archives by Megan Rosenbloom
Megan Rosenbloom, a librarian at UCLA and a specialist in medical history and rare books, has written the most interesting and unsettling text of recent times: a history of books bound in human skin. This is Rosenbloom’s account of her quest to trace the origins and techniques of what is known as “anthropodermic bibliopegy”. Written with the pace of a detective thriller, Dark Archives explains how a team of scientists and librarians test rumoured anthropodermic books, as well as reckon with the ethics of their creation and custodianship.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 288pp, £19.99
Not a Novel by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Kurt Beals
“Now the place where all of that happened is flat, like a closed book, and as I stand beside it, I know: That’s where I learned to read,” writes the German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck in this non-fiction collection. In it, she is as incisive when considering the East Berlin, now demolished, where she grew up as she is when critically contemplating the writings of Thomas Mann or Hans Fallada. The book acts, in part, as a fragmented memoir: to read Erpenbeck’s musings on the majesty of folk tales or on life in the shadow of the Stasi is to begin to understand the forces that propelled her to become the deft, fearless author she is today.
Granta, 186pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control