Chosen by Daniel José Older
Daniel José Older’s The Book of Lost Saints, a magic-realist epic about a Cuban-American family, is his first non-Y.A. novel. Below, the prize-winning author of Shadowshaper touts six books whose protagonists are “trapped in the in-between.”
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (2018). Emezi’s debut is a gorgeous and triumphant novel about surviving, healing, finding the self, and transcendence. The prose itself feels like a character, it’s so alive. And the format—this is a story told by the various Igbo spirits that inhabit our half-Nigerian protagonist—is everything I’ve ever wanted from a book.
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle (2016). This is one of my favorite examples of a novel that critically remixes the canon. LaValle takes one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most horrific and racist tales—1924’s “The Horror at Red Hook”—and injects it with a heart and new life by adding the perspective of a new character, a young black hustler named Tommy Tester. A tale about an occult presence in an immigrant New York City neighborhood becomes something rebellious and ferocious—a masterpiece.
Snow by Orhan Pamuk (2002). This is a haunting novel about a haunted man. Ka, a poet, lives in a small Turkish town near the Armenian border where a local college’s mandate for women to remove their head scarves has led to an epidemic of suicides. Snow is a thriller that feels deeply intimate and melancholy even when it soars.
The Famished Road by Ben Okri (1991). Okri’s sprawling, Booker Prize–winning epic about a kid caught between life and death in Nigeria is unruly and brilliant in all the right ways, with prose that seems to run and shimmy off the page.
Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih (1966). This is a creepy, beautiful, complex story of longing and loss from one of Sudan’s pre-eminent writers, centered on one man’s confession to another. Stirring prose and a quiet musicality bring the novel’s eerie mystery to life.
Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman by Malidoma Patrice Somé (1994). Somé was abducted as a child by Jesuits, and in this memoir he gives us the story of his return to his village in Burkina Faso as an adult, and the spiritual journey of his return to himself. This is a gorgeous, deeply necessary book. ■