Chosen by Nell Freudenberger
Novelist Nell Freudenberger is the author of The Newlyweds, The Dissident, and the story collection Lucky Girls. Lost and Wanted, her 2019 novel about a theoretical physicist contending with loss and loneliness, is now available in paperback.
The Wolf Hall trilogy by Hilary Mantel (2009–20). To forget your own moment in time (even briefly), there’s no better literary drug than historical fiction. Mantel’s magic opens up a wormhole to 16th-century London and creates one of contemporary fiction’s most memorable characters: the enigmatic blacksmith’s son turned counselor to Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell.
Disoriental by Negar Djavadi (2016). A woman visits a fertility clinic in Paris, hoping to have a child, while her family’s past in Iran rises up before her in dazzlingly precise vignettes. The daughter of intellectuals, Kimia Sadr survives the revolution and a harrowing escape to France, where, Djavadi writes, “we unlearn—at least partially—what we used to be, to make room for what we have become.”
Katalin Street by Magda Szabo (1969). The story of four neighboring families in Budapest whose lives are upended by World War II, Szabo’s bewitching novel is the most convincing ghost story I’ve ever read. You feel this towering Hungarian novelist might have actually figured out the mystery of the afterlife.
Illywhacker by Peter Carey (1985). This wildly funny Australian tall tale has one of my favorite chapters in fiction, in which a Chinese merchant teaches the narrator to become invisible. Herbert Badgery is a 139-year-old professional liar, and the story of his adventures allows Carey to stretch realistic fiction to its outermost limits.
The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz (1956–57). In an ancient neighborhood in Cairo, Ahmad Abd al-Jawad goes out carousing every night, while his wife and daughters live a cloistered life behind a screened balcony. Mahfouz, a Nobel laureate, is sometimes compared to Proust, and the interior richness of his characters is matched by a brilliant psychological portrait of a country shaking off the shackles of colonialism.
Augustus by John Williams (1972). The writer best known for the sober and very American campus novel Stoner does something totally different in Augustus. Through imagined letters, journal entries, and fragments from Cicero, Cleopatra, and Augustus himself, Williams animates a frieze of ancient life with recognizable human passions. ■