National Book Critics Circle finalists / Fiction

Even the greatest storm of the century couldn't keep intrepid book critics from convening in New York on Saturday to discuss their nominations for the National Book Critics Circle awards. This year's list of popular, widely praised novels is a stark contrast to the slate put up in November by the National Book Foundation, which nominated five mostly experimental novels that few people had heard of. The NBCC finalists include the Booker Prize winner, a Booker nominee, a collection of stories that was chosen for the "Today Show" book club, and two novels that showed up on many end-of-the-year roundups. About 130 people braved the snow to attend the announcement party Saturday night, including novelist Jonathan Lethem, who read the list of fiction finalists. The winners in all five categories - fiction, nonfiction, criticism, biography, and poetry - will be announced at a ceremony in March. Also, Louis Rubin, the author and editor of more than 50 books and the founder of Algonquin Press, will receive a lifetime achievement award. We'll review finalists in other categories in February. - Ron Charles

The Dew Breaker, by Edwidge Danticat, Alfred A. Knopf, 244 pp., $22

This novel takes its strangely beautiful title from a survivor's description of President Duvalier's torturers in Haiti: "Mostly it was at night. But often they'd also come before dawn, as the dew was settling on the leaves, and they'd take you away." Most of the nine stories in this collection have appeared before, but considered together they describe the trajectory of psychological shrapnel that emanates from political terror. Danticat is equally interested in the inverse challenge faced by a retired torturer, who must keep the unmentionable aspects of his past disassociated from his reformed persona. The novel opens with a haunting story told by a young American artist who learns that her beloved father was the notorious Dew Breaker. In "Seven," a Haitian immigrant in New York nervously waits for the arrival of his wife, determined to make everything as nice as possible, unaware that his landlord is the retired Dew Breaker. A story about the torturer's wife describes the anxiety of a woman devoted to a reformed murderer. Only after we've caught fragments of his victims and family members do we meet the Dew Breaker himself working on his last kill in Haiti. Danticat is a master at capturing the inarticulate sorrow and bafflement that evil inspires. (Full review March 23)

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst, Bloomsbury, 438 pp., $24.95

The novel opens in 1983 when a graduate student named Nick moves in with an upper-class family in London. He's an old Oxford chum of the family's oblivious son, and he's become the unofficial caretaker of their dangerously depressed daughter. The parents are wealthy conservatives who want to be perfectly clear that they have no objection to Nick's sexual orientation, particularly if it remains entirely theoretical, but Nick is ready to move beyond that. The first section of the novel details his first date, an assignation with a black man he meets for sex through a personal ad. Their relationship deepens into something more meaningful, drawing Nick into the working-class life of his lover even while he floats into the lavish lifestyle of his host family. By 1986, Nick is still living with them, but he's moved on from his first lover to a Lebanese millionaire, a cocaine addict who's engaged to be married. Nick has a vague sense that this isn't a satisfying way to live, but he's mesmerized by the glare of money and sensualism and terrified by the prospect of loneliness. As AIDS ravages the gay community and scandal rocks his host family, Nick finds himself as abandoned as he ever feared, and the compensation of beauty seems heartbreakingly tragic. (Full review Oct. 26)

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, Random House, 509 pp., $14.95 (paperback)

Mitchell is one of Britain's most sophisticated young novelists, and this sprawling, psychedelic new novel is his most ambitious book yet. There are six narratives on display here, ranging from a Melvillean era sea-faring voyage to an apocalyptic tale from the far distant future. Using a kind of negative capability that even John Keats would marvel at, "Cloud Atlas" creates a montage of their collective concern - the horrific tendency for the powerful to abuse the weak - without ever reaching for simplistic connections. The novel draws its title from one of its many narrators, Robert Frobisher, a composer who drafts "The Cloud Atlas Sextet," a score made for six instruments. Mitchell is playing a literary version of that score here, blowing life into not just six different stories but six different genres as well. If you're a fantasy reader or a thriller buff, a fan of epistolary novels or a collector of journals, "Cloud Atlas" maintains a high level of authenticity throughout. In this sense, reading the novel is not unlike encountering a narrative buffet - you want to try each. Once the book hits the future, it reverses backward to the 1850s. Its beginning is its end, so to speak, a subtle warning to its readers: Societies born from violence often find a way to end that way, too. By John Freeman

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23

Robinson's narrator is a 77-year-old pastor in Gilead, Iowa, who's been told he has only a few months to live. That might sound depressing or boring, but these pages flow with the intensity of a prayer, both anguished and assured. The whole novel is a letter written by Rev. Ames to his 7-year-old son. Knowing he's "about to put on imperishability," Ames writes, "I'm trying to tell you things I might never have thought to tell you if I had brought you up myself, father and son, in the usual companionable way." "Gilead" wanders in that casual way that fellow masters of reflection like Henry David Thoreau or Annie Dillard manage without seeming vagrant. Ames recalls a store of wild anecdotes about his grandfather, a Union chaplain in the Civil War who saw visions of God frequently. The old one-eyed man was so militant that he signaled the start of church by firing his pistol. He rode with the abolition terrorist John Brown and followed the Gospel so literally that he became a kleptomaniac in service to the poor. But the most profound moments arise from stories of spiritual intimacy with the narrator's own father, who was a very different kind of preacher. There are passages here of such hard-won wisdom and spiritual insight that they make your own life seem richer. (Full review Nov. 30)

The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth, Houghton Mifflin, $26

With a seamless blend of autobiography, history, and speculation, Roth imagines that Charles Lindbergh ran against Franklin Roosevelt in the presidential election of 1940. Drawing on Lindbergh's writings and speeches, Roth creates a campaign for the aviation hero centered on his determination to keep America out of Europe's war. While Roosevelt enunciates complex policies in his famous upper-class cadence, Lindbergh buzzes around the country in The Spirit of St. Louis declaring, "Your choice is simple. It's between Lindbergh and war." To preserve the nation, we must resist the propaganda of "the Jewish race," Lindbergh warns, "and their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government." Yes, Lindbergh comes off very badly in these pages, but Roth's real target isn't an anti-Semitic aviation hero who died 30 years ago. It's an electorate he sees as dazzled by attractive faces, moved by simple slogans, and cowed by ominous warnings about threats to its security. Told from the point of view of an adult looking back on himself as a boy, the result is a cautionary story in the tradition of "The Handmaid's Tale." It's a stunning work of political extrapolation about a triumvirate of hate, ignorance, and paranoia that shreds decency and overruns liberty. (Full review Sept. 28)

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