In 1857, Chen Pan, a farmer in rural China desperate for work, signs an indenture contract with a plantation in Cuba. Only when he arrives in Cuba does the hideous truth emerge: Chen Pan has unwittingly sold himself into slavery. Cristina Garcia's Monkey Hunting (Knopf, 272 pages, $23), an insightful study of the meeting and blending of the Chinese and Cuban cultures, follows Chen Pan's family through five generations: criss-crossing back to China, returning to Cuba, migrating to the United States. Chen Pan escapes slavery and becomes an antiques dealer in Havana, fulfilling his dream of becoming a rich man, a credit to his family.
His progeny, however, meet a different immigrant experience. Chen Pan's great-grandson, Domingo Chen, works in New York City as a waiter at a Cuban-Chinese fusion restaurant. As an infantryman fighting in Vietnam he is plagued by the dichotomies of his ancestry: "His biggest fear was that in the heat of a firefight, his fellow soldiers would mistake him for a Viet Cong and shoot him dead. With his heavy accent and brown skin, how could he be American?" Garcia, as she has in her previous novels, turns her keen eye toward examining what defines nationality: Is Domingo American because he grew up in Guantanamo, where his father, Pipo, worked as a chef for the U.S. armed forces? Is he Cuban because he was born in Cuba and speaks Spanish? Or is he perhaps Chinese after all, carrying Chen Pan's spectacles in the pocket of his flak jacket as a lucky charm? Posing such questions without clear-cut answers, Garcia inveigles the reader into questioning his or her own origins: How much of who we are is where we live; how much is where we came from?
In Gilgamesh (Grove, 272 pages, $23), Joan London's compelling debut novel, 17-year-old Edith Clark has grown up sheltered by life on a small settler farm in southwestern Australia. Her world opens when her Anglo-Russian cousin Leopold comes to visit, bringing with him his Armenian friend, Aram.
Edith cannot decide whom she loves more, the portly, funny, well-read and kind Leopold or the attractive, gentle yet enigmatic Aram. In a 1938 world riven with talk of war, Leopold and Aram are forced back to their respective homelands, but Edith finds herself pregnant by Aram. A year later she takes her baby son, Jim, on a journey to find his father in Armenia.
On a ship to London to visit Leopold's Russian mother, eventually traveling across Europe to an Armenia that now belongs to the Soviet Union, the barely adult Edith journeys into what was still the Orient, stealing her ship fare, victimized by men along the way, struggling to protect her small son. En route she gains knowledge of the world and of herself. Personal strife and global perils combine to make Gilgamesh a remarkable study of a young woman's most literal rite of passage, growing up, taking control of her life and refusing to be content with the narrowly conscripted world she has always known.
In The Marriage of the Sea (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 272 pages, $24), Jane Alison's characters veer like crazed gondolas to and from the watery sites of Venice and New Orleans. Against a backdrop of crumbling edifices, Alison presents an intricacy of characterizations as complex as the Venetian waterways or the twists and turns of the French Quarter: Anton, a water architect, and his wife, Josephine, desperate to have a baby; Oswaldo, the rich, aging Italian who sees in his body a parallel to the slowly sinking city of Venice; his protege Lucinde, back in Venice to give moral support to her friend Vera, who comes to the city on a painting fellowship; Vera's lover Lachman, who has just dumped her to return home to his mistress in Venice; and Max, English food historian, enticed to New Orleans by a Lucinde who flees to Venice.
As intriguing as the densely interwoven lives of this fascinating cast is Alison's literary use of the water that surrounds them: "Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink," could be Coleridge's succinct summation of Alison's counterpoint to Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. The Marriage of the Sea is soap opera en aqua, where the watery surrounds become a metaphor for the fluidity of life. While less arresting than her first novel, The Love-Artist, Alison's latest still flows with stylistic brilliance.
Laurel Granger returns to her hometown of Russell, N.C., in Pamela Duncan's Plant Life (Delacorte, 304 pages, $23.95) to regroup after the failure of her 15-year-old marriage. Laurel doesn't count on staying in Russell, working at the textile plant where members of her family have worked for generations while helping her parents as her mother spirals into a deep depression.
Laurel soon becomes attached to her mother's cronies at the mill, joining them for dinners and nights out drinking. Examining the lives of the women around her, Laurel finally learns how to define herself, to be herself. Interspersed throughout Laurel's story are first-person narratives by the women whom she has grown up with, slices of life thick and dense and choking as the air in the mills. Duncan's ruminative exploration provides a thought-provoking look at how women's roles change over generations as the world around them changes.
The banal thoughts and sentence fragments of a New York City lawyer, Daley, as he falls in love with an actress who has asked him to handle a landlord-tenant case is the shaky brief on which veteran novelist Joseph McElroy builds Actress in the House (Overlook, 445 pages, $26.95).
Regrettably, Daley's thoughts aren't deep enough to sustain 400-plus pages of fighting against and then succumbing to love. Daley (get, it -- daily?) is presumed to be such an Everyman that McElroy has neglected to give the protagonist a first name. Becca Lang, the eponymous actress, never becomes more than an irritating caricature and Daley himself is, as his mundane name implies, just plain dull. The usually gifted McElroy phoned this one in, leaving the reader aching for the pseudo-substance of a John Grisham characterization and plot.
Judith M. Redding is the editor of several books and coauthor of Film Fatales: Independent Women Directors with Victoria A. Brownworth. An award-winning filmmaker and film critic, she won a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Screenwriting Fellowship for her noir screenplay featuring African-American detective Teresa Dash. She teaches screenwriting in Philadelphia.