Saturday, August 06, 2022

Top ten overlooked yet essential novels

Elaine Castillo, named one of “30 of the Planet’s Most Exciting Young People” by the Financial Times, was born and raised in the Bay Area. Her debut novel, America Is Not the Heart, was a finalist for numerous prizes including the Elle Big Book Award, the Center for Fiction Prize, and the Aspen Words Literary Prize and was named a best book of 2018 by NPR, Real Simple, Lit Hub, The Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Post, Kirkus Reviews, and the New York Public Library.

Castillo's new book is How to Read Now: Essays.

At Publishers Weekly she tagged ten " books that are perhaps less glimpsed here on our mainstream syllabi and reading lists, yet whose force reverberates across all sorts of borders, in ways indelible, unforgettable, and yes, essential." One title on the list:
The Emperor's Babe by Bernardine Evaristo

In the last essay of How to Read Now, “The Children of Polyphemus,” I go on a bit of a deep dive into my past life as a would-be classicist, the colonial history of folklores and fairytales like Cinderella, and the colonial nature of 19th-century translations of Homer. All this to say: I’m a longtime classics nerd, but I’m also interested in how questions of race, selfhood, and foreignness inhere in what we in the West call the classics. Evaristo is of course now best known for her Booker-prize winning Girl, Woman, Other (the title echoing another longtime favorite classic of mine, Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Woman, Native, Other), but the first book of hers I read was The Emperor’s Babe, not long after I moved to London in 2009. It’s a novel-in-verse that follows Zuleika, a Nubian teenager, as she comes of age in ancient Roman London. For all the talk nowadays of casting actors of color in period movies, The Emperor’s Babe is a delightful example of a book that does this very move effortlessly, precisely because characters like Zuleika—their material reality, their liveliness and ordinariness—have always existed in places like London. More than that, it’s also a fizzy, sparkling, sexy, romantic book—“like an episode of Sex and the City written by Ovid,” says Kirkus—that often made me laugh out loud and text my girlfriends. Zuleika’s torrid affair with Septimus Severus (often called Rome’s first African Emperor) is the stuff of the greatest group chats, and great books, too.
Read about the other entries on the list.

The Emperor’s Babe is among Lucy Jago's five top female friendships in books and J.R. Ramakrishnan's top seven novels that celebrates the 40% of Londoners who aren't white.

--Marshal Zeringue