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From Blood and Phlegm to Alcohol and Defenestration, Novels of Heartache

Her flailing son has secrets of his own. A college dropout and struggling songwriter in Los Angeles, Akash lives with a man he doesn’t love while still feeling haunted by his childhood sweetheart. As much as Akash knows he should, he promised his father he’d never reveal his sexuality to Renu. Patel’s debut toggles between mother and son as they bristle against each other and their own inner anguish.

In tight, alternating chapters, Akash and Renu address their respective former lovers, who have reappeared after missing from their lives for so long. Though it’s a familiar tale of immigrant loss and heartache, Patel infuses “Tell Me How to Be” with a lively self-awareness, humor and warmth. As Akash revisits the ’90s R & B that served as the soundtrack to his lonely teenage years, Renu would rather watch her TV melodrama than participate in a book club where she’s the token member of color among sauvignon blanc-drinking white women, eager for her “authentic and honest take” on Oprah-approved postcolonial literature. Mother and son share a love of guilty pleasures in a novel that asks: When you find the melody that speaks to you, why let it go?

By Renée Branum
221 pp. Bloomsbury. $26.

In Branum’s first novel, a family curse binds twins named Nick and Marta. Legend has it that while overseeing the construction of a grand church, their Czech great-great-grandfather once pushed a stonemason off a church tower to his death in Prague. This murderous act initiates a series of karmic falls for generations of his descendants to come, an omen that looms over the twins throughout their lives.

When they are in their 20s and living with their overbearing Catholic mother in the American Midwest, Marta and Nick’s father dies unexpectedly, prompting them to travel to the Czech Republic to chase the thread of their family’s lore. The novel opens as the twins have returned to the United States after three years no wiser, without steady employment or family beyond themselves. Nick is hospitalized after a fall, and Marta, heavy with grief, shuttles between his hospital bed and her local bar, trying to piece together the events that led them adrift.

Branum is a taut storyteller who reveals and confides with great skill, in a narrative composed of addictive passages rather than conventional chapters. Plagued by fate, Marta asks, “What happens when we can no longer move toward or away from the things we fear?” She hides herself behind the burden of her devotion to Nick, a man both wounded and driven by desire — for other men, and for answers to his ancestral curse. This hypnotic and philosophical debut considers the act of defenestration as something more profound than an accident or a mere unfortunate end. Through the lens of memory, Branum refracts the layers of truth, tragedy and faith that break a cycle of lives most at home in free fall.

Circassia News

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