“The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” by Arundhati Roy. (Random House Audio. Unabridged, 16½ hours.)
Arundhati Roy brings her clear, melodious voice and clipped Indian accent to the narration of her second novel, a passionate and compassionate work. It begins with a wretched emblem of the new global India: vultures dying from eating the carcasses of cows drugged to increase milk production.
The story possesses two main branches. In the first, we meet Anjum, a transsexual woman who, like practically every character here, finds a version of identity warfare waged within herself. After her best friend is slaughtered in the Gujarat riots of 2002, Anjum establishes a guesthouse in a graveyard, gathering around her other victims of the New India.
The second story line concerns the repression of the independence movement in Kashmir — which is to say, the arrest, torture and murder by India’s security forces of anyone they choose. Kashmir becomes an arena in which “the difference between what constituted guilt and innocence lay in the occult.” The overall tragedy of these stories is leavened by intermittent comedy and the joy of friendship, both vibrantly captured in Roy’s voice.
Some backtracking may be necessary to follow every turn in this hugely populated, many-stranded novel, but it is well worthwhile. The work as a whole is a triumph of language, vision and spirit.
“My Absolute Darling,” by Gabriel Tallent. (Penguin Audio. Unabridged, 15¾ hours.)
Set in a lush, isolated backwater of Northern California, Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel is enthralling, but not for the faint of heart. Turtle Alveston is 14 and motherless, living in a decaying house outside Mendocino with her father, a survivalist, gun nut and psychopath.
Narrator Alex McKenna’s voice could be Turtle’s: young, slightly husky and reflective of the mess of love, self-flagellation and rationalization of her inner life. A misfit at school, she is befriended by a teacher and two boys, and her struggle to break free of her vicious, volatile father commences.
This rich, episodic novel is also a tale of adventure in the wild and an anthem to nature. Northern California’s flora and fauna are described peerlessly in all their potent beauty and teeming diversity. Gorgeously detailed and suspense-filled though it is, the novel does includes scenes of incest and brutality that some may not be able to stomach.
“A Kind of Freedom,” by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton. (Blackstone. Unabridged, 8¼ hours.)
Sexton’s first novel is set in New Orleans from the mid-1940s to the city’s ruthless real-estate-makeover years after Hurricane Katrina. The story moves through three generations of a black family, each represented by a character whose sections are delivered by three accomplished narrators.
Bahni Turpin gives us Evelyn, daughter of a pioneering black doctor and Creole wife, who have set themselves against her marrying Renard, the hardworking son of a janitor. But marry they do, and have a daughter, who eventually marries a man who loses his job and becomes addicted to crack cocaine. Adenrele Ojo delivers these sections, her voice filled with anguish and dashed hope.
Kevin Kenerly’s mellow, resonant voice gives us a young man struggling to get off drugs and become a fitting father to his own infant son. This moving debut is ingeniously told in its passage back and forth through lives and changing times. Sexton’s portrayal of the intersection of character and circumstance is astute and nuanced, showing how adversity is amplified by each era’s racial injustice.
Katherine A. Powers is a Minnesota native. She reviews books for the Star Tribune, Newsday, and elsewhere. She wrote this column for the Washington Post.