Annal: 2004 National Book Award for Fiction

Results of the National Book Award in the year 2004.

Book:The News from Paraguay

The News from Paraguay: A Novel

Lily Tuck

For him it began with a bright blue parrot feather that fell from Ella Lynch’s hat when she was horseback riding in the Bois de Boulogne. The year was 1854, and Francisco Solano Lopez—“Franco,” the future dictator of Paraguay—began his courtship of the young, beautiful Irishwoman with a poncho, a Paraguayan band, and a horse named Mathilde.

From Paris, Ella Lynch follows Franco to Asunción, where she reigns as his mistress. Isolated and estranged in this new world, she embraces her lover’s ill-fated dream—one fueled by outsize imperial ambition and heedless arrogance, and with devastating consequences for Paraguay and all its inhabitants.

A historical epic that tells an unusual love story, The News from Paraguay offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of nineteenth-century Paraguay, a largely untouched wilderness where Europeans and North Americans intermingle with both the old Spanish…[more]

Book:Florida

Florida

Christine Schutt

Florida is the portrait of the artist as a young woman, an orphan’s story full of loss and wonder, a familiar tale told in original language. Alice Fivey, fatherless at age seven, is left in the care of her relatives at ten when her love-wearied mother loses custody of her and submits to the sanitarium and years of psychiatric care. A namesake daughter locked in the orphan’s move-around life, she must hold still while the seamstress pins her into someone not her mother. But they share the same name, so she is her mother, isn’t she?

Alice finds consolation in books and she herself is a storyteller who must build a home for herself word by right word. Florida is her story, recalled in brief scenes of spare beauty and strangeness as Alice moves from house to house, ever further from the desolation of her mother’s actions, ever closer to the meaning of her experience. In this most elegiac and luminous novel, Schutt gives voice to the feast of memory, the mystery of the mad and missing, and above all, the life-giving power of language.

Book:Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories

Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories

Joan Silber

Supple and precise, these stories cover lifetimes, much in the manner of Alice Munro and William Trevor. Set in France, Italy, New York, and China, in the past and present, they are about longings—about how sex and religion become parallel forms of dedication and comfort.

Though the stories stand alone, a minor element in one becomes major in the next. In “My Shape,” a woman is taunted by her dance coach, who later suffers his own heartache. A Venetian poet of the 1500s, another storyteller, is introduced to a modern traveler reading Rilke. His story precedes a mesmerizing narrative of missionaries in China. In the final story, Giles, born to a priesthood family, leans toward Buddhism after a grievous loss, and in time falls in love with the dancer of the first story.

So deft and subtle is Joan Silber with these various perspectives that we come full circle surprised and enchanted by her myriad worlds.

Book:Madeleine Is Sleeping

Madeleine Is Sleeping

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

When a girl falls into a deep and impenetrable sleep, the borders between her provincial French village and the peculiar, beguiling realm of her dreams begin to disappear: A fat woman sprouts delicate wings and takes flight; a failed photographer stumbles into the role of pornographer; a beautiful young wife grows to resemble her husband’s viol. And in their midst travels Madeleine, the dreamer, who is trying to make sense of her own metamorphosis.

Part fairy tale, part coming-of-age story, this enchantingly inventive novel follows Madeleine as she leaves home, joins a gypsy circus, and falls into an unexpected triangle of desire and love.

Embracing the earthy and the ethereal, the comical and the poignant, Madeleine Is Sleeping is an adventure in the discovery of art, sexuality, community, and the self that transcends both time and place.

Book:Our Kind

Our Kind: A Novel in Stories

Kate Walbert

From the award-winning author of The Gardens of Kyoto comes this witty and incisive novel about the lives and attitudes of a group of women—once country-club housewives; today divorced, independent, and breaking the rules.

In Our Kind, Kate Walbert masterfully conveys the dreams and reality of a group of women who came into the quick rush of adulthood, marriage, and child-bearing during the 1950s. Narrating from the heart of ten companions, Walbert subtly depicts all the anger, disappointment, vulnerability, and pride of her characters: “Years ago we were led down the primrose lane, then abandoned somewhere near the carp pond.”

Now alone, with their own daughters grown, they are finally free—and ready to take charge: from staging an intervention for the town deity to protesting the slaughter of the country club’s fairway geese, to dialing former lovers in the dead of…[more]

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