Can anyone overtake Ian McEwan's spectacular novel, "Atonement"? In Britain, it was narrowly beaten for the Booker Prize by Peter Carey's "True History of the Kelly Gang." But ever since it appeared in America last March, it's dominated the National Book Critics Circle discussions. In the e-mail banter that flies among the board members all year long, "Atonement" collected so much praise that the contest seemed over before it began. When the 700 members at large were polled for their recommendations, it was the only book to collect enough nominations to require its inclusion on the NBCC shortlist.
At the board meeting in November to fill out that list, one judge noted ruefully, "I feel like we're just picking four books to accompany 'Atonement' to the winner's circle."
But I wouldn't be so sure. Choosing the best book isn't a science. It isn't even an art. It's more like predicting where a feather will land. A couple of novels that had wide support before November stirred up strong opposition during the board meeting, allowing other relatively unknown titles to squeeze onto the final list as compromises. The result is a collection of nominees that's refreshingly diverse - new authors and old, traditional subjects and downright bizarre ones.
Our look at the biographies ran last Thursday. We'll cover the other three categories - nonfiction, poetry, and criticism, over the next three weeks. On Feb. 25, all the nominated authors are invited to read from their work at a public reception at the New School in New York. The winners will be announced the next day. - Ron Charles
MIDDLESEX, by Jeffrey Eugenides, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $27
Jeffrey Eugenides's "Middlesex" - the story of a hermaphrodite and two generations that came before her - soars over boundaries of gender, chronology, and identity in a voice that makes genetics spellbinding, and tries to make sibling incest sound romantic. As the narrative unfolds against wartorn Smyrna, immigration to America, and the Detroit race riots, turmoil and transformation unfurl, too, in the protagonist's private life. Cal Stephanides - born Calliope, an apparent girl - begins her tale with tantalizing contradictions: "An army tank led me into urban battle once; a swimming pool turned me into a myth; I've left my body in order to occupy others - and all this happened before I turned sixteen." From there, Eugenides roars through time with a sweep that feels both cinematic and mythic: As the family lore unwinds, time becomes malleable, and Calliope accelerates and reverses history to dizzying, dazzling effect. "And so now, having been born," she says, "I'm going to rewind the film, so that my pink blanket flies off, my crib scoots across the floor as my umbilical cord reattaches." Eugenides wrangles with a destiny that mutates and recombines like restless chromosomes, in a novel of extraordinary flexibility, scope, and emotional depth. (529 pp.) By Christina McCarroll
NOWHERE MAN, by Aleksandar Hemon, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $23.95
At first, it seems unusual that Aleksandar Hemon would choose an American as a narrator in his first novel. A native of Bosnia, Hemon spoke little English when he came to the United States in 1992. One in a recent spate of books set in Eastern Europe, "Nowhere Man" loosely documents the life of Jozef Pronek, who, like Hemon, moves from Sarajevo to Chicago just before war tears through his country. The story is told from several points of view. It skips across chronology as each narrator recollects fragments of Pronek's life, from a Sarajevo sandbox where he plays in the shadow of an overprotective grandmother to his days peering inside suburban homes while canvassing for Greenpeace. We hear from an immigrant struggling with English who notices one morning before an interview to teach ESL that "the toilet bowl was agape, a dissolving piece of toilet paper throbbing like a jellyfish" and an American literature student who forms an unexpected attachment to Pronek when they room together during a Ukrainian cultural program in Kiev. …