A sobering recent scene in Ukraine. (AFP via Getty Images.)
With Ukraine in the news, we know that the Russian invasion is appalling, that the carnage is dismaying, and that Ukrainian resistance is inspiring. We also know that many nonfiction books will eventually be written about the Putin-ordered attack — and that some future novels will incorporate the situation into their story lines.
It’s an interesting experience seeing major 21st-century events referenced in novels months or years after we followed those events in real time via the Internet, social media, TV, newspapers, and so on. We’re curious how novelists will depict things after time has passed, and how they will humanize the events via the characters they create. Also, our own memories will be stirred.
I recently finished Liane Moriarty’s compelling 2021 novel Apples Never Fall, which expertly mixes family dynamics with a mysterious disappearance. Near the end of the book, in the year 2020, the Australian characters experience the onset of COVID in their country. It’s hardly the main element of Apples Never Fall, but Moriarty makes it work. The very first novel I’ve read that includes the still-ongoing pandemic.
One part of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah focuses on when Democratic candidate Barack Obama becomes America’s first Black president in 2008. We interestingly see this through the eyes of an “outsider” protagonist: Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman living in the U.S. There is pride and hope felt by her and others, even as Obama would eventually disappoint some of them due to the combination of his not-as-liberal-as-expected politics and the vicious obstruction from right-wing Republicans.
Among the novels referencing 9/11 is Pete Hamill’s Forever (2003) — about an Irishman who arrives in New York City in 1740 and is still around when planes smash into the World Trade Center in 2001. (Yes, Cormac O’Connor is rather long-lived.) Readers get a fascinating perspective from a character who has obviously “seen it all” in Manhattan.
Then there’s The Kite Runner (also 2003), Khaled Hosseini’s novel that spans several decades in the late 20th century and early 2000s, with scenes in Afghanistan depicting the brutality of the Taliban via one man in particular. Afghanistan of course has a 9/11 relevance given that the U.S. sent troops into that country despite 15 of the 19 plane hijackers being Saudis (and none Afghans).
Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel Flight Behavior doesn’t focus on one 21st-century event per se but rather on sort of an ongoing event: worsening climate change. The devastating effects of that are seen through the eyes of characters Dellarobia Turnbow (a young Tennessean) and Ovid Byron (a visiting scientist).
The 21st century is also known for an ongoing development of a positive nature: the rapidly growing acceptance, in many places, of same-gender partnerships and marriage — much of that codified in various pieces of legislation. So, for instance, when we meet the couple Anna Phipps and Dr. Kim Sullivan in J.K. Rowling’s 2020 novel Troubled Blood, the very normality of their relationship is a given. We see Anna as a woman seeking answers about her mother’s long-ago murder; her sexual orientation is irrelevant.
Any novels you’d like to mention that incorporate real-life events of the 21st century? You can also go pre-2000 if you’d like, but I avoided that in my blog post to keep it fairly short. 🙂
Speaking of Ukraine and Russia, writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky was born in Kiev (aka Kyiv) in 1887 and died in Moscow in 1950. I’m currently reading a story collection of his titled Memories of the Future, and it’s compelling and weird and fantastical — a tiny room expanding, the Eiffel Tower tromping through Paris, characters becoming detached from novels, a beggar offering deep philosophical nuggets in return for small change, etc. Krzhizhanovsky’s wonderfully crafted fiction was sadly not published until decades after he died due to economic problems and Soviet censorship; his writing at times obliquely criticized the Soviet state under Stalin — or at least didn’t glorify it. Putin would not have liked Krzhizhanovsky, either.
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about local reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the end of local mask mandates, and more — is here.