The Illness Lesson / Apeirogon
Credit: Penguin Random House; Bloomsbury Publishing

EW reviews two February novels — one from a beloved National Book Award winner, the other from a first-time novelist — that don’t make for breezy reads, exactly, but deliver poetic, thought-provoking journeys worth taking.

Apeirogon, by Colum McCann

Apeirogon — a shape with a “countably infinite” number of sides — turns out to be an apt if obscure title for the latest from National Book Award-winning author Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin): a kaleidoscopic, wildly ambitious hybrid of fact and fiction. Rooted in the true experience of two men, one Israeli and one Palestinian, both of whom lost young daughters in the ongoing conflict, McCann’s storytelling radiates outward to include everything from meditations on Middle Eastern geography and the history of birds to the last meal of a French president and the lost operas of the Holocaust. If McCann has a tendency to lean on certain repetitions and rune-like sayings (“When you divide death by life, you find a circle”), he’s also woven something tensile and beautiful out of terrible pain — maybe not solutions, but some better kind of understanding, and even hope. —Leah Greenblatt

Grade: B+

The Illness Lesson, by Clare Beams

This masterfully considered if uneven study of gender and society cramps readers into the quarters of a 19th-century New England school for girls started by an academic, his twentysomething daughter, and his young acolyte. Things quickly go awry: Students contract some sort of disease, a flock of creepy redbirds keeps showing up at pivotal scenes, and a (male) doctor assigned to investigate diagnoses a mass hysteria that requires a bizarre, brutal treatment. Clare Beams’ cool, cutting prose hypnotically evokes the oppression of female bodies and minds, though her rushed conclusion feels less vivid than frenetic. —David Canfield

Grade: B+

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