Dazzling prose offsets sparse surroundings in two stunning new fall novels
The Archer by Shruti Swamy
Vidya knows that she is small and unimportant — a "stubborn girl, the same as a bad girl." Skinny, sallow, and for most of her short life motherless, she's indifferent to school and invisible at home in Bombay, where it's her duty to play thankless housemaid to astern, preoccupied father and golden-boy baby brother. Until the day she discovers dance and "suddenly, the feet began to gather rhythm into them, to understand it, and the world flared open."
With its coiled energy and feverish imagery, The Archer often reads more like a lucid dream than a novel, oceans of wild feeling roiling just below the surface. Vidya dutifully earns a scholarship to a private girls' academy and then goes on to engineering school; she even makes a friend, a girl named Radha, as shy and single-minded as herself, and finds romance with a boy everyone agrees she is obscenely lucky just to be noticed by. But for her, dancing is all that matters, and Swamy writes about the imperatives of an artist's life with bright, furious poetry: the singular will of a body that burns to be in motion, and a mind set free. —Leah Greenblatt
Matrix by Lauren Groff
A group of nuns in 12th-century Europe may seem like an unlikely subject for Lauren Groff, following the modern marriage refracted in her 2015 novel Fates and Furies. In Matrix, however, readers will recognize her stunning prose and grand, mythic perspective. When Marie de France — a woman of special brilliance, but little beauty — is sent from Eleanor of Aquitaine's court to an impoverished English abbey, she finds her true calling (not in God, exactly, or at least only incidentally in God). A born leader with an understanding of female greatness in a world that so rarely knows how to use it, Marie grows into her power as part of this community of women, in a tale that feels both ancient and urgent, as holy as it is deeply human. —Mary Sollosi