The Kirkus Prize is one of the richest literary awards in the world, with a prize of $50,000 bestowed annually to authors of fiction, nonfiction, and young readers’ literature.
This year, in the fiction category, the Kirkus Prize judges have nominated Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis, The Other Americans by Laila Lalami, The Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, and The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.
Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis
In 1977 Uruguay, a military government has crushed political dissent with ruthless force. In an environment where citizens are kidnapped, raped, and tortured, homosexuality is a dangerous transgression. And yet Romina, Flaca, Anita “La Venus,” Paz, and Malena–five cantoras, women who “sing”–somehow, miraculously, find on another and then, together, discover an isolated, nearly uninhabited cape, Cabo Polonio, which they claim as their secret sanctuary. Over the next thirty-five years, their lives move back and forth between Cabo Polonio and Montevideo, the city they call home, as they return, sometimes together, sometimes in pairs, with lovers in tow, or alone. And throughout, again and again, the women will be tested–by their families, lovers, society, and one another–as they fight to live authentic lives.
A genre-defining novel and De Robertis’s masterpiece, Cantoras is a breathtaking portrait of queer love, community, forgotten history, and the strength of the human spirit. At once timeless and groundbreaking, Cantoras is a tale about the fire in all our souls and those who make it burn.
Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima
It is spring. A young woman, left by her husband, starts a new life in a Tokyo apartment. Territory of Light follows her over the course of a year, as she struggles to bring up her two-year-old daughter alone. Her new home is filled with light streaming through the windows, so bright she has to squint, but she finds herself plummeting deeper into darkness, becoming unstable, untethered. As the months come and go and the seasons turn, she must confront what she has lost and what she will become.
The Other Americans by Laila Lalami
Late one spring night, Driss Guerraoui, a Moroccan immigrant in California, is walking across a darkened intersection when he is killed by a speeding car. The repercussions of his death bring together a diverse cast of characters: Guerraoui’s daughter Nora, a jazz composer who returns to the small town in the Mojave she thought she’d left for good; his widow Maryam, who still pines after her life in the old country; Efrain, an undocumented witness whose fear of deportation prevents him from coming forward; Jeremy, a former classmate of Nora’s and a veteran of the Iraq war; Coleman, a detective who is slowly discovering her son’s secrets; Anderson, a neighbor trying to reconnect with his family; and the murdered man himself.
As the characters tell their stories, the invisible connections that tie them together–even while they remain deeply divided by race, religion, or class–are slowly revealed. When the mystery of what happened to Driss Guerraoui unfolds, a family’s secrets are exposed, a town’s hypocrisies are faced, and love, in its messy and unpredictable forms, is born.
The Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
A mother and father set out with their two children, a boy and a girl, driving from New York to Arizona in the heat of summer. Their destination: Apacheria, the place the Apaches once called home. Why Apaches? asks the ten-year-old son. Because they were the last of something, answers his father.
In their car, they play games and sing along to music. But on the radio, there is news about an “immigration crisis”: thousands of kids trying to cross the southwestern border into the United States, but getting detained—or lost in the desert along the way.
As the family drives—through Virginia to Tennessee, across Oklahoma and Texas—we sense they are on the brink of a crisis of their own. A fissure is growing between the parents, one the children can almost feel beneath their feet. They are led, inexorably, to a grand, harrowing adventure—both in the desert landscape and within the chambers of their own imaginations.
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The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is “as good as anyone.” Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South in the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called The Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual and moral training” so the delinquent boys in their charge can become “honorable and honest men.”
In reality, The Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors, where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear “out back.” Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold on to Dr. King’s ringing assertion “Throw us in jail and we will still love you.” His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked and the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble.
The tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys’ fates will be determined by what they endured at The Nickel Academy.
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On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation.
At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.
With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years.