Novey wins Jewish Book Council’s Sami Rohr Prize for debut novel, WAYS TO DISAPPEAR

Poet and translator-turned-novelist Idra Novey has been awarded the 2017 Sami Rohr Prize by the Jewish Book Council for her debut novel, Ways to Disappear. The prize comes with a $100,000 award.

At a ceremony held at the Jewish Museum in New York, Novey was honored, along with the four runners-up: Daniel Torday (The Last Flight of Poxl West), Paul Goldberg (The Yid), Adam Ehrlich Sachs (Inherited Disorders), and Rebecca Schiff (The Bed Moved). Torday received the Choice Award ($18,000), while the other “fellows” received $5,000 each. (Eighteen represents chai, or life, in Judaism, and multiples of 18 are commonly given as gifts and prizes.)

The Sami Rohr Prize alternates between fiction and nonfiction, so this year’s finalists were four novels and one short story collection published in 2015 and 2016.

Ways to Disappear is set in modern Brazil and concerns the disappearance of a legendary female novelist Beatriz Yagoda. A search ensues, involving her two children, her publisher, a ruthless loan shark, and the protagonist — her American translator from Pittsburgh.

Novey’s debut won the 2016 Brooklyn Eagles Literary Prize for Fiction. It was also a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction, an NPR Best Book of 2016, a New York Times Editors’ Choice, and a 2016 Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection.

In my review last July, I called it “an absorbing exploration of the dichotomy between the perception and reality of a writer’s life . . . Interspersed throughout the narrative are transcripts of reports from Radio Globo, desperate emails from Emma’s fiance back in Pittsburgh, and witty dictionary entries of words and phrases that shed light on Emma’s adventures (including sample sentences referencing Emma’s fraught circumstances). These additional voices add perspective to the careening narrative, as Emma searches for Beatriz, copes with Raquel, falls for Marcus, and negotiates with both [loan shark] Flamenguinho and [publisher] Rocha . . . Ways to Disappear is as complex and enchanting as modern Brazil itself, alternately breezy with fish-out-of-water humor and manic plotting, and humid with portent and mystery.”

You can read the full review here.

 

WAYS TO DISAPPEAR uses the contradictions of modern Brazil to explore the ways we translate everything in our lives

Idra Novey -- Ways to Disappear

Ways to Disappear

By Idra Novey

Back Bay Books: Jan. 17, 2017

$15.99, 272 pages

This review was originally posted on May 23, 2016 and is being re-posted because the book has recently been issued in paperback. And because I think you should read it.


Ways to Disappear, poet and translator Idra Novey’s debut novel, is an absorbing exploration of the dichotomy between the perception and reality of a writer’s life. Novey’s protagonist, Emma Neufeld, translates the novels of the critically acclaimed Brazilian writer Beatriz Yagoda. But Emma is more than just professionally engaged in Yagoda’s work; she is obsessed with her writing and intrigued by her personal life.

When she learns that Yagoda has disappeared, she is convinced she knows what makes Yagoda tick in a way no one else does and can help find her. She flies from Pittsburgh to Brazil to help Yagoda’s suspicious daughter, Raquel, and charming son, Marcus, search for her and discover why she went into hiding. But, as you might expect, young and naive Emma encounters an even greater mystery in Brazil itself and ultimately learns that there is both more and less to Yagoda’s work than she could have imagined.

Emma’s well-intentioned belief that she is uniquely qualified to serve as a private investigator leads her on an unpredictable search through Yagoda’s personal and creative life that exposes her to Brazil’s hard brown underbelly. She faces off against a loan shark named Flamenguinho seeking to recover a debt owed by the writer. Yagoda’s publisher, Roberto Rocha, offers eccentric suggestions and financial support, once he learns that Yagoda may have a work in progress for him to publish.

Raquel plays antagonist to Emma’s meddling, while Marcus is more receptive to her interest in his mother and, before long, him. Together and apart, they chase down clues that lead them to the city of Salvador on the central coast.

Interspersed throughout the narrative are transcripts of reports from Radio Globo, desperate emails from Emma’s fiance back in Pittsburgh, and witty dictionary entries of words and phrases that shed light on Emma’s adventures (including sample sentences referencing Emma’s fraught circumstances). These additional voices add perspective to the careening narrative, as Emma searches for Beatriz, copes with Raquel, falls for Marcus, and negotiates with both Flamenguinho and Rocha.

Novey, who translates works in Portuguese and Spanish (including the work of Clarice Lispector), has concocted a savory Brazilian dish that puts literary traditions as diverse as noir, magical realism, and romance to use in clever and surprising ways.

Ways to Disappear is as complex and enchanting as modern Brazil itself, alternately breezy with fish-out-of-water humor and manic plotting, and humid with portent and mystery. Novey knows how to spin a multi-faceted tale with a love of language and literature at its heart. Like Emma, we are all engaged in the act of translating an author’s work to suit our own needs, completing the writer’s work through reading. Novey’s auspicious debut marks the arrival of a writer worth meeting halfway.

Update: Ways to Disappear won the 2016 Brooklyn Eagles Literary Prize for Fiction and was a Barnes & Noble “Discover” selection. NPR named it one of the Best Books of 2016 and it was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. The book is currently a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in First Fiction, which will be awarded at the Times’ Festival of Books on April 21.