A search for oneself, the need to belong, especially in a land alien and hostile, the compulsion to return, the recognition that old stories hold universal truths and can still be told differently: these are the concerns that mark the five shortlisted novels vying for the 2017 US National Book Award. The list is eclectic, comprising two debuts – a novel and a short story collection – two second novels and a novel by a previous National Book Award winner, who won in 2011.

Dark at the Crossing, Elliot Ackerman

Elliot Ackerman spent several years in the American Marine Corps, and has seen active service against the Taliban in Afghanistan. His first novel, Green on Blue (2015), was set in that country, where young Aziz confronts a difficult choice. He must be a part of an American special force to gather intelligence, so as to ensure that his beloved older brother, now critically injured in a bomb attack, recovers in hospital. As with Joydeep Roy Bhattacharya’s The Watch, and Nadeem Aslan’s The Blind Man’s Garden, Ackerman’s first novel, almost in similar vein, tells of the small, barely noticed heroic acts on the part of lone individuals caught in conflict.

Ackerman, now based in Istanbul, has since reported on the Syrian war. As the New York Times review of Ackerman’s second novel, now NBA shortlisted, Dark at the Crossing, noted, “the most vital literary terrain in America’s overseas war is occupied not by journalists but by novelists and even poets”.

In the novel, Haris Abadi, an Arab American who once served in the US military as interpreter, and now has his own conflicts about his past, is on his way toward the Turkish-Syrian border to fight the Assad regime. This obviously means he must throw in his lot with ISIS, despite his own confusion and ignorance about this shadowy and feared terror group. However, a theft thwarts his plans, and he finds refuge with a former Syrian revolutionary and refugee, Amir, and his mysterious wife, Daphne, who nurses her own grief. As the threesome make their journey toward Syria from Antep, the southern town in which much of this novel is set, Ackerman aptly juxtaposes their inner conflicts against the broken-down, violent landscape through which they travel.

The Leavers, Lisa Ko

Lisa Ko’s debut novel won the PEN Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction instituted by the novelist Barbara Kingsolver and awarded bi-annually. Kingsolver described The Leavers as, “courageous, sensitive, and perfectly of this moment”.

The Leavers is told from two viewpoints: those of Deming, who becomes Daniel Wilkinson on adoption, and his mother Polly, an undocumented migrant from China, who, despite that label, eludes pat descriptions. Polly works in a nail salon while 11-year old Deming is a bit of a rebel in school, resulting in frequent detentions. Still, mother and son share a special kind of closeness, the oddness of their conversation during a walk home from his school giving an indication of this:

“He would have her to himself, an ambling walk in the park or along the river, making up stories about who lived in the apartments they saw from the outside- –a family named Smith, five kids, father dead, mother addicted to bagels, he speculated the day they went to the Upper East Side. To bagels, she asked, which flavour bagels? Everything bagels, which made her laugh harder. A joke about New York, a city for everyone and yet a joke shared by only two of them.”

When Polly disappears, unexpectedly and with no warning, Deming is left numb. There are the small ways he remembers her: the bottle of hand lotion to take away the acrid nail salon generated scents, a lone sock, her toothbrush. These make up the memories he is left with as he is moved to foster care with a well-intentioned but lost White professorial couple, the Wilkinsons.

Polly’s narration, which alternates with Deming’s, in The Leavers tells of her initial escape from her old life in Fuzhou, China, to the US, where she wants to live despite the insecurities of being an immigrant without valid papers. The Leavers is a story of the memories and choices the immigrant must make, the fears and dilemmas that she (especially when undocumented) is confronted with – an aspect that has more resonance in the Trump era restrictions on immigration of a certain kind. But it is also a universal story of a son missing a parent, and a woman who cares about her son and is yet restless and ambitious in her own way.

Pachinko, Min Jin Lee

Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (the term comes from slot machine games popular in Japan) follows her first very well-received novel, Free Food for Millionaires, a decade later. Her first novel tells of the travails of a Korean-American family: parents who struggle to send their two daughters to the best schools and then on to college. However, Casey Han, the older daughter, has a change of heart when she decides not to study law but to follow her own dreams instead.

In Pachinko, Lee takes up the story of Koreans in Japan. Junot Diaz has called the book a “luminous” work, showing up “what immigrants sacrifice to seek a home in the world”. It is a multi-generational saga that moves in the early 20th century from a poor fishing village near Busan (now in South Korea) to the small Korean enclave in Osaka, Japan.

The novel begins when a young girl left pregnant by a charming gangster marries a pastor and moves to join his family in Osaka. Japan and Korea have had historically fraught relations but Min Jin Lee chooses to tell this conflict via a story that focuses on the details of everyday life. In the agony of decisions that must be taken, the shame and humiliation that Koreans in Japan were once subject to, the novel brings up bigger questions of home, identity, and the need to balance tradition with new ways of thinking and being.

Her Body and Other Parties: Stories, Carmen Maria Machado

The work of Carmen Maria Machado has been described as “fabulistic” and “weird”. One of the aims of her writing is to subvert, to show up the underlying violence in many well-loved fairy tales. In interviews, Machado has revealed her admiration of writers like Angela Carter, Kelly Link and Helen Oyeyemi.

In Machado’s writing, the body is a strange thing, exhibiting its own resistance – the marks on it, even ornamentations, indicating not merely acceptance and the scars of time, but also holding unexpected secrets. And her stories can hold several different truths.

In the story The Husband Stitch, which appeared first in Granta, a dutiful, accepting wife, has just one condition she has set her husband. His disregard of that condition, in the story’s final moments, has uncanny consequences. As Machado writes, “Brides never fare well in stories. Stories can sense happiness and snuff it out like a candle.” The title draws from the horrifying post-birth constructive surgery that women are subjected to in order to please their husbands.

The novella Weird Fiction draws on seasons of the police crime drama, Law and Order, with the lead detectives, Benson and Stadler, haunted and followed by their own doppelgangers, Abler and Henson (twists on the original names) and the appearance of ghosts and the undead – among them young women who have been raped and killed and whose murders remain unresolved. A version of this appeared before in The American Reader, where it was hailed for being “funny”, “inventive”, and vividly experimental.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

When Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones won the National Book Award in 2011, it stunned many people. It was a surprise, welcome in many ways, but then several prestigious publications had not even reviewed the book. The book was set in Ward’s hometown, Delisle in Mississippi, and followed a family in the time of the Hurricane Katrina (2005) disaster.

In 2013, Ward wrote a memoir, Men We Reaped, about her brother and four other young black men (like her brother) whose lives had been tragically cut short; a book that tells how such lives are “pinioned beneath history, poverty and racism”.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, her newest novel, which could win Ward a second NBA award, is both a road novel and a story of lost histories, about those whom the past has rendered voiceless. It begins with a simple, declaratory statement from 13-year-old Jojo: “I like to think I know what death is.” These are words that also reveal his terrible vulnerability. Jojo, born of an interracial relationship, accompanies his mother, Leonie, who nurses a cocaine addiction, to prison where Michael, Jojo’s father, is soon to be released.

But the journey soon has another traveller – the ghostly Richie who becomes the novel’s other narrator. He is a young boy whom Jojo’s grandfather, Pop, had once known during his own time, in the 1940s, at the dreaded Parchman Penitentiary, a “prison farm” in the Mississippi Delta that had seen black people incarcerated for long terms, sometimes on the flimsiest of charges. Richie was one of its many tragic young victims. Resurrecting lost, forgotten voices is one of the themes of Sing Unburied Sing, as are issues of poverty and racism. As critics have noted, of late there have been many ghosts in novels, for instance, in Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad; a reflection that in history, there remain questions, persistent and unanswered.