by Walter Tevis
Recommended by Michael Dirda (Browsings), who in turn got it from Thomas M. Disch. Walter Tevis wrote The Hustler, and The Man Who Fell To Earth, and The Color Of Money. This is a nifty book, too.
I’d never heard of Tevis.
Beth Harmon is an orphan, tossed into a ghastly orphanage where they feed the children narcotics to keep them docile. On the sly, she learns to play chess from the taciturn janitor. She turns out to be very good at chess, though she’s not particularly good at resisting narcotics and alcohol. Tevis does a wonderful job of sketching the characters of Harmon’s opponents – people who, in the nature of things, the book must rapidly leave behind – through their varied reactions to being defeated, unthinkably, by a young woman. That the author of The Hustler would be good at depicting losers is unsurprising, I suppose, but he’s really good.