Americanah

Americanah

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“the other guests . . . all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him . . . conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”

Americanah is such an important book. Adichie has written a meaningful and beautiful story that begs its reader to partake in a larger, very timely, conversation about race, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel. This novel tells the love story between Ifemelu and Obinze – two Nigerian teenagers who attend a university in Nigera but decide to leave because of frequent strikes in the academic system. When Ifemelu arrives in America, she attends a prestigious university, waits for Obinze’s arrival, and, later, begins a popular blog that discusses race issues in America.

Through this story, we see Adichie explore race in all of its intricacies. Right from the first pages, Adichie pointedly calls attention to white American culture: the habits, behaviours and nuances that I never think about, but that are absolutely happening and are uncomfortable to read about when put so plainly. As the narrative continues, Adichie carefully portrays the distinction between being black in Africa and being black in the USA. We see Ifemelu feel “black” for the first time when she arrives in the United States.

These racial complexities are depicted through the relationships in the story as well. I liked seeing Ifemelu date a variety of men: white, privileged Curt, to whom colour is “nothing”; Blaine, a black college professor; and, of course, Obinze from her younger days in Nigeria. The differences between these relationships give a really interesting look at race through the lens of race, age and geography.

Throughout this novel, Adiche’s writing in incredibly nuanced. With skill and impressive style, Adichie highlights the subtleties between the various cultures portrayed in the novel, from Nigeria, to the USA, to England, and between. Adichie is not put off by discussing controversial issues, or those deemed controversial by white Americans who are uncomfortable discussing them. These topics are often addressed in Ifemelu’s blog posts, which are scattered throughout the chapters in the later parts of the novel. I really liked this treatment of the issues because it made the discussion seem less formal while still remaining poignant. These blog posts were very effective at prodding me to think more deeply about some of Ifemelu’s arguments.

When I got to the second half of the novel I started to feel like it was dragging a bit; like the story could have been told in 400 pages instead of almost 600. When I got closer to the end, I realized that the time (and length) that had passed made the moment Ifemelu had been waiting for seem incredibly gripping for me. I felt the tightness in her stomach in my own and I felt her relief that we had, finally, made it to this moment. It was a beautiful moment that proves that, sometimes, longer books have exactly the right number of pages. The beauty of this scene was even greater because of the way Ifemelu took in her experience honestly, reflecting on the ways even those people that are dearest to us change and evolve and have aspects that irk us no matter how much we love them.

Overall, Americanah is completely enchanting while still incredibly enlightening. The narrative’s focus on the loss of cultural identity both when Ifemelu arrives in America and when she moves back to Nigeria so many years later work as a spring board for the larger exploration in the story – what drives us to leave our homes, and what eventually leads us back?

 

Story: 9/10

Writing: 9/10

The Strays

The Strays

Emily Bitto

“It could almost have been comical, slapstick, but instead it was terrifying. Those moments when the adults we have constructed in our minds as invincible are revealed as vulnerable, afraid.”

Emily Bitto’s debut novel, The Strays, is a fascinating story of friendship, love and art through the retrospective eyes of Lily. It was the cover of this book that caught my eye, and I’m glad it did! In this novel, Lily reflects on her childhood and her fierce friendship with a classmate, Eva, whose parents are both artists. As Lily is drawn into this new and interesting world of creative chaos, she becomes closer to Eva’s family. However, the utopian artists’ world becomes more and more complicated before crumbling around the girls, leaving deep repercussions for the family and for Lily.

Thematically, this novel has a lot in common with Emma Cline’s book, The Girls – both stories depict a younger girl being swept away into a mysterious, seductive, world through an intimate friendship with other girls. Lily has had a very sheltered, uninteresting life before meeting Eva and seems very vulnerable throughout her time with Eva’s family. I found it very poignant that Lily’s whole world is at Eva’s house, with Eva’s siblings and parents, but Eva’s parents repeatedly mention that they don’t even notice whether Lily is there or not.

Emily Bitto does a great job of maintaining a sense of tension throughout this novel. Eva’s family (and the artists with whom they live) lives in a quasi-utopian world, but there is always a sense of impending doom. The odd power balances and subtle manipulations between characters add to this effect. This tension is also built by Eva’s youngest sister, Heloise. Heloise (whose name I don’t want to try to pronounce) has a bizarre, almost creepy, presence in the house. We find out early on that she is the first of the three sisters to die, but she seems so peculiar that I was always waiting to find out what happened to her, and whether that was the main reason for Lily and Eva’s fallout. I am a bit baffled by Bitto’s treatment of Heloise as a character. I thought it was very interesting and unusual that she seems to be a secondary (or even tertiary) character when compared with the others and yet a huge amount of the plot centres around her.

This novel is divided into three general sections: the first and third take place in the present day of the story while the middle section is Lily recalling her experiences as a younger girl. My least favourite section was the last of the three. In the final section of the novel I became a bit confused by the timeline. The chapters jumped around from the past to the present and I had trouble figuring out where I was in the overall narrative. This section also became exceedingly dark and brooding. It felt tired: heavy, even. I really did not like the end of this book. Generally, I like to finish the story and then reflect on the story and the characters. Here, Bitto does all of the work for me by imposing her own (or Lily’s own) thoughts about the events of the story right into the narrative. I might have liked the book better overall if the first and last sections of the novel had been cut, only leaving the middle section. If this had been the case, I would have been able to spend a bit more time contemplating the deeper complexity of the characters, relationships and plots in this story.

Overall, I really enjoyed Bitto’s depiction of young girls trying to discover themselves through their relationships with family and friends. I found the world created by the eccentric and inventive characters very absorbing. More than anything else, this story explores what it means to be an adult, a parent, a friend and an artist trying to make their way in the world. While I had some issues with the overall structure of the novel, overall I found it to be charming and well told – The Strays is worth a read!

 

Story: 7/10

Writing: 7/10

To Say Nothing of the Dog

To Say Nothing of the Dog

Connie Willis

“Plans, intentions, reasons . . . A Grand Design involving the entire course of history and all of time and space that, for some unfathomable reason, chose to work out its designs with cats and croquet mallets and penwipers, to say nothing of the dog. And a hideous piece of Victorian artwork. And us.”

Well, Connie Willis has convinced me that time travel is real.

This is the story of Ned Henry and his time-travelling colleagues, who are assigned to recover the bishop’s bird stump for a project to restore Coventry Cathedral, which was decimated during air raids in the Second World War. When one of the time travelers accidentally returns a cat from the past to her present time, the space-time continuum is jeopardized and the only way to fix it is to repair a chain of hilarious events in Victorian England.

I love the little summaries (or timelines) at the beginning of each new chapter. They outline what is about to happen in a way that no sane individual could possibly follow until after having read the chapter, at which point the descriptions become even more humorous. I think it would be a lot of fun to take one of these summaries and try to write your way through from one link to the next to see if you could find a way to make the seemingly random pieces all connect!

To Say Nothing of the Dog is an incredibly complicated plot that features several characters moving through time simultaneously. Somehow, Connie Willis has managed to make this seem completely effortless. The narrative is never confusing or cumbersome, which was a worry for me as someone who is often lost in time-travel or other science-fiction stories. As if the threads of narrative are not enough to keep Willis busy, she also seamlessly weaves in all kinds of literary allusions. Some of these are from books I have read and recognized (like P.G. Wodehouse’s Code of the Woosters, or the repeated shots that were taken at the expense of Arthur Conan Doyle’s belief in mediums), some are from books I have heard of but have not read (Three Men in a Boat) and I’m sure there were many I missed completely. What I enjoyed most about this was that the story is thoroughly enjoyable whether or not you understand these references, but Willis adds a greater layer of depth to the novel for a reader who is in on the joke.

By far, my favourite character in this story is Cyril. He is opinionated to the extent that I laughed out loud multiple times, despite him never speaking. I found Verity to be quite bland in comparison to the other characters who are colourful and have much more distinctive personalities. I really enjoyed the not-so-subtle parody of the Victorian era through Mrs. Mering and through Clarence’s comments and thoughts about women throughout the story.

In To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis takes a funny but heavy view of how little it takes to change the entire course of history – whether it is bad weather, a sniffly nose or simple miscommunications that have started or ended wars, or cats who survive unlikely circumstances again and again to cause endless troubles for the characters in this story. At this point, all I can say is that if you haven’t read Connie Willis, it is time.

Story: 10/10

Writing: 10/10

Stoner

Stoner

John Williams

“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”

John Williams’ novel Stoner is a quiet tour de force. This novel tells the story of William Stoner, who is born into a poor rural family in the late 1800s, Missouri. When he is sent to study agriculture at the University of Missouri, an elective course instills in him a love of literature that changes the course of his life.

Overall, this book feels somber and unassuming. The story itself is not particularly interesting, but I was captivated from start to finish. We see Stoner grow up, attend university and decide to leave his rural family to go on to teach at the university. We also get a glimpse into his personal life with his wife Edith and daughter, Grace. Williams’ writing is plain but rhythmic and the story seems to breathe.

The characters in this story are intricate, precise and deliberate. Stoner is a true academic who faces personal crises, family crises, academic crises and social crises in a genuine and unpretentious manner. His wife, Edith, seems at first a frail, brittle woman but we come to see a vindictive, mean woman who manipulates her husband and daughter throughout their lives. Grace, Stoner’s daughter, shows signs of both parents. Her relationship with Stoner is serious while still incredibly tender.

Academic politics take the forefront in much of this novel. The characters explore the purpose of academia and the ways in which different people try to maintain the integrity of this elite world. When one of Stoner’s colleagues is oblivious to the obvious inability of one student to perform in this environment, Stoner comes face to face with his responsibility to maintain this integrity, no matter what the cost.

The end sequence of this novel is incredibly beautiful. The depiction Williams gives us of the last days of Stoner’s life are like nothing I have ever read. Haunting and deeply moving, these pages are sure to stay with me for a long, long time.

After a life full of disappointments that the reader feels coming but (like Stoner) can do nothing to prevent, literature seems to be the only world that has not betrayed Stoner. This quaint and beautiful novel reminded me of how it feels to be curious, to discover new literature, new voices and new interests and to lose myself in a good book.

 

Story: 8/10

Writing: 10/10