Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

June 26, 2013 § 5 Comments

If I had a pound for every time someone in North America told me that there was no such thing as class, I’d be able to buy myself a cottage on a lake. (Or perhaps just the bottle of Dom Pérignon I’d need to celebrate the purchase of this cottage.) It’s a deeply mysterious thing, this denial, especially when literary novels and many films are made up of the noticing and capturing of the tiny little details that make us part of our different (and multiple) tribes, which very often overlap with micro-classes.

So I love coming across novels that are all about class in America, whether observing a single class, watching the conflicts that arise in relationships where the two parties are (no longer) in the same class, or seeing different authors deal with the Great Divide (and indeed the myth of the Myth of the Great Divide). This particular novel is also about race, and class within race, class across race and, finally, the bizarre notion of race itself.

Americanah

A lot of novels I’ve read lately have been structured in what might seem an uneven way, with a framing scene that takes up perhaps half of the novel or more (in Americanah it’s Ifemelu, the main character, going to a hair salon to have her hair braided before she goes back to Nigeria) that encompasses a great deal of back story of both recent and distant past, followed by a move, once enough information has been given, into the present and future of the story with only an occasional look back. This literary fiction genre is a tricky one. Other genres place less emphasis on knowing why people act as they do, on understanding their motivation and what made them who they are today. Some novels do pretty much everything as back story within a framing device (for example Ghana Must Go), and others move mostly forward through a person’s life, as Meg Wolitzer does in The Interestings. Americanah stays at the hair salon (and it is genuinely a very long appointment) until we know enough about Ifemelu to travel back to Nigeria with her, armed with enough knowledge to not to go haring off in the wrong direction.

Ifemelu grows up in Nigeria, middle class but, as a scholarship girl, not as wealthy as her friends. She meets Obinze towards the end of her time at school, and they became a serious couple. After strikes shut down the Nigerian universities, lots of their friends try to leave to finish their studies elsewhere, and Ifemelu eventually gets a visa to study in Philadelphia just as the strike has ended. America is an eye-opening experience for Ifemelu in so many ways, not least because of the poverty she finds herself in once arrived. After a few years she gets a fellowship at Princeton and starts a blog called Raceteenth, on which she posts observations about race, from the point of view of a non-American black. The blog is a great way for Adichie to make some of her more pointed remarks, and the way she combines Ifemelu’s scathing commentary on hypocrisy and intolerance in both America and Nigeria with the broader novel’s sharp yet uncondescending critique of society is very successful.

Ifemelu’s reasons for returning to Nigeria are murky, even to her. She is leaving behind her long-term boyfriend, Blaine, and possibly thinking a little too much about Obinze, now married with a child, and much romanticised by distance. She is leaving an academic career and her blog for an uncertain future. Ultimately, she is leaving somewhere that has never quite felt like home for somewhere that she thinks will, despite its many and obvious flaws, at least be home—only to find that both she and Nigeria have changed. Ifemelu’s return provokes as much soul-searching as her departure as she starts over.

Americanah is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Review copy.

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

The Family Took Shape by Shashi Bhat

June 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Family Took Shape is Shashi Bhat’s debut novel. Bhat was shortlisted for the 2012 Journey Prize with her story “Why I Read Beowulf,” a funny–almost stand-up comedy–story about teenagers. The novel also focuses on children and teenagers, but with a very different tone–gentler, definitely, but still with flashes of comic relief. The two pieces share an interest in investigating human interactions and motivation.

When The Family Took Shape opens, Mira and her brother Ravi, six and eight, live with their mother; their father has recently died. Bhat takes us through Mira’s life from her early days of being bullied by a school friend right through to adulthood and a significant trip (her first) that she takes to India. It sounds like a fairly typical Bildungsroman, and, in the sense that we follow Mira as she goes through school, navigates the shark-infested waters of female friendship, discovers boys and thinks about her own wedding, it is.

What makes this different from the usual growing up tale is Mira’s particular situation, that of growing up with an autistic brother.  I don’t doubt that anyone who has lived with an autistic child would tell you they have learnt a huge amount from that experience; it’s the framing of the child as little more than one long continuous Chicken Soup teachable moment that frustrates me. Thankfully Bhat has taken the trouble to think about Ravi himself—a boy who struggles at school, a boy everyone wants to solve, a boy who is occasionally betrayed by those closest to him (at a wedding a teenaged Mira pretends she isn’t related to him), a boy who has talents and passions and flaws and problems just like everybody else. The Family Took Shape spends a lot of time examining what it’s like to be the sibling of an autistic child, and it feels honest in its embarrassment, protectiveness and teenage sulkiness. Mira has to find a way to feel comfortable in her own skin before she can truly support her brother.

Mira was born in Canada, although her mother did not move to Canada until she was an adult. The novel’s (and Mira’s) acceptance of both Indian and Canadian culture, with the two able to co-exist side by side, has a very Canadian feel to it, both as an actual, lived illustration of the mosaic rather than the melting pot, but also as a culture-wide commitment to it. For Mira personally, the two cultures rarely conflict and she travels easily between them—or perhaps through both simultaneously.  She does, however, notice that others do not share her ease, whether it’s her mother’s unfamiliarity with the nuances of Canadian life or the subtle racism she experiences at school. The wedding preparations explicitly demonstrate conflict between the two cultures, and this section works really well to show Mira as a person influenced in some areas of her life by her Canadian surroundings and education, and in others by her Indian heritage and familial values.

Because Mira is a child and a teenager for a large part of the novel, she doesn’t always consider other people’s thoughts and feelings except insofar as they relate to her. I do wish a little space had been made, somehow, for her to reflect at greater length on her mother’s situation. The intriguing ending might partially answer this question, but I would have liked to see more of Mira’s thoughts on it, particularly as they might have changed over the years. The Family Took Shape is a quiet, tender novel that finds new ways to look at potentially fraught topics like the immigrant experience and autism.

Review copy.

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

June 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

After I’d read just a few pages of The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud’s 2006 novel, I remember thinking “Surely this is what James Wood really means when he talks about hysterical fiction.” I liked it very much, but it was like double chocolate chocolate mousse cake: delightful in small doses, but overpowering taken all at once (and yet, like a rich dessert, there was no other way to consume it). All that wit, all those brilliant one-liners and distressingly accurate observations. The flamboyant descriptions of people and places and the terrible truths about being young/educated/human. The hysterically funny (ok, maybe mildly amusing) part is that I didn’t actually know at the time that James Wood and Claire Messud were a couple.

Messud’s new novel is more measured, more circumspect in its prose (if not in the sentiments expressed by it) than The Emperor’s Children, and, despite my admiration of the earlier novel, this is largely a good thing. There’s not much like that sensation of opening a new book, reading a page or two, and letting out that subconsciously held breath as you think “Here, this—I’ve found something right.” Perhaps, like climbing into a bed made with clean sheets, crisp from the line and smelling of wind and sun instead of fabric softener, good writing like this feels somehow like home, like authenticity. The Woman Upstairs is a great achievement.

The plot has been summarised everywhere. Nora is thirty-seven when the novel opens, an elementary school teacher instead of the artist she always thought she would—should—be. Her life has not gone how she planned, for a variety of reasons: circumstantial (she had to take care of her ill mother) and structural (she has not quite realised—and can we blame her?—that the promise of specialness is no guarantee that society will rally round and make damn sure she fulfils her early potential). When Reza, a beautiful young pupil whose father is spending a year on a visiting fellowship at Harvard, arrives in her classroom, Nora falls in love. When Reza is bullied, this gives her the chance to meet—and crowbar her way into the lives of—his parents. Nora frequently analyses the social boundaries she (or Reza’s parents, Sirena and Skandar) are breaking; of course, Sirena knows that she will be returning to Paris at the end of the year, so for her the rules are already different.

Nora becomes part of their lives, babysitting Reza, renting a studio and working with Sirena, and finding herself mentally and romantically stimulated by Skandar. So if Reza represents potential, Sirena—a real artist who is actually preparing for a show—represents Nora’s foreclosed creative ambition, and Skandar stands for the life of the mind that has slowly shut itself down as well as representing her ideal man. She is in love with the whole family, as she admits, but more than that she wants to actually be them, to have their exciting, artistic, international lives instead of her own small, disappointing one. She is in love with how their very presence, their mere existence seems to have opened up paths through her life that she thought were closed off forever, and she is exhilarated.

The Woman Upstairs

In some ways The Woman Upstairs covers a lot of the same ground as The Interestings, except perhaps with Nora displaying less realisation than Jules in that novel that she might not have really had what it takes in the first place. This seems to be obvious when we compare Nora’s art project to Sirena’s: Nora’s is a reconstruction of famous writers’ bedrooms in miniature. It’s small and derivative. Sirena’s, on the other hand, is big, aggressive, bold—much more acceptably confident and masculine.

The honeymoon doesn’t last, of course. Nora has been so caught up in her own thoughts, even though it looks to the reader as though she is utterly obsessed by the Shahids, that she has barely even registered that Sirena and her family will be leaving. Will Nora be able to sustain this image of herself once her life has returned to normal?

A lot of reviews have wondered whether Nora is a victim of circumstances, or whether she has created her own fate. The answer seems to divide along gender lines. But isn’t in only for fictional characters that we invent this kind of dichotomy to “explain” a person’s life? At no point did Nora strike me as a victim or someone to be pitied, nor do I believe she is exactly creating her own fate. Instead she is simply living her life without intention (despite believing the opposite) and struggling with the direction this takes her in. Surely there are many people living in this “would-be” limbo, the situation made suddenly urgent by mid-life crisis. Good intentions pave the road to hellish disappointment and all that. The Woman Upstairs shows human nature in its full messiness and inconsistency, people failing to live each day as they want to live their lives, sustaining themselves through the hard parts with the poor-me tales and dreaming of finally appearing to the world as the person they know themselves to be, even as this dream knocks up against reality and becomes increasingly unlikely. What could be more like life?

Review copy.

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

Good Kids by Benjamin Nugent

June 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

Josh Paquette is fifteen when we meet him and Khadijah, who are flung together when they discover Josh’s father and Khadijah’s mother having an affair. The teenagers’ relationship is emotional but tentative, and is ripped apart, pre-internet, when Khadijah’s mother separates from her husband and moves away. Before the move, the two sign a contract that they will never cheat on their partners. Thirteen years later, Josh has spent time (and money) in a band, trying to make it as a musician. Cash starts to come in when one of the band’s songs is used on a Pepsi advert, but by then most of them are done with the tiring insecurity of the work and have drifted away. Josh meets Julie, who presents an animal programme on TV, and despite her conservative background they get together. The discussions between them are handled well, and it’s an interesting commentary too on how, between people of a similar (entitled, educated) class, political differences are not as divisive as we’d like to think. If everyone is happy to take whatever they can get, does it matter whether their views are progressive (“everyone should be able to have this, whether or not they are born into privilege”) or politically selfish (“not everyone can have this, but they have a chance if they work as hard as I do”)? Josh and Julie seem like a solid couple, despite Josh’s occasional hankerings for Khadijah, until Khadijah comes back into Josh’s life.

book cover of<br />
Good Kids<br />

There’s a nice scene in Good Kids where the families of Josh (from a small, liberal, west coast college town, inevitably Democratic) and Julie (both parents immigrants, now wealthy, reactively Republican) meet at a restaurant. It’s hard to imagine this kind of thing happening in public in quite the way it does in the novel, with each side a little more willing to be both vulnerable (actually discussing dangerous topics) and polite (not instinctively trying to come out on top) than seems entirely realistic, at least in my experience, but sometimes that’s part of the fun of fiction—enjoying the wit and sparkle of a debate that could never happen. At the restaurant, Josh’s sister Rachel talks about her work with homeless people in Massachusetts. The two families meet up later at a party to celebrate the third season of Julie’s show. After the party Julie goes back to the hotel with Josh, Rachel and their mother. Nugent sets up this comic set piece with the sister and the girlfriend getting along famously, finding things they can agree on, really trying and succeeding, until Josh’s mother turns on the television to check the weather and catches an interview Julie gave at the party, during which she mocks Rachel’s work by saying if the show is cancelled she’s going to move to Massachusetts to become homeless, since she’d just heard there’s a scheme there that has shut down homeless shelters and instead instigated a scheme to pay the rent of anyone who can’t afford it.

Julie, of course, was simply using the material to hand as comedy material (while knowing she was trading on goodwill), but it totally wrecks the cosy moment. The whole day of the families getting together is probably the high point of Nugent’s novel. He makes you think he’s about to demonstrate an enviable knack of skewering people, whether Republicans like his future in-laws or organic yuppies, but pulls his punches at the last minute to do something altogether more unpredictable and interesting, which is find the good in people in a non-saccharine way. When the two mothers meet, for example, he has been predicting, explicitly and implicitly, while directing us also to expect, hostility and antagonism. But instead we get this unexpected gentle perceptiveness:

It was time to face the Oenervians like a man. I swallowed and called Julie’s name. My mother’s face took on the same amusement and triumph it’d taken on when Khadijah had called in 1994. When I introduced her to Vanda and Samson, she and Vanda exchanged smiles that were mildly incredulous, as if they were saying “We actually birthed these people.” I could feel myself floating to earth; there were stores of humility and selflessness in our mothers’ faces, a variety of feeling I had forgotten about.

Good Kids seems to have been barely reviewed. I’m not sure why this should be the case. Sure, it covers fairly familiar territory, but plenty of less skilful novels working the same ground have made a bigger splash. It’s a long time since I’ve read Nick Hornby, but Good Kids could be a more nuanced version of Hornby’s books, with less reliance on name dropping, shared references and stereotypes. One of the blurbs on the back describes it as “catchy, like a hit song,” which seems just about right.

Review copy.

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

Four books, four countries

June 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’ve been so busy recently that it’s no longer the to-be-read pile staring balefully at me from the shelves, but also the to-be-reviewed pile. Shoving the read books in a cupboard solved the problem only temporarily, so I promised myself I’d post an omnibus edition of mini-reviews before I started the next big novel.

Viviane Elisabeth Fauville, by Julia Deck, was published last year in France and is currently being translated for an American publisher. It’s the kind of book that will do well in English-speaking markets—it’s a dark novel that combines the terrifying insanity of new motherhood with an intriguing crime mystery; the sort of intellectual European export, like The Killing or The Dinner, that we seem to eat up. The novel opens with the protagonist, Viviane, waking up the day after a visit to her psychiatrist—a man whose dead body is discovered in his office shortly afterwards. Viviane Elisabeth Fauville is an interesting exploration of mental health and human relationships, as the stories Viviane tells herself and the police are proved false over and over again. Viviane convinces the police of her alibi to begin with, but she can’t keep away from the crime scene or the other suspects, and her lies start to catch up with her. An intriguing novel.

Simon Okotie’s Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? is like no book I have ever read before. We all know people who talk in exhaustive detail about the minutiae of their lives; we have ways of distracting them or cutting them off. But there’s no distracting the private detective and former colleague of the titular Harold Absalon. Everything is analysed at extreme length. This takes some getting used to, but then starts to become poetic. It’s like Proust going through a teenage existential crisis, stating the obvious, but then interrogating the literal meaning of every single word and phrase until it loses all meaning. The narrator is supposed to be tracking down Harold Absalon, his former colleague and transport advisor to the mayor, but appears rather to be trailing Harold’s wife, the beautiful Isobel. Harold never does turn up, but through the seemingly random footnotes we start to work out why this might be the case. Several weeks after finishing the book, I can actually no longer recall the precise details of how it all works out, but the tortuous (and sometimes torturous) meanderings of the narrator’s brain are fixed in my mind. It’s experimental in the sense of literally trying to apply a theory to practice: how far can you go—how far do you have to go—before you can be truly sure that the words you say are genuinely communicating the message you want them to?

The lead title from House of Anansi this season is Saleema Nawaz’s Bone & Bread. This novel takes Beena and Sadhana, sisters from a short story in Nawaz’s collection Mother Superior, and makes them the subject of her debut novel. The novel is far from happy and upbeat all the time—the sisters lose first their father, then their beloved mother, and Sadhana suffers from anorexia from her teens until her premature death—but something about it feels fresh and spring-like. The writing is alive, lyrical without being cluttered. For a first novel it’s very well done: it’s well structured and fully rounded out, and it neither skips over the tricky bits or skimps on essentials such as character or plot.

A recent One Story offering was an extract from Amity Gaige’s new novel, Schroder. The extract was pretty much perfect in terms of pacing, structure and depth, and it stood on its own as a short story. In the novel, which charts the marriage and separation of Eric Kennedy (the protagonist) and Laura, his ex-wife and the mother of his daughter, Meadow, Eric is driven close to despair by the thought of losing his child. The two of them disappear for several days, but are ultimately forced to return, and Eric has to face the very serious consequences of abducting his own daughter. While they are on the road Gaige ruminates on the meaning of loss, the grief of the non-cohabiting parent after a separation, and how to have a relationship. Gaige also introduces a secondary plot–the fact that Eric has been concealing his identity for many years. He thought his past was over, but it’s about to catch up with him. Unfortunately for me, the One Story extract was so good (and so successfully encapsulated a much larger story) that the novel itself was a little disappointing, feeling sometimes like a longer version—diluted, even though it contained a great deal of new information—of things I already knew. It’s quite an achievement to make a novel extract work well as a shorter piece (as some of the less successful extracts in the Granta Best of Young British Novelists make clear), but it’s made it surprisingly difficult to comment on how well Schroder works as a novel.

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

June 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Granta Best of Young British Novelists list was announced in April. There was a lot of hype around it, as well as some predictable ennui from certain quarters, with comments like “Their record of spotting good writers is poor. Why is everyone so excited about this?” I had to check after that. Of the three previous lists, 1983, 1993, 2003, I counted twelve (out of sixty) authors that I hadn’t heard of, with even some of those unknowns seeming vaguely familiar even if I couldn’t name a book by them. Is eighty per cent really a poor record?

Anyway, I’d previously read several of the authors on the Granta list, but not Taiye Selasi. Her novel, Ghana Must Go, has been quite heavily promoted, with “heavily” being a relative term that can stretch from Fifty Shades-esque marketing to simply not being ignored at the more literary end of things. Nonetheless, it was being mentioned in all the usual places, although despite this I could have told you nothing about the story. As it turns out, that’s because plot is not a key component of Ghana Must Go. The novel opens with the death of Kweku, absent husband, absent father, former surgeon, and ends right after his funeral (which we do not actually see take place, a subject I will come back to later).

Between these two bookends we see various the viewpoints of the four children, Olu, Taiwo, Kehinde and Sadie, and from that of the ex-wife, Fola, in particular the different reaction when each family member learns of Kweku’s death and their journey to Ghana for the funeral. Along with this, we also get hefty chunks of backstory: Kweku’s own life, from poor village boy to respected US surgeon to disappointed Ghanaian man, Fola’s trajectory, and in particular her sacrifices to Kweku’s success (finding herself pregnant with Olu in her early twenties, she abandons her place at law school, deciding that one success—Kweku’s predicted one—is all one family can hope for). The children, too, have much to report. Locked in their own worlds, their roles dictated by their place in the family—a place that is perceived differently by each person, but nonetheless forces a certain artificial conformity to what is expected—each child has significant traumas to process. Some secrets that have been buried for years come out; others remain hidden.

The events themselves, along with the characters, are interesting and presented well, but there’s something lacking. Selasi is a gifted short story writer (and her contribution to the new Granta bears this out), but for much of the time Ghana Must Go feels disjointed. The sentences are great; the overall vision and construction less satisfying. Too much—and too much that is important—is alluded to obliquely or glancingly. Some people will call this intentional style, especially in conjunction with the poetic language; to me, in this book, it feels like skipping over the tricky parts. The absence of the funeral itself—we see Fola stop, unexpectedly, to invite Kweku’s second wife, Ama, to the ceremony, at which they already have an urn full of ashes—is symptomatic of the problem: that Selasi is, like many literary authors, great at the back story, at the “what makes this character who they are today” but less confident at pulling the strings and getting characters to act on the page. (This is not so in the Granta story, in which she balances the two perfectly.) Selasi handles characters beautifully when looking back at the past, spreading them open like fans and noticing not only the tiny differences on each elaborate panel, but also how different each panel appears with changes in the light, but all this stops at the present. What this means is that there are many wonderful scenes that examine all manner of difficult subjects, but they never quite add up to more than scenes. If the book was told from the point of view of just one character, this approach would probably have worked better, but the revelations we are waiting for are not essential enough to the story.

In the end this isn’t a huge problem in this novel because other aspects are strong enough to carry it. I enjoyed Ghana Must Go (the phrase refers both to the forced Ghanaian exodus from Nigeria in 1983 and to those enormous cuboid plasticky tartan bags you see in for sale in big cities, in those shops near markets and train stations that sell everything from phone cards to suitcases), and was content to pick it up each time I did so, but once I’d finished it didn’t stay with me for long.

Review copy.

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

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