Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Standard
Thank to Little, Brown for a review copy.

Thank to Little, Brown for a review copy.

Hannah Kent’s début historical novel is set on the frigid farms of early 19th century Iceland. The courts have convicted Agnes Magnusdottir of murder. To save money, local authorities send her to a minor official’s farm. She works there with the family and awaits execution while a young priest attempts to guide her on the Lord’s path.

Her presence creates a scandal in the cold northern valley. Neighbours flock to the farm. Some are afraid while others are curious. Some hate Agnes while others, like Steina, the farm owner’s daughter, seek to befriend her. Still others, like Margret, the mistress of the house, slowly change their opinion of her in the months leading to her execution.

The priest, a nervous wreck named Toti, finds quoting psalms and lecturing on religion ineffective. It’s clear from the start Agnes isn’t interested in spiritual advice. More importantly, she doesn’t feel she’s done wrong. So instead of sermonizing, Toti lets her tell her story. In this way, the narrative of her life as an abandoned illegitimate child as an itinerant servant is interwoven with her life as a prisoner waiting execution.

Iceland’s last case of capital punishment inspires the novel. Agnes Magnusdottir was a real person, as were her victims, Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson. Ketilsson’s brother beheaded her on behalf of the state in 1830, and curious souls can still visit her grave. Kent, an Australian, has lived in Iceland, and she researched her narrative extensively. Yet the heart of the story — how Agnes felt in her last days — is speculative.

Kent’s writing is easy and evocative. She brings 19th century Iceland — with its houses of dusty sod, its frozen fields, and its rocky shores lined with seals — vividly to life. The social context is also fascinating. Denmark rules over the island, and most farmers rent land from absentee owners. Leaseholders hire farmhands and servants to supplement family labour, giving rise to distinct hierarchies — not to mention seasonal romances and conflicts.

The interesting topic, unusual setting, and pleasant writing make this a very enjoyable novel. Ultimately, however, the story fails to build effectively, and Kent’s skill with prose is not strong enough to make up for the narrative’s shortcomings. Enjoyment felt in reading the books first half slowly gives way to worry, and then boredom, as the climax one awaits never appears.

Burial Rites suffers from the ‘premise problem’ — a frequent malady of début writers. It goes like this. You think of a great premise for a book — ‘The last woman executed in Iceland awaits her death at cold northern farm’ — and then, with little further development, you begin to write.

A premise is not a story. It doesn’t involve narrating change, but describing a situation. And that’s what Burial Rites reads like. A long description.

Agnes changes little throughout the novel. In the ‘Author’s Note,’ Kent states she aimed to paint a complex picture of her. She does this effectively, portraying her as much more than a murderess.

But she does nothing else with her. Agnes simply waits at the farm for her death, and then she dies. She is a helpless protagonist reduced to watching other people act and not acting herself.

Hers is a tragic story worth telling. Yet it doesn’t have the momentum to bear 300 pages of text. Combined with a few bumps in the writing — ‘quickly’ and ‘immediately’ shouldn’t appear on the same line; ‘approach’ shouldn’t be used twice in one sentence – and the book is disappointing.

Of course, this critique is set against the massive marketing machine that has promoted Burial Rites to the far corners of the earth. Go into your local bookstore and you’ll probably see it on the front table. It’s not that the book is bad, just that it doesn’t live up to the hype.

Despite its flaws, Burial Rites remains a solid début from a promising new voice. The narrative could use more drive, and its lead characters more development. Nonetheless, it offers a beautiful portrait of a little-known time and place, and a touching profile of a condemned woman who is more victim than perpetrator.

The Method of Writing: Plan, plan, plan, or “back the fuck off”?

Standard
Image

The literary dawn on the lake of the mind. (Murte Lake, Wells Gray Provincial Park, BC.)

In October The Atlantic ran an awesome interview with Andre Dubus III.

I love Andre Dubus III. He’s got a cool name. He writes cool books (Dirty Love just came out this fall). He swears profusely, even in print, even in a 156-year-old magazine, because, well, he’s that fucking passionate about writing.

And in this interview he suggests all you plotters and planners and outliners really need to just back the fuck off. He’s talking to you, Ms. Writer with your note cards and your plot points and your summaries. These are his words. Back. The. Fuck. Off.

That outline you just did? That idea you had for the climax of your novel, for the clever resolution of the short story you’re going to email to some hip litmag? Throw it the fuck out and sit the fuck down. Then write, and see what comes.

You’re a blind woman, or man, or marsupial. Whatever. You’re feeling your way through a tunnel, and the point is you don’t know where you’re going. All you know is what your senses tell you about what’s right in front of you.

That, Dubus says, is all you need. Take note of whatever is mentally in front of you. You’re the ethnographer of your imagination. You’re wearing twill khaki shorts and the mosquitoes are bleeding you dry, and you’re just scribbling notes about whatever you observe in your immediate dream-surroundings.

You’re not composing a novel or devising a short story. You’re not even a writer. You’re just taking field notes from your subconscious.

So your job is to shut the fuck up. Just be quiet and wait for your subconscious to float an image. Your conscious mind is a security guard/stenographer. It waits for something to happen, then it takes note.

This is what Dubus says. He probably knows what he’s talking about, if The House of Sand and Fog or any of his five other well-regarded books are something to go by.

On this, he echoes the sentiments of other bestselling — though less “literary” — writers like Stephen King, who in his memoir On Writing also said he doesn’t plan. He just sits down and feels it out.

The downside of this approach is you end up having to chuck out prose by the boatload. But Dubus is simply too bad-ass to shed tears over spilt ink.

“I don’t care if I spent a year writing pages 1 through 96. If I feel some real energy on page 93, and I think that should be page 1? Those first 92 pages are fucking gone.”

Thrown in the fucking wastebasket. Ruthlessly recycled. He doesn’t care. He’s Andre Dubus IIIOne day he may wipe his ass with those 92 pages. It just depends if he buys environmentally friendly toilet paper or not.

All you planners out there, stop sucking your teeth while you contemplate the horrifying inefficiency of this approach. There are plenty of upsides we have yet to consider. Allow me to hold forth on them forthwith.

Well right off the bat, you save all the time of plotting and sketching. Plotting days become writing days.

So although you may have to throw more stuff out, you have way more stuff. You are word-rich. You no longer have any excuse not to write every day. You can’t say, “Well, I would write today, but I have to hammer out the twists in my story first.” If Dubus heard you say this he would politely tell you:  stop making excuses, sit the fuck down, and write.

It’s very passionate advice. The main question, though, is about quality. Because better quality is a potential upside here, though obviously not all high-quality writers approach their work this way.

Yet Dubus suggests  if you don’t write like this, your book or story or epic poem is going to sound contrived. It’ll come off as gimmicky, inorganic. You’ve got to let it develop naturally or it won’t have an authentic ring. The soul of art is born of uncertainty, he would claim.

It’s hard to settle this. We need some scientists in white coats to see which writers work like Dubus and King, and which ones plan out their writing in advance. Then they can get a bunch of participants to rate the work each group produces. Barring that, it’s just an assertion made in really fucking strong language.

I’ve tried both approaches, and I don’t know which is better. Planning in advance provides a lot of comfort as you move through the writing process. But maybe comfort isn’t really what you want as a writer. I must admit it does raise questions in the back of my mind about sounding contrived.

Proceeding with no plan, however, often seems to produce work that doesn’t go anywhere. Work I couldn’t imagine people want to read because it doesn’t present itself as a clear story. But I do find this work tends to be raw and engaging. Maybe I’ve just never given this freewheeling process enough time.

The point Dubus seems to make is that even your output is a colossal mess, eventually you’ll be able to tie pieces of it together into a coherent structure. The trick is to keep going, to write continuously so that you have enough raw material. So that you don’t care if you have to scrap pages 1-92.

I’d say that’s a tall order. But it’s also a brave way to work. And if Dubus’s books are anything to go by, it’s something worth going after.

Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Standard
Thanks to Knopf for a review copy of Americanah.

Thanks to Knopf for a review copy of Americanah.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Americanah is an ambitious novel about race, love, and belonging. It’s a rich work that sheds light on being black in America and being middle-class in Nigeria.

Americanah follows lfemelu, a Nigerian girl who moves to the US for college. Adichie’s own biography inspires the plot. Like Ifemelu, Adichie relocated to Philadelphia for university in her late teens. Like Ifemelu, she went on to hold a fellowship at Princeton. And like Ifemelu, she eventually moved back to Nigeria (though Adichie still spends part of her time in the US). The way the novel reads reflects this closeness to Adichie’s own life. It comes across like her collected observations on cultural issues — most of which pertain to how being black alters your experience of being American.

Although Ifemelu has dreamed of living abroad, a host of social, economic, and cultural problems conspire to make America never feel like home. The trauma she suffers in her adopted city of Philadelphia also estranges her from Obinze, her high school beau, whom she’d planned to marry.

While Ifemelu’s early years overseas are replete with the pains and dilemmas of poverty, her fortunes reverse when she lands a babysitting job for two wealthy kids. This leads her to a relationship with Curt, who is part of the East Coast old money scene. Borrowed privilege abruptly replaces financial troubles for Ifemelu. Curt helps her land a cushy job, showers her with the fruits of his fortune, and inserts her, however tenuously, into an élite social circle.

Yet this newfound socioeconomic bliss has a dark side, and it turns out it’s her. Or, more precisely, her skin. Race mediates Ifemelu’s relationship with Curt, with her employer, indeed with everyone in America.

This is one of the “American tribalisms” Adichie aptly describes in the novel. The term works well, and it’s also nice to see her fight fire with fire when it comes to belittling descriptors often used against Africa.

Race hijacks the novel just as it hijacks Ifemelu’s life. In Nigeria she never really thought of herself as black. But in America she can’t escape it. Even small things — like whether she wears a weave or an afro — are laden with judgement. They affect everything from job prospects to restaurant service.

Unfortunately, even the white folks who abhor racism dare not speak of the issue. It’s a taboo that eventually breaks up her relationship with Curt. He’s a minimizer who tries to interpret the racism Ifemelu faces as a series of innocent misunderstandings. While he thinks he’s smoothing her world’s rough edges, this alienates and disempowers her. She’s silenced by his rationalizations. Or if she rejects them, she appears unreasonably angry.

Either way, there’s no room for her experience of being black in America. And this experience stands Pan-Africanism on its head (at least in its racial forms). Black people of the world are not united, the novel seems to suggest. Instead, being black is a uniquely American experience worlds away from being African, which, at least in Adichie’s Nigeria, is mostly nonracial: to be Nigerian is to ignore the racial othering African Americans face on a daily basis.

Consequently, despite great career opportunities in the States — she is at turns a successful race blogger, an invited diversity speaker, and a Princeton fellow — Ifemelu ultimately quits America and head back to Lagos. She even gives up her long-term relationship with Blaine, the African American Yale professor she found after Curt.

There she starts a new blog about the Nigerian well-to-do’s foibles. Much as her US blog explored American cultural fault lines from the perspective of an outsider (an “American African” not an African American), her new one draws attention to sensitive issues locals want to sweep under the rug: rampant materialism, pretentious charity, the state’s rough treatment of the poor. And she also falls back in love with Obinze.

This is where the novel turns sentimental. It’s also where the structure shows weakness. Ifemelu and Obinze have not seen each other in well over a decade. They have not spoken in years. Obinze has married an ultra-kind, ultra-understanding, and ultra-attractive woman with whom he has a lovely daughter. There are also some 400 pages of American life separating this bookended Nigerian love story. (At almost 500 pages, Americanah is a long novel.) Yet somehow they wind up back together.

This does not work well because it’s improbable and because the novel’s focus is elsewhere. The real heart of this book is in the race question.  There’s enough material at its core to make a full novel about that issue alone.

Indeed, the section after her move back to Lagos is mostly extraneous. For one, her observations on Nigeria are not nearly as broad in scope as those on the US. Her America encompasses the poor and rich. It gets at the whole country. Her Nigeria, however, reflects a southern Christian élite. Although her observations about this group are piercing, they’re narrow.

On the other hand, it’s easy to see why Adichie may have included this. Ifemelu’s return to Nigeria is a validation. It says Lagos isn’t a place to be from, it’s a place to go. And her focus on the well-to-do — whose worries include convincing your significant other to buy you a new car and increasing your gossip magazine’s circulation — shifts the conversation about Africa away from stereotypes of fly covered children. It shows a side of the continent many don’t know.

Yet one of the consequences of Ifemelu’s return to Nigeria — without Blaine — is the novel reads like it rejects cross-cultural communication. There seemed to be nothing fundamentally wrong with Ifemelu and Blaine’s relationship. Her choice to leave for Lagos shocked him. Indeed the decision was shocking, because it seemed grounded in nothing more than a vague feeling that she couldn’t be with him because he was simply so… American.

This makes Ifemelu’s reunion with Obinze all the more disappointing. In some ways it flies in the face of her anti-racism critique, as it implies people “belong with their own.” While Adichie surely wouldn’t support such a proposition, the narrative seems to suggest as much because Ifemelu’s reunion with Obinze lacks grounding and her relationship with Blaine seemed rich.

Nigerian questions aside, Adichie’s treatment of race in America shines. What Americanah says about being black in the US is akin to what Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question said about being Jewish in the UK. Its observations penetrate, and it holds nothing back. The entire skin tone hierarchy comes in for close and witty analysis. The book explores all the possible relationships between black, Latino, Asian, and white Americans in settings as diverse as the classroom, the workplace, the hair salon, and the internet. The book is a major contribution to the cultural conversation on this question.

And while it also speaks volumes to the immigrant experience, plumbs the depths of long-lost love, and sheds light on southern Nigerian élite culture, these subjects are like birds resting on a cow: relatively small, and tenuously connected to the main subject. Had they been left for later treatment, the book might have had a more pleasing unity.

Nonetheless, Americanah brims with intelligence and sensitivity. Adichie is razor-sharp and her emotional acuity impresses. Her third novel is deeply considered, highly readable, and well worth checking out.

 

How to Read A Book: A Student’s Guide to Non-Fiction

Standard

University professors love to assign mounds of reading. Looking at the book lists for your classes and realizing it’s impossible to get through them  by term’s end is a sucky yet common experience. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

Why do they do this, though? Are they just a bunch of sadists in tweed coats? How could they possibly think students have time to read five books for one class? Don’t they know that means 25 books a term?

Here’s secret number one: your profs don’t even have time to do that much reading. Yes, they’re full-time in the learning game. But mostly they’re busy preparing lectures, grading, attending committee meetings,  answering emails, and watching cat videos on YouTube. Occasionally they do some research.

So if they can’t keep up with the readings — or least can’t afford to spend roughly 168 hours a week with their nose in a book — why do they assign so much to you? Are they all gathered by the departmental Xerox machine snickering into their walnut pipes about the suffering they’ve managed to inflicted on you?

Well the truth is they have a technique. And for some reason nine out of ten of them don’t think to share it.

It’s strange. Everyone gets instruction in writing via feedback on the papers they write. But little is taught about how to read a book.

But that all changes when you begin your doctorate. (Not that you need to get a PhD, that’s just where I learned this.)  Once you’ve been through four years of undergrad courses and two years of Master’s seminars and thesis writing, then — and only then! — will they bestow upon you the secret knowledge. [Cue awesome gong sound.] It’s the knowledge that would’ve saved you unending hours of pain muttering curses at wordy textbooks in hipster coffee shops. It’s the knowledge of how to read.

I don’t mean read-read. We all know how to do that. I mean how to rip the guts out of a 300-page non-fiction book in an hour. Yep, that’s often how long your professors spend on a book. One hour.

How in tarnation is that possible? It’s a technique born of necessity, but it works. In the course of a PhD program you’ll have to complete “comprehensive exams” that test you on the contents of 150-200 books. You’ve got one year to get that reading done. When you factor in weekends, holidays, sick time, and days you inevitably must devote to tasks other than reading, you might be left with 200 days in a year to work on that. Which means you’ve got to get through a book a day.

So you’ve got to get through that book quickly. Simple math precludes reading it cover-to-cover. There just isn’t enough time.

This, however, is a good thing. Because reading cover-to-cover often leads to drowning in details without seizing the book’s main point. Ever have that problem where you read a book and then some asks you what it was about? Uhh, it was, um, it’s was about like, uh, this guy. And he was, um, he was  the president, of like this country? Yeah, I think I’ll have to go back…

That’s what comes of passively reading front-to-back. Novels are a different animal and need to be read one word after another. They build suspense all the way through, and if you don’t follow the structure outlined by the writer, you’ll spoil the whole business.

But non-fiction is designed differently. Especially academic work. There’s no suspense. Any author worth his or her salt will expose the main ideas in the prologue or introduction, and will summarize them in the conclusion. This applies to the entire book and to each chapter. In other words all the key information is found at the extremities. So that’s where you should start.

Reading non-fiction is like eating pizza. You need to nibble on the edges and work your way in. Unless you want to get sauce all over your face.

I’m not saying you should ignore the deep dark interior of the work you’ve been assigned. I’m just suggesting you approach your reading in a different order. An ideal reading order might look like this:

  1. Read the prologue. This is usually only a couple of pages. By the end of this, you should already have heard about the book’s main ideas. Note them down.
  2. Read the conclusion. If it’s a long, read the last paragraph first. This is where the author should give the last word on what this book is really about and why it matters. And those are the things your professor wants you to know.
  3. Read the introduction. This will also lay out the book’s main questions and will suggest how the author intends to answer them.

If you’ve done this, you should have a clear idea of what the book is about. These are the  sections that reveal the high-level, conceptual elements of the work. The lack of detail in these chapters is a good thing. It allows you to zero in on what’s  important. Then, when it comes time for class discussion, written responses, mid-terms, or final papers, you know you’ll be on the mark. Your prof is far more likely to appreciate your  grasp on the book’s main point than your ability to cite random details.

From this point, you can delve deeper as time allows and as the nature of your course assignments require. Do this as follows:

  1. Identify the chapters you are going to examine. If the table of contents shows that the book is divided into parts, choose at least one from each part.
  2. Read the introduction and conclusion of each chapter you’ve chosen. From this you should be able to seize the essence of the chapter material.
  3. If you want to go further, identify all the chapter subsections. Read the introductory and concluding paragraphs of each one. Continue reading if necessary, or if the book is so good you actually want to.

Of course some books lack proper introductions and conclusions. These books suck to read. These books are chrono-monsters. They eat your time without mercy. The only way to heal the wounds they cause is by writing a critical-yet-polite email to the author:

Dear Evil Genius,
I’m interested in your ideas but I found your book inaccessible. Might you think of including more comprehensive introductions and conclusions in your future work?
Sincerely,
Some Frazzled Twenty-Year-Old
p.s. You owe me four hours.

To conclude, please don’t send this post to your angry professors when they discover you didn’t read all the material. No one likes a grouch in a tweed coat.

Anyway, I’m not advocating  you skip your readings. By all means, if you have the time, read every page. But start at the edges. That way, by the time you reach the steamy jargon-jungle at the book’s heart, when details supporting the book’s thesis are assailing you left and right, you might actually know what that thesis is.

At the very least, instead of showing up completely unprepared because you didn’t have time to read those three seminar papers front-to-back, you’ll have skimmed the intros and conclusions while busing to class. If you do it that way, who knows? You might even get more than a simple attendance mark out of the session.

If you do execute this “pizza reading” technique, make sure to perk your ears up on the last Sunday before final grades are due, right around midnight. Somewhere your professor will be madly marking your term paper, and you just might hear a soft noise. That, dear student, is the sound of happy tears falling on tweed.

Review: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Standard
Thanks to Penguin for a review copy of Khaled Hosseini's 'And the Mountains Echoed.'

Thanks to Penguin for a review copy of Khaled Hosseini’s ‘And the Mountains Echoed.’

In some ways And the Mountains Echoed reflects Khaled Hosseini’s previous novels. Like The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, it’s set in Afghanistan — though not exclusively. Like them its title draws from a poem. And like them it’s an earnest, sentimental work that seeks to educate.

But in other respects it’s different. And the Mountains Echoed is of far broader scope than Hosseini’s earlier work. It features a bevy of characters and a slew of plot lines. It moves from Afghanistan to Athens to California to Paris and back. It’s not just about Afghans but those who’ve been drawn to their country since the Taliban’s fall: surgeons, nurses, and aid workers.

The themes it touches on are many. Property theft spawned by the refugee crisis. Pain caused by Afghans settled in the West who come to Kabul and make promises they can’t keep. The rebirth of mujahideen leaders as opium lords. Homosexuality and women’s rights in Amanullah Khan’s reformist era. Domestic violence. The current medical crisis. The heroism of foreign doctors who devote their lives to Afghans. The trauma of fractured families. The question of filial duty. The quest for meaning, and the fear of freedom to search for it.

These are weighty ideas, each worth considering. But there are too many of them.

I laud Hosseini’s intentions. He clearly has much to say about his home country. Sometimes, however, less is more.

The virtues of a sharp focus were manifest in his earlier novels. The Kite Runner was about a man searching for his childhood friend. A Thousand Splendid Suns was about two generations of women who suffered through war and patriarchy. And the Mountains Echoed, however, is harder to sum up.

But here’s an attempt. In the 1950s an Afghan peasant, Saboor, is persuaded to give up his baby daughter, Pari, to a wealthy family, the Wahdatis. Pari winds up in France, unaware of her true origins, while her brother, Abdullah, suffers trauma from the separation. Abdullah eventually immigrates to California and runs a kabob house. The siblings aren’t reunited until half a century later when Abdullah’s mind has been ravaged by senility.

A Greek plastic surgeon, Markos Varvaris, comes to Kabul on a short stint in 2002 and decides to settle there after years of globetrotting. He is offered accommodation in the house of the Wahdatis– though the family is dead and only the servant who arranged the adoption, Nabi, remains. A couple of California-based Afghans, Idris and Tabur, go to Kabul to claim the property their father abandoned years before, and they bump into the Varvaris and Nabi. It turns out they lived on the same street as Nabi in their youth.

When Nabi dies he requests Varvaris to find Pari, reveal her true origins, and give her the house he left her in his will. Varvaris finds her online and unveils the truth of her birth family. This allows her to eventually track down her brother in California.

If the story’s ultimate direction isn’t jumping out, that’s because it doesn’t in the book. There’s plenty to like in the novel, though. Hosseini draws beautiful portraits of his characters. Some — like the servant Nabi and the troubled poet Nila Wahdati — are memorable. But the book explores so many characters in such depth that the narrative grows muddled. For example, Varvaris’s main role in the story is to find Pari and reveal her family roots. Yet there’s a sixty-five-page chapter devoted to his childhood in the Greek Isles.

And it’s a great chapter — one of the best. But it doesn’t advance the core narrative. Instead it exemplifies how the book covers too much ground: its true aim is humanizing the foreign medical volunteers in Afghanistan.

That’s a great thing to do, and Hosseini has drawn great characters in Varvaris, his resolute mother, and his maimed cousin. But they barely connect to the rest of the novel. The result is a book that reads more as a series of snapshots of contemporary Afghanistan and not as a cogent story.

The same goes for a forty-page chapter on California brothers Idris and Timur who visit Kabul in 2003 to reclaim their father’s house. The only connection this pair have to the main story is that as children they lived on the same street as the Wahdatis. Their presence doesn’t further the plot at all. Rather they allow Hosseini to explore cultural insensitivity on the part of Westernized Afghans and to raise the plight of injured children. Again, these are important topics. But story-wise this is another dead-end.

Khaled Hosseini’s strength has always been narrative. His prose is adequate. But he is known for great stories, not great sentences. And in the absence of a story that’s lucid and driven, And the Mountains Echoed sags.

A short story collection would’ve better suited Hosseini’s purposes. With a number of subplots barely touching on the novel’s core, it almost reads like one already.

Review: Caught by Lisa Moore

Standard
Caught by Lisa Moore. House of Anansi, 2013. $29.95. ISBN 9780887842450. Thanks to Anansi for a review copy of this work.

Caught by Lisa Moore. House of Anansi, 2013. $29.95. ISBN 9780887842450. Thanks to House of Anansi for a review copy of this work.

Lisa Moore is approaching something like legend. After her Canada Reads win, her Commonwealth Writers’ Prize victory, and her name perennially floating on the finest longlists  – Booker, IMPAC Dublin, and Giller, to name a few — she seems unstoppable. Caught won’t do anything to slow her down.

The novel has an action movie premise — a drug runner who busts out of prison and flees from the cops to make one last score — but a psychological depth that’s profoundly moving. In this respect it’s a rare bird: a book about driven criminals and haggard policemen that defies cops-and-robbers clichés and delivers a narrative as reflective as it is rousing.

The story follows David Slaney, a Newfoundlander who slips out of a Nova Scotia prison the 14th of June 1978, on the eve of his twenty-fifth birthday. He has served four years after a botched smuggling operation with his childhood friend and partner-in-crime, David Hearn, which saw them snagged off the coast of Newfoundland with two tons of weed. Now with dogs and squad cars sniffing at his heels, all he’s got is a prayer and a plan: get to Vancouver to meet Hearn, then get to Colombia to buy more marijuana.

The title, of course, hints at the end. But with a fugitive-centred book entitled Caught, Moore seems to suggest it doesn’t matter if we know the ending in advance. Patterson — the sweaty, self-doubting policeman assigned to Slaney’s case — alludes to this as he ponders death at a Mexican bullfight: “The best stories, he thought, we’ve known the end from the beginning” (272). This topples crime genre code, and is a provocation. After all, if we know what’ll happen, why read? In laying her cards on the table from the cover onward, Moore issues an invitation: find another reason to turn the page. Set aside your plot-worship and the logic of ‘What happens next?’, and get cozy with literature’s other facets. Maybe take a shine to her phenomenally crisp sentences.

Of course, some readers may be whiffing escapism, and that would be fair enough. The story has its holes, and it appears Moore cares little for penning a plot-driven book. Lyricism and well-hewn prose seem her main concerns. If you like that, you’ve got a treat in store. If you don’t, you’ve been warned. Still, the novel has a solid story, and is worth reading even if you have little patience for “literary” books.

Speaking of literary writing, here’s a sample of Moore’s seductive prose. It’s a description of Slaney’s hideout about above a Guysborough bar that “had strippers once a week and… sponsored a school basketball team” (5):

The test pattern was on the television. An Indian chief with feathered headgear, his profile of bone and forbearance. There was a bookshelf with miniature figurines of woodland animals, perhaps two hundred of them that had been collected from boxes of Red Rose tea. The figures sat on the peeling vinyl skin of the pressboard shelf as if they were climbing hills and descending into valleys in a great exodus. (27)

There’s real pleasure in reading Moore’s sentences. Her style is clear, lean, and thoughtful. Caught is a book with few commas and short paragraphs. Your eye slides down the page like maybe you’re on the run yourself. But the quick pace was surely slow in design; the words are well-chosen and rarely self-indulgent (a slurp of hot coffee should never be “an amplified susurration of scalding liquid” (62), in my opinion — but such wordiness is rare in this splendid novel).

Splendid writing aside, what Moore seems to want us to focus on is the mentality of an unrelentingly bold young man. The novel zeroes in on how Slaney sees and responds to the world, rather than the cat-and-mouse game of Newfie fugitive versus RCMP. The story is gripping in its own way, but it’s also replete with real life randomness: Slaney chatting up truck drivers, taking tea with old ladies in rooming house hideouts, eating ice cream with New Brunswick girls curious enough to pick up desperate hitchhikers on the run. It’s a meandering, organic tale.

This works well for a story that’s an exploration of unrestrained, naïve, youthful hope. Caught is about how David Slaney yearns for freedom, for movement, for adventure. It’s about his fear of ordinary, staid existence, and about the deep sadness that thrusts him into a criminal world with no happy endings. This tenor comes out in a passage toward the book’s end when Slaney has finally met his Colombians suppliers:

Slaney was offered a violin and he played it like a fiddle, jigs and reels, and then something slow and full of need that he made up as he went along…

All the need he’d felt in prison came out of the wooden instrument under his chin. All the longing, terse and barbed and broken, hung over the bonfire. The flames near the crackled black logs were blue and flicking. It seemed like the fire breathed up and sank down with the music. The ocean roared and shushed. Someone had bongo drums; someone had a tin whistle. There were a few stringed instruments made of gourds. A silver flute. Everybody playing together, improvising. Looking up into each other’s eyes so they could all know where they were going with it. Slaney leading the way, sawing gently, tapping his foot, urging them on by nodding yes and yes.

If Slaney had a reason for going on this trip in the first place, maybe it was this: so he could be on a Colombian beach playing all his sadness out under the stars, stoned out of his mind. He was there for the sense of abandon he felt. (226-227)

This passage typifies the novel’s atmosphere. It’s 314 pages of sadness and dreams and getting high and wilding out all night on a beach as the repercussions of bad choices close in from every side.

Caught is a remarkable book about a remarkable man, achingly rendered by one of our most insightful novelists. It’s a fun read that’ll make you think hard about being alive till you feel something in your bones, and it’s one you’ll remember well past the last page. With this latest effort Moore proves that, no matter the genre, she’s a writer who knows how to catch our attention.

Review: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Standard
NoViolet Bulawayo. We Need New Names. Little, Brown, 2013. $25.00 US. ISBN 9780316230810. (Thanks to Little, Brown for a review copy of this book.)

NoViolet Bulawayo. We Need New Names. Little, Brown, 2013. $25.00 US. ISBN 9780316230810. Thanks to Little, Brown for a review copy of this book.

NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel follows the life of ten-year-old Darling, a Zimbabwean girl coming up as the country is going down. This precocious child, who used to live in what she might term a house-house with parents holding job-jobs, now lives in a tin-wrapped camp called Paradise. Her parents have left for the borders to find work, and so Darling roams free with her gang of young friends: Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, and Stina.

Because the schools are closed — the teachers have fled to South Africa seeking employment — Darling and her companions pass the time pilfering guavas from rich neighbourhoods and watching adults make their way in a divided world. Amusing themselves with games like “Find bin Laden” or bouts of play-lovemaking, these children betray an awareness of issues the adults consider serious, yet which Darling and her friends see as simple curiosities.

The genius of the book is in this juxtaposition: a wide range of social, political, and economic problems come to light in We Need New Names — the AIDS epidemic, patronizing NGO behaviour, political violence, and child sexual abuse, to name a few — yet these phenomena come in for matter-of-fact, humorous treatment by Darling and her gang. The way they discuss plans to abort the pregnancy of a pre-teen friend raped by an older family member is a case in point:

Today we’re getting rid of Chipo’s stomach once and for all. One, it makes it hard for us to play, and two, if we let her have the baby, she will just die. We heard the women talking yesterday about Nosizi, that short, light-skinned girl who took over MaDumane’s husband when MaDumane went to Namibia to be a housemaid. Nosizi is dead now, from giving birth. It kills like that. (80)

Darling’s world is one where playing games and dying in childbirth are both serious business. This youthful viewpoint provides both delightful insight into a child’s imagination and a poignant window on contemporary events in Zimbabwe. Considering the subject’s gravity, it was judicious of Bulawayo to enlist an irreverent ten-year-old as her narrator. This allowed her to craft a story that speaks in equal measure to joy and sorrow, richness and poverty, hope and destruction — themes that resonate with her birth country’s current dispensation.

In this regard, We Need New Names is a book that rails against popular representations of Zimbabwe — even if Bulawayo’s acknowledgement of every last African stereotype risks giving them new life. The book strikes back at the purely negative and show that the land north of the Limpopo River is rich with contradictions and full of beauty, just like, for example, “the USA, which is a country-country” (51). Bulawayo gives Zimbabwe depth, undermining those who invoke it as a tired cliché of darkness that’s older than Conrad. The novel’s closing paragraph, in which Darling chases a friend’s dog in a round of “Find bin Laden” only to witness a bread truck run it over, encapsulates this blend of joy and pain, loss and plenty:

There was red on the road. Two gaping furrows where the tires had plowed into the earth. An unsounded yelp drowned in the hollow of a twisted throat. White fur, red streaks in some places, like somebody clumsy had tried to decorate. Big, bared teeth. Crushed meat. Long pink tongue licking the earth. A lone paw raised in a perfect high-five. Bone jutting from the side of the stomach. One eye popped out (I could not see the other). And the delicious, delicious smell of Lobels bread. (292)

But the novel’s duality is not limited to Darling’s life in Zimbabwe. Halfway through the book she is abruptly taken to live in “Destroyedmichygan” with her Aunt Fostalina. Here the narrative takes a new course, centering on the challenges of life as an undocumented African teen in the United States. In this section, too, the book invokes stark contrasts. America is characterized by cold weather, abundance, and isolation: the opposite of Darling’s life in Paradise. Children don’t ask their parents for stories; they Google. They don’t invent games together; they play Xbox. They don’t lift guavas from local trees; they watch Redtube in the basement when their relatives are off doing shiftwork.

This latter part of the book is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s replete with tragic scenarios that brilliantly lampoon the objectification faced by African migrants on a daily basis (a woman corners Darling in a washroom and asks: “Are you from Africa too?… Can you say something in your language?… Isn’t that beautiful?… Africa is beautiful… But isn’t it terrible what’s happening in the Congo? Just awful….” (177-178)).

On the other hand, however, the back half of the novel ranges on more mundane territory. A child’s perspective on contemporary life in Zimbabwe is new, and in Bulawayo’s hands the material dazzles. The immigrant experience in America, however, is less innovative as subject matter. That’s not to say it should be neglected, or that the American side of We Need New Names isn’t worth reading. Bulawayo’s voice is fresh; fiction-lovers should take note, regardless of their stake in African affairs. But the dramatic shift in Darling’s circumstances at the novel’s midpoint creates an unsettling rift in the narrative.

In a way, this works because it emulates the abrupt shifts migration entails. Yet it also leaves one longing for cohesion. As it stands, the book isn’t about Darling’s immigrant experiences per se, nor is it about her childhood under ZANU-PF rule. It’s an even split. Granted, it’s one that reflects real life. But life often lacks the unity a cogent novel demands.

Yet regardless of the story’s bifurcation, We Need New Names is a bracing read. Darling is a feisty, funny, freethinking protagonist with sharp insights on Zimbabwe and America, childhood and growing up. The book is equal parts mirth and mishap, and it confirms the 2011 Caine Prize winner as a vigorous new force in literature.