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Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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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.

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Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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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.

 

Review: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

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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

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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

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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.

Review: Tenth of December by George Saunders

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Tenth of December by George Saunders review

George Saunders’s new story collection, Tenth of December,  is a funny book with a  sobering message on what it means to be (North) American today. Its eclectic assortment of pieces, while often focused on dramatic murders and rapes, also touches on familiar day-to-day themes including debt, dehumanizing work environments, and the role of large corporations in shaping our lives. In this way Saunders unromantically chronicles the modern landscape, with all its Burger Kings and “half-remodeled MacDonalds’,” at once giving voice to communities where the built environment seems not to speak, while also critiquing the way repetitive corporate experiences hem us all in.

On this note, one of the major themes of the book is the way corporations control people’s minds. In several stories, including “Escape from Spiderhead” and “My Chivalric Fiasco,” this takes the form of patented pharmaceuticals like “Verbaluce™” or “DocilRyde™,” which modify how articulate or agreeable you are. In these strange yet foreseeable futures, drugs are used not just by individuals to solve medical problems, but by corporations to induce particular work outcomes from employees. For those who staff the medieval theme park in “My Chivalric Fiasco,” there’s even a pill that can help you talk like an English knight.

In another story, “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the latest craze in conspicuous consumption is having a display of “Semplica Girls” in your front yard. In this potential future, doctors have invented a “microline,” which is a string that can be threaded through your brain in such a way that several women can be tied together at the head (harm free!) and then locked into a display. These women are brought to the US from countries like Laos and Somalia, and those who rent them (for it’s a corporation that actually owns them) justify their actions by citing poor conditions in the women’s home countries.

This last story has obvious resonances with the widespread practice of paying foreigners a pittance for work few Americans would consent to. But the overarching theme is about the instrumentalization of human life for corporate ends. This basically boils down to making money — often in wholly trivial ways — and one way the book shines is in the justifications both workers and management dream up to make sense of their mad work environments.

One of the most hilarious examples of this occurs in a story called “Exhortation” — perhaps the best piece in the book. This takes the form of a memo from “Todd Birnie, Divisional Director” of a company pushing its workers to boost productivity. While it starts out as a letter urging employees to have a “positive mental state” and work more efficiently, it winds up indirectly grappling with the moral ambiguity of their work and all that “must be done in Room 6.” While readers never explicitly discover the nature of the company, it becomes clear by the end that the work they are exhorted to approach with a positive attitude is in fact a Nazi-esque murder campaign.

Along with depicting the madness and sometimes-cruelty of the working world, another way Saunders excels is in capturing the colloquialisms of the common American voice. Some of these are humorous, like getting your “ass fried” or being a “dickBrain.” Others — like saying something as a question, even though it’s not? — are simply accurate and pleasing in their precision. This linguistic play makes for good reading, and although many of the stories are bleak and tragic, you can’t help laughing out loud at many of the things Saunders’s characters think and say.

On the weaker side, some of the stories feel more finished than others. Many follow characters through watershed decisions such as saving a life or taking one, and provide a glimpse of how the choices these people make will change their world forever. Others, like the story “Home,” about an Iraq War veteran whose life is falling apart, are vague and leave the reader wondering exactly what is going on and why it matters. Also, the alternate-reality scenarios, featuring personality altering drugs etc., are a bit overplayed and lose their effect when they appear in multiple stories. It’s interesting to imagine a world where our every trait and feeling is manipulated by chemicals in “Escape from Spiderhead,” but when this same idea reappears toward the end of the collection in “My Chivalric Fiasco” the effect seems recycled.

All in all, however, this is a noteworthy book. While The New York Times Magazine might’ve been overzealous in branding it “[t]he best book you’ll read this year” — the stories have no overarching cohesion, so the effect of the book is muted — it’s absolutely worth reading. Not only will it strike a chord with those who face some of today’s most common challenges — financial problems, demoralizing jobs, thorny family issues — it will also make you laugh. And with stories in the form of interior monologues, memos, and note-form diaries, you just might find yourself shaking your head in admiration at Saunders’s relentless inventiveness.

Review: ‘Love and the Mess We’re In’ by Stephen Marche

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Thanks to Gaspereau Press for a review copy of "Love and the Mess We're In," Stephen Marche's experimental work of concrete fiction.

Thanks to Gaspereau Press for a review copy of Stephen Marche’s experimental work of concrete fiction.

Love and the Mess We’re In is like nothing you’ve ever read. I don’t mean that as the usual figurative praise on how good a book it is, but as simple fact. This is different.

What makes this work unusual– and I don’t know what to call it if not a ‘work’ –is its application of concrete poetic techniques in fiction. The result is something quite remarkable.

We’re all familiar with concrete poetry, whether it’s early 20th-century works like Apollinaire’s Calligrams or the more recent poems we all had to read in high school English class. The idea of manipulating how words fall on the page to enhance or alter meaning is an old one.

What’s new is applying this in fiction. It’s a clever idea that produces some startlingly powerful effects.

But let’s step back and look at exactly what we’re discussing:

In case you were wondering, that’s the Buenos Aires rain running down the page as Viv, the protagonist, waits to get into Clive’s apartment so she can cheat on her crazy husband with him. And this is not an exceptional sight in Love and the Mess We’re In. The right-hand page is actually pretty tame compared to the rest of the stuff you’ll come across. The book is a wild and intriguing ride.

These creative structures generate interesting possibilities that Marche explores to great effect. (And it’s not just Marche that deserves the credit — the book was designed and typeset by Gaspereau’s own Andrew Steeves, whose blood, sweat, and tears must be in here nearly as much as Stephen’s.) Particularly in the extended sex scene, “Life of Flesh,” that makes up chapter 3 of 5. When you’re used to book pages carrying 300 words and then you’re hit with a tiny 12-point “No” and a vast sheet of white space followed by a massive “Yes” that claims the entire next page, it’s striking. There’s really something there, something that gets at the feeling Marche tries to put across (in this case an orgasm) in a manner rarely achieved by conventional means.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Marche is a damn good sex writer. He’s also adept at probing emotional undercurrents rarely voiced in our daily lives — things like the guilty, shame, and need that surge up when a best friend and a wife fall in love when the friend/husband goes insane.

And that’s the basic plot. Tim and Clive are best buds. Tim meets Viv and they get married, but within a couple years he loses his mind. Viv sticks with him a long time even though he’s been institutionalized and stands little chance of recovering. Finally she relents in her devotion to a man who’s arguably no longer there, and flies to Argentina for a night of love with said best friend.

It’s a simple story, which is all Marche or any writer could manage in this format. While the book is 260 pages long, it’s really a mid-length novella because there are so few words on each page. This is a plus if you don’t feel like reading 100,000 words of concrete poetry.

Which you’d be justified in, because although this is a fascinating book it does have lulls. The dinner conversation between Viv and Clive from pp. 62-139 is a case in point. Here Marche employs an ingenious structure of columns so readers can simultaneously take in what each character is both saying and thinking (often completely different things). But while this is interesting and amusing, much of what Clive and Viv think is banal (e.g. “Out the window, brothers squabbling with Italianate hand gestures about their mother’s habits”).

It’s already jarring to have to jump between columns to navigate thought and speech (many of the pages in Love and the Mess We’re In have multiple elements with no clear reading pattern). But when the reward for struggling to decode Marche’s message is something as pedestrian as, well, a pedestrian, you just feel like hugging Jonathan Franzen for believing good literature doesn’t have to mean arduous reading.

Of course, it may not be fair to evaluate Love and the Mess We’re In on fiction’s terms. (Although it is marketed as such both by Gaspereau and the bookstores. Head to Chapters and you’ll likely find it on the New Fiction table.) But really, that’s Marche’s innovation with this book — stealing concrete poetry from the verse-writers who’ve been hogging it for centuries and smuggling it over to the fiction folks.

Considering this innovation, it would’ve been grand if he’d made more of a splash storywise. Instead, the book is more about expressing the feelings brought up by a challenging scenario (in this case adultery perpetrated against a madman whom both culprits love deeply). It’s a slice-of-life work. In that regard this fictive apple hasn’t fallen far from the poetic tree.

All the same, Marche’s latest effort is a bold exploration of fictions formal frontier. It’s quite simply a marvel that the book was produced at all, given recent trends toward conservatism in publishing. And while it’s not a perfect book — sometimes Marche’s wordiness goes too far — it’s certainly an inventive piece of art that goes a long way in showing the potential scope for typography to impact the reading experience.

If you like concrete poetry, this is for you. This is the bees knees, this is your mandatory assignment due at the end of class tomorrow in a blue duotang. If you like gorgeously fabricated books printed on paper so good you could eat it, this is also for you. And if you’re gunning for some nuanced explorations of love, loss, and guilt, you might also want to pick this up before you hit your next counseling session. On the other hand, if you recoil at phrases like “Sounding and astounding / Resounding and running and rousing / Slivering and silvering and spilling and slippering / Raining and running and rushing / slumping and slouching,” then consider yourself forewarned.