Tag Archives: literary fiction

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: 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: NW by Zadie Smith

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NW by Zadie Smith. 2012. $32. 294 pp. (Thanks to Hamish Hamilton for a review copy of this work.)

NW by Zadie Smith. 2012. $32. 294 pp. (Thanks to Hamish Hamilton for a review copy of this work.)

Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW, takes its name from the postal code for northwest London where the novel is set, and where Smith herself grew up. This part of London is a fragmented world, one where stark differences define the landscape and the lives of its inhabitants  — poverty against riches, black against white, law school graduates against crack-addicted criminals. The writing here, virtuosic as ever, reflects this fragmentation. It paints an off-kilter and open-ended portrait of its two protagonists, Keisha/Natalie Blake and Leah Hanwell, as they struggle to find success and happiness without knowing exactly what either of these are.

The narrative follows these two girls from birth into their mid-thirties, when these women are themselves facing the decision of whether to have children of their own. As children they are best friends, but as they age their divergent personalities and social circumstances take them in different directions.

Keisha, who changes her name to Natalie after high school in order to better fit into the upper-class world she enters via law school and a rich husband, is a high-achiever who pulls herself from the margins of London into its chic centre, only to wonder whether she wants to be there at all.

Leah is a more freewheeling person and follows the opposite path in many ways. While she too has a university education, instead of leveraging it for all the social and financial capital it’s worth, she works at a job in her home neighbourhood that doesn’t require her to have a degree. Indeed, she’s the only person there who has one. And unlike Natalie, whose romantic life develops along conservative lines, Leah’s sexual world is more chaotic and experimental, full of flings and lust and anal sex. In this way, the two women reflect two fundamental approaches to life on the socioeconomic edge: hunker down and work your ass off for a “good future,” or take things as they come and avoid the anxieties about the future by enjoying life in the present.

Yet despite these divergent life trajectories, the women find themselves facing remarkably similar existential problems as they exit youth and approach their years of critical fertility. Both are anxious about the prospect of children and about their ticking biological clocks. Both find themselves in good circumstances by common standards — they have loving partners, and while Leah isn’t as wealthy as Natalie, she and her husband enjoy a decent standard of living.

And yet they both find themselves railing against the passage of time, and finding life to be a confusing series of events that moves along too fast. By her early thirties Natalie has “made it” in life, but all the same she has little idea of who she is and what she really wants. Leah is also facing an existential crisis, and wonders why it is that people like her and Natalie should lead successful lives while childhood friends should wind up as drug-addled street thugs.

If this all strikes you as true to life but lacking the typical trappings of a story — namely, protagonists with clear problems who are altered by the forces against which they struggle until their problems are resolved for better or worse — you’d be right. NW displays all the anxieties of modern society — just like its protagonists, who experience life as an ambiguous, open-ended business, the story in Smith’s latest effort equally lacks forward momentum. This is because the characters who populate this pocket of London don’t know where forward is; their world is disorienting. As soon as they get where they’re going (often following normative pathways like graduating from law school or getting married), they find they’re not sure they even want the benefits they’re set to reap. And never mind what they’re striving for — just exactly who are they, anyway? And what’s this existence all for, and why is it so unfair, and why is time so unrelenting? Yes, NW is that kind of book.

And in that respect it’s brilliant. If you’re looking for 300 pages of incisive commentary on the psychological problems plaguing contemporary urbanites who grew up in economically depressed neighbourhoods, this is it. But don’t expect closure, don’t wait for build-ups to produce payoffs. Entire subplots are literally dead ends — the subprotagonists simply die, never claiming an important place in the narrative or contributing to the main story in any supratangential fashion (even if a fifth of the book is devoted to them).

Such narrative nebulae notwithstanding, NW is an entertaining and moving book. Keisha and Leah are incredibly well-drawn, and the unusual techniques Smith uses to bring them to life (including a fair bit of concrete poetry) are compelling and innovative.

That being said, at times Smith’s experimentation goes off the rails and staggers toward opacity. The first 85 pages (in the section entitled “Visitation”) are the worst offender in this regard. Here readers face an uphill battle against unattributed dialogue, conversations starting mid-sentence, and a deluge of fragments. But those intrepid readers who make it into the novel’s second section will be rewarded for their labours with writing that remains edgy while having the added feature of being comprehensible. The remainder of the book is a pleasure to read, and powerfully animates a corner of London heretofore neglected in literature in a style that is challenging but not burdensome.

The highlight of NW comes in the second half, in a section entitled “Host,” which comprises 185 numbered vignettes spanning 110 pages. These short pieces, which chronicle the life of Keisha Blake from birth to childbearing to marital meltdown, operate like a photo album. As they are generally less than a page long, each is like a snapshot of a moment in time — 185 windows onto key experiences in a young woman’s life. This section, to speak plainly, kicks ass. It’s incisive, heartfelt, funny, and distinctive. Indeed, this part of the novel is what elicited many readers’ interest in NW in the first place, as it was featured in condensed form in The New Yorker in July 2012, and is an exceptional stand-alone piece that figures among the best published by the magazine in recent years.

“Host” is all the more a treat to be savoured as the rest of the book is composed in very different styles, the whole text being marked by a haphazard eclecticism. Indeed, in an interview Smith noted NW was written without a plan and was conceived “as a collection of found items.” This is consonant with the reading experience, which lacks the coherence expected in a novel, and instead comes across as an impeccably drawn series of short pieces on Keisha and Leah’s inner lives.

In the end, NW is a difficult work to pin down. Readers who make it to the end will likely be amazed, frustrated, touched, and disappointed all at once. For those devoted to language and how form and sentence structure can be reconfigured to chart the unexplored corners of experience, NW is a lesson you can’t afford to skip. Anyone concerned with the struggle of women to make sense of their professional, sexual, and familial lives on the margins of a big city like London will want to pick this book up immediately. Those, on the other hand, who are expecting the familiar novelistic package of rising action-climax-denouement might want to stick to White Teeth.

Review: The World by Bill Gaston

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Review: The World by Bill Gaston

The World?” a friend of mine chuckled, noticing my holiday reading. “What kind of title is that?”

As it turns out, quite an apt one which resonates on many levels through this affecting book.

The story revolves around Stuart Price, a lonesome divorcé whose house burns to the ground when, irony of ironies, he barbecues his mortgage papers after finally paying the house off. More than this, he’s sunk his lump-sum pension into it, and he’s forgotten to pay his house insurance. So the book opens with Stuart — retired, divorced, penniless, houseless, and pensionless — watching his world burn.

This almost irreverent beginning is a sign of things to come. Indeed, tragic situations met with bemused acceptance is something like Gaston’s modus operandi in this novel. But his protagonist’s irony isn’t a ragged sarcasm that veers into unfeeling. Rather, it heightens the experience of Stuart’s helplessness, and makes you ache all the more. I closed this book with a decidedly broken heart.

Having nothing but an old Datsun, Stuart takes to the road to visit an old friend, Melody, who he inexplicably wants to see. They haven’t been in touch for decades, and his remembrances of their thrilling camping trips, witty conversations, and elaborate meals are brought forth in great detail as he makes his way from Victoria to Toronto — in the process destroying his car, catching lice, nearly sleeping with a humpbacked woman, and being charged at by a maddened hitchhiker. Not to mention winding up in jail.

This is a wild and tragic road trip, but by page 140 Stuart’s obsession with Melody is somewhat irksome — particularly as it had  little explanation.

But then two things happened. First, I realized his obsessing attenuated the dullness of his existence through memory of lively times. On reaching retirement, Stuart is a mousy depressive, and his ironic reservedness is grating (but also very real). Melody is his only link to something like fun, and as a symbol of longing her role is more justified.

Secondly, the book shifted perspective. Arriving in Toronto, we now see Stuart through Melody’s eyes. And given that we know far more than she about how desperate he is to rekindle their tenuous connection, this is interesting. Things are complicated too by the fact that Melody is dying of cancer and is planning on taking drastic measures to deal with it.

Changing the point of view not only breathes fresh air into the narrative but has a cumulative effect. Because Melody is now spending her time with Stuart, whose mind we know intimately from Part I, every interaction has a double meaning — how Melody takes it, and how we imagine Stuart must feel it at the same time.

The third and final part of the book is told from the perspective of Melody’s father, Hal, who suffers from Alzheimers. The snowball effect of dramatic irony is at its height in this poignant, fragmented section, as Stuart and Melody have spent the middle third of the book paying him visits in his care facility and reading to him. Decades prior, he wrote a novel called The World, which he can no longer remember, and they are introducing him to it as if for the first time. (Or is it?)

This brings back the resonance question. For, the title of Gaston’s novel is certainly linked to this fictive novel. The book itself is about a tiny island that was a colony for Cantonese lepers in the 19th century — a place those who lived there referred to as “the world.” This gives a clue to what Gaston is driving at: the circumscribed, individuated experience of life.

Beyond this nested narrative, Gaston’s book is about what the world is from a subjective viewpoint. Everyone abides in his own world, and it can all come crashing down so easily.

In this regard, the novel’s design is ingenious. In section one, Stuart loses his material world: his belongings, his money, his job. Literally everything he owns is destroyed, right down to his car and glasses.

In section two, Melody loses her body, ravaged as it is by a cancer that robs her of sense pleasures — in particular, the ability to swallow food. This is especially heartbreaking for a foodie.

And Gaston to goes to great lengths  — too great, perhaps — to cast her as a gourmet. Here is one of the rare cases where he flirted with tedium. There is only so much one can read about ghost peppers, smoked mackerel, fiddlehead portobellos, lemon-stuffed pheasant, kimchi tempura, bison barbecue, Korean sardines, oatmeal stout, and fried goose meat before it feels more like a menu than a novel.

But this may all be meant to heighten the pain when she has to pour tinned slop into a tube piercing her stomach. It’s a heartbreaking and sobering loss.

Finally, Melody’s father, Hal, is losing his mind. He doesn’t recognize his daughter, or Stuart. And he thinks he’s living in a Nepalese monastery where the Filipino caregivers are Tibetan refugees. He is afraid. He’s using all the Buddhist advice he learned in the 14 years he spent in Asia before he got sick — a period of escape that had no small effect on Melody’s life — but everything is falling apart and he is powerless to make sense of it. His world is continually being unmade.

So these three worlds — material things, body, and mind — are all at risk. Watching Gaston’s characters deal with these (mostly unstoppable) challenges is worthwhile and touching. This is a book that bears reading.

Each of the characters irritated me in their own way, I must admit. But I respected them. And by the end, I really liked them all.

More than that, I felt for them. The emotional heft of this book snuck up on me. I wasn’t expecting it — even halfway through, I wasn’t — but I can still feel them in my chest. Stuart, Melody, and Hal. It’s a haunting novel.

Stylistically, The World is well-crafted. Gaston knows how to put a sentence together, understands how to string words so don’t stumble over them. More than this, so that — sometimes — you dance over them.

He’s cool, pliant, and witty. A wry humor pervades every page. The man is a fine writer.

He’s also an organic narrator. His story doesn’t smack of contrivance or melodrama, the way so many do. Reading The World is to go on a strange and natural journey.

It’s a journey that’s understated and bittersweet. But it’s one well worth the trouble. Bill Gaston‘s The World is not a novel to let slip by unremarked.

Review: I Am An Executioner by Rajesh Parameswaran

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I’m dawdling in my local bookstore, thinking up creative ways to avoid working. I come across an enigmatic title on the new fiction table: I Am An Executioner: Love Stories. 

Love stories? Execution? Together? I’m intrigued. I pick it up, flip through the first pages, and find myself plunged into the mind a dejected tiger listening to the moans of his dream female having sex at the far end of the zoo enclosure. The alpha male strikes again. Poor tiger. Interesting story (the tiger goes on to fall in love with his zookeeper… it doesn’t end well).

Rajesh Parameswaran’s debut collection of fiction is full of stories with original premises and engaging prose. He moves easily from the world of animals to death row to the offices of fake doctors to outer space. There really isn’t time to get bored.

His relentless creativity makes spending a few hours with his work a pleasure. But it is also where his faults lie. “Elephants In Captivity (Part I)”, for example, is a bifurcated story narrated in the main text by an elephant and in the footnotes by a human editor. The human voice intrudes into the elephant’s story to the extent where some pages have only one line of text and nearly a full page of notes. This is a clever structure, and as you read on you realize the notes actually tell their own story rather than simply expanding the main text. But it’s not easy to follow. Footnotes have been banished to academia for centuries, and there’s a reason for that.

Similarly, “The Four Rajeshes” is a historical tale that is actually being invented on the fly by a narrator (Rajesh) who is looking at photograph of a man long dead — a man (Rajesh, also) about whom he knows nothing. In this highly self-referential piece, the dead (and imagined) Rajesh’s voice frequently interrupts the present Rajesh to chastise him for getting his character wrong and mistelling the tale of his life.

Are you befuddled by this explanation? Try reading the story; it’s another overdose of ingenuity. The actual meat of the narrative is fascinating — it’s inspired by Melville’s famous short “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, but the action has been transposed to the early days of train travel in rural India. The characters are great: they have ambition, love, eccentricity, and charm. But Parameswaran’s habit of opening the hood of the story to play around with the machinery serves no purpose other than to get in the way of the story itself. Sure, it demonstrates his familiarity with a postmodernist deconstruction of narrative and identity, but I think that’s a bit old hat by now. And it doesn’t make for fun reading.

Happily, most of the stories are content to abide in the realm of cogency, and they keep the pages turning. Parameswaran’s voice is both irreverent and warm, and when it comes to setting and genre it feels as if nothing can hold him back. I was refreshed to be one minute immersed in a frightening society where everyone turns out to be a secret agent spying on everyone else (“Narrative of Agent 97-4702” — the collection’s best story, in my opinion), and the next amid a poignant love triangle with Bollywood’s aging giants (“Bibhutibhushan Mallik’s Final Storyboard”). By the time I reached the back cover, I felt I’d been around the world two or three times.

I Am An Executioner has depth and humour. It asks tough questions — some too tough, perhaps — and doesn’t give answers easily. The stories’ endings are somewhat loose, but usually in a good way, finding a balance between offering resolution and inviting you to wonder what happened next.

On the whole, I’m impressed. Parameswaran apparently has a novel in the works, and I’ll be looking out for it. In the meantime, if you’re also thinking of how to avoid work, checking out I Am An Executioner is not a bad idea.