An Orchestra of Minorities

Chigozie Obioma’s previous novel, The Fishermen, was a perfectly good novel, but not one that I felt a lot of affection for. An Orchestra of Minorities is better, if a little longer than it needed to be.

The book is narrated by the chi of a young Nigerian man named Chinonso. As Chinonso’s chi, he is able to observe everything Chinonso does, step outside his body and observe events in other areas, interact with the chi of other characters, and send Chinonso guidance in the form of vague impressions or impulses. He’s telling the story to some higher Igbo beings, who have a say in the fate of Chinonso’s soul. (At least, that’s how I understood the situation. I’m not familiar enough with Igbo spirituality to be totally clear what is going on.)

Chinonso is getting by okay as a poultry farmer, but when he falls in love with a woman named Ndali, his uneducated status makes him an object of shame and ridicule to her wealthy family. So he seeks to improve himself. And there his troubles begin.

The book took a while to get going for me. I was able to get something of a handle on the idea of chi as narrator, but it took a while to get interested in Chinonso himself. It’s not until Ndali comes into the story that he starts to seem appealing and interesting. She’s good for him in more ways than one, I suppose. And by the time Chinonso went to seek an education, I was extremely concerned about how things would turn out for him. The chi’s narration makes it clear from the start that things won’t go well, but it’s not clear when and how things will go wrong.

The story shows just how difficult it can be for a decent person to get ahead. One lapse in judgment can have disastrous consequences that are impossible to come back from. That’s not a new realization, by any means, but because I cared about Chinonso, I was sad to see it happen to him. But then, by the end of the book, I was questioning his response to his misfortune. He was understandably angry, but pinning that anger to a target made him look like the villain of the piece. Instead of seeing all the people ready to help him, he fixated on those who made him suffer. And that doesn’t lead anywhere good.

As I mentioned above, the book is longer than it needed to be. Besides the slow start, the accumulation of misfortune started to feel overdone after a while. And the ending was deeply upsetting, upsetting enough that it almost turned me against the book because it felt like a sort of gotcha. However, I think it does illustrate the self-destructiveness of being fixated on those who cause pain as well as any ending of the book could. It feels complete and appropriate, even if infuriating. That’s the intent, I think.

Posted in Fiction | 4 Comments

Normal People

Now I’m going to see if I can keep up my blogging momentum by writing about a book I enjoyed well enough but don’t think I have much to say about it.

Sally Rooney’s Normal People seems to be something of a phenomenon, praised not just in the book world but outside it. For me, that says little about a book’s quality. Both good books and bad books break through, and popularity says little either way about whether will or won’t like a book. It does sometimes pique my curiosity, though, and that was the case here.

The novel tells the story of two young Irish people, Marianne and Connell, who grew up in the same small town, in different social classes and social circles. Marianne is rich but not well liked. Connell is working class and popular. Connell’s mother cleans house for Marianne’s family, so the two end up seeing each other outside school, where social pressures keep them apart. And a secret sexual relationship begins.

Over time, and after they both end up at Trinity College, they drift apart and back together, sometimes open about their relationship and sometimes secretive. They seem unable to ever honestly express their feelings to each other, as both fear the consequences of being open about their love. And that’s if it is love. I don’t know that either character really understands their own feelings. There is certainly love there, though.

Underneath the basic plot are layers that may reveal why these two have so much trouble coming together. Marianne is abused at home, and the way that affects her relationships feels a little too on the nose (but perhaps also realistic). Connell’s worries about money and his need for a scholarship creates difficulties that are mostly logistical (he has to take a job at home over the summer, for instance), but I also think it adds to his insecurities. In both cases, I appreciated that Rooney keeps these pieces of the characters’ backgrounds as undercurrents, rather than having them talk openly about them, but I also wonder if they’re too far under the surface. The class problem in particular is easy to forget about.

I also found myself wondering whether these two really are good for each other or whether they are merely convenient. In the end, I think it’s a little of both. They do genuinely care for each other, and, although they slip up sometimes in the ways they care, those feelings generally lead them well. But I also don’t think they are necessary for each other. If they don’t maintain their relationship, whatever sort of relationship it is, they both will be okay.

As for whether I loved the book, I really don’t know. I enjoyed reading it and cared about the characters and the push and pull between them. But other books about people this age have impressed me more. (The Idiot by Elif Batumen comes to mind.) The timeline jumps and flashbacks within them sometimes exasperated me, as I would lose track of when I was inside a flashback. I also felt at a distance from the characters, as is sometimes the case in contemporary fiction. I wonder if, by keeping the characters’ deeper motivations under the surface, Rooney creates too much distance.

Anyway, I’d read another Rooney novel but I’m not running out to do so. I don’t have a strong sense of whether Conversations with Friends is more or less well-liked than this book, but I’m curious as to what other think, so let me know if you’ve read either (or both) or seen some good writing about the Rooney phenomenon. I’m still piecing my thoughts together.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 6 Comments

The Testaments (and a little catching up)

I  said for years that I blogged about every book that I read because if I didn’t make it a habit and blog every time, I’d stop blogging altogether. I’m all in or not in at all. And that proved to be the case when, back in June, I reread King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett while traveling in Scotland and decided I had nothing to say about it. Same with the next book, and the next. And then, when I had something to say, the habit of saying it was lost. I tried sharing reflections on Litsy and Goodreads over the last few months, but none of those venues were as satisfying as my own space. I don’t know what that says about me, but it surely says something.

Anyway, I read The Testaments by Margaret Atwood this week and decided I wanted to chew it over a bit more and give others a chance to weigh in and add their own thoughts. And that is, at heart, what blogging has always been about for me. Chewing things over publicly, so others have a chance to add to my thinking. So, here I am.

I was not as excited or filled with dread about this book as many were. I liked The Handmaid’s Tale a lot but always found the individual elements (all drawn from real life) more convincing than the whole of the world Atwood creates. I haven’t watched the TV series, but my fairly recent reread of the book, the part that stuck with me most was how quickly the world turned, despite the warning signs that some (not all) chose to ignore. That is maybe the most terrifying aspect of the book, and it remains the case here.

Set 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale. This book follows the story of three women, one of whom (Daisy) grew up in Canada, one of whom (Agnes) grew up in Gilead, and one of whom (Lydia) was an adult when Gilead was founded. Lydia is the one character who appears in the earlier book, where, as an aunt, she has the job of training and disciplining the handmaids. Her story is told in a personal journal, being kept for an imagined future reader. Daisy and Agnes are providing after-the-fact testimony.

The plot is interesting enough, with a couple of revelations that weren’t all that much of a surprise to me. Some elements of it (such as Daisy’s journey to Gilead) started to make less sense as I thought about them more, but it’s an exciting enough ride as it happens, and that’s good enough for me these days. There was sufficient suspense to keep me reading. Will Agnes be forced into an unhappy (or worse) marriage? Will Daisy be able to do the tasks asked of her? And what’s Lydia up to anyway?

It’s Lydia’s character that is the most interesting and complex. I’ve seen some complaints that she, the villain of the previous book, gets a redemption arc here, but I don’t think that’s necessarily accurate. Her actions are explained, but whether they’re wholly justified is left unclear. Certainly, her in-the-moment choice to save herself and become part of Gilead’s ruling structure makes sense. It’s not the noble choice, but when torture and likely death are the only other choice … well … we’d all like to think we’d act differently, but it might be harder than we’d expect in the moment. Self-preservation is a powerful force.

And, the reality is that, by accumulating power, Lydia may be the only one able to take down Gilead (and we know from The Handmaid’s Tale that Gilead will fall). To accumulate power, she must do terrible things and put other women through hell. None of that is okay. But her position proves to be useful in the end.

During the course of the book, she also uses her position to help other women. She gets an abused girl out of a marriage that paralyzes her with terror. She gets another out of a marriage that will almost certainly prove fatal, given the husband’s track record with wives. Yet in both of these cases, her motives are murky because saving these girls serves her larger purpose. That’s especially clear because, in saving one girl from a fatal marriage, she consigns another to that same fate.

What I’m left wondering is how committed she really is to taking down Gilead. And for what reasons? Is her motivation righteous, or was she just playing a long game to get back at her past tormentors? Did she want to see Gilead fall, or did she want to see these men suffer? And, if the end result is a good one, does it matter? And to whom? The women who are saved, or those who are unwillingly sacrificed?

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 13 Comments

Ordinary People

In Ordinary People, Diana Evans follows two couples as they grapple with the possibility that, after years together, they are no longer in love. Melissa and Michael, the couple that is the center of the book, live in South London with their two children. Melissa works at home as a freelance designer and Michael commutes into the city. Neither is entirely satisfied with their situation, as the stress of raising two small children (and the unequal burden each of them carries) forms a barrier between them. Sex and togetherness are no longer a priority, and when they do find time, they just don’t feel the passion they used to.

Their friends, Damien and Stephanie, are in a similar state. They live in the suburbs with their children, where Stephanie strives to create a home of perfect domestic bliss. But the death of Damien’s father has raised in Damien feelings of unrest and dissatisfaction.

Although the novel focuses on the challenges of marriage, Evans works in ideas about culture and heritage, as well as the difference between dreams and reality. But the core of the story deals with what happens when romance fades and real life takes precedence. These are black couples, and their race matters to the story, but this isn’t a book that’s particularly about race. It’s just part of who they are.

Most of the book is written in a realistic mode, recounting in third person how each character feels as events unfold. But then there’s a sequence toward the end that reads like horror. One character’s fears appear to manifest as actual spiritual phenomena. This development took me entirely by surprise. There are hints of spiritual activity throughout the book, but I expected it all to remain in the characters’ heads. What’s interesting here is that it’s never really clear what is real and what isn’t. Evans seems to be leaving it to readers to decide.

 

Posted in Fiction | 3 Comments

Learning to Swim

Abigail Onions was something of a misfit at school. She had trouble with a bully and didn’t have a lot of friends. For years, her only friend was not someone she especially liked, just someone willing to spend time with her. But then Frances Radley came to her school, and Abigail had a new friend and a new family. The chaos of the bustling Radley household was a change from the quiet tension of Abigail’s home. And, at Frances’ house, there was always the hope of getting to see her older brother, Rad.

This book by Clare Chambers is a slow-moving story of growing up and falling in love and then losing that love. From the start, there are signs of great drama, but the actual events are slow to emerge. We know, for instance, that Abigail lost contact with the Radleys and had some strong feelings about it because the book begins with adult Abigail seeing Rad for the first time in decades. As Abigail tells her story, there are also hints about secrets within both the Radley family and her own family.

Chambers takes her time setting up what kind of person Abigail is, what her friendship with Frances is like, and what the Radley home feels like before the events that caused Abigail to lose touch. For me, the scene setting before the unraveling was a bit too slow. I usually don’t mind a slow narrative, but in this case, I wasn’t really clear what kind of book I was reading and what the nature of the events to come might be, which made it harder for me to maintain interest. For a while, it was a coming of age story, then it’s a romance, but there are hints of dark psychological drama. And it is all of these things to some degree. (It actually won the Romantic Novel of the Year award from the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association, so there’s that.)

Even with the slowness, I did end up enjoying this book. I especially liked the present-day storyline that frames the narrative. For most of the book, Chambers immerses readers in young Abigail’s perspective, and seeing her (and her peers) stepping back later and reconsidering their views was pleasant. It’s not that their big feelings in their youth weren’t warranted. They were! But they were also feelings that could evolve over time, and I liked seeing that.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 2 Comments

Freshwater

When Ada was born, she did not come into the world alone. She was accompanied by a group of spirit/gods, or ogbanje. These spirits were largely silent, but they had an influence that grew over time. In Akwaeke Emezi’s novel, they speak as a group about those years:

We made ourselves big and strong for the Ada, we tried to, because she was solidifying into something lost and bereft. We were still very weak, as newborns often are, but we were determined to spring into sentience, to drag ourself upright, clawing grips into the sides of her mind. We could not have done it if she was not the type of child that she was, ready to believe in anything.

When Ada gets older and leaves Nigeria and attend college in America, the spirits become louder, with one of them, Asughara, taking on a sort of protective role, shielding Ada after she is sexually assaulted. Over time, the spirits and Ada develop arrangements among themselves that shift as Ada’s needs change. Sometimes they get along well, but sometimes Ada fights them. Sometimes they seem like protectors, and at other times they seem like the source of Ada’s problems.

Although I’m not familiar with the Igbo spirituality that fills this novel, and I’m sure I missed some of the layers of meaning as a result, I found this a fascinating look into what it must feel like to struggle with mental illness (at least, with particular forms of it). Ada is both in control and not, her mind is both her enemy and her friend. The spirits drive her to self-destructive behavior, but she doesn’t always know she’s doing it. They stand by when she takes deliberate steps to hurt herself, but they keep her from experiencing certain traumas.

The book also gets into questions of identity, as Ada tries to figure out what qualities constitute her true self. Her gender expression evolves, as does her spirituality. How these evolutions tie into the presence of the ogbanje is not entirely clear, which I thought was wise. All of these elements come together to form a person, but one element isn’t necessarily the source of the other.

For me, the lack of clarity is part of what makes the book so interesting. Emezi doesn’t present a clear-cut view of any of these aspects of Ada’s life. Much of the book is narrated by spirits we perhaps shouldn’t trust, and, when Ada speaks, it’s not clear to what degree she understands what’s happening to her. There are no obvious answers, but there is hope. By the end of the book, there’s reason to believe that Ada has turned a corner. What her new direction will ultimately mean is unclear, but that feels right, too. This is a book about the eternal mysteries of the self, and that’s not a mystery that’s easily solved.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 2 Comments

The Parasites

The Delaney children had an unconventional childhood, moving all around, spending time backstage as their famous parents performed, their only constant being each other. And as adults, the can’t seen to form strong relationships with other people.

In this 1950 novel, Daphne du Maurier uses a sort of combined first/third person perspective to tell the Delaneys’ story, as if all three are telling the story together. Their reflections are kicked off with an accusation from eldest sister Maria’s husband, Charles — that the three siblings are parasites, relying on their parents’ fame and the whims of the public, and feeding off each other. The trio start looking back:

“I wonder if we see them with the same eyes,” [Maria] said thoughtfully, “Pappy and Mama, I mean. And the days that were, and being children, and growing up, and everything we did.”

“No,” said Niall, “we all have a different angle.”

“If we pooled our thoughts there would be a picture,” said Celia. “but it would be distorted. Like this day, for instance. We shall each of us see it differently when it’s over.”

The book is itself the pooling of thoughts that Celia proposes. There’s no shift from narrator to narrator, and limited use of we. But the sense is that this picture is their combined perspective.

The eldest Delaney, Maria, is the daughter of Pappy and a Viennese actress. She herself goes onto the stage, although it’s never clear to her how much of her fame is due to her family name. Niall, the middle child, is the son of Mamma and a French pianist. He, too, inherits the family talent and becomes a pianist, although he’s somewhat jaded about his career and lacks discipline. Celia, daughter of Pappy and Mama, is more of a caregiver, although she has artistic talent and potential for success.

All three siblings exist as individuals, but their relationships with each other shape their fates. Maria and Niall have a strong bond, one that sometimes looks like sexual attraction, although it’s never clear to what degree the step-siblings have acted on it or are even fully, consciously aware of it. They certainly rely on one another for emotional support, often in ways that appear unhealthy. Celia is also relied on, but not so much for emotional support as actual physical help. She’s the one who takes care of Pappy as he ages, who capably babysits Maria’s children. No one ever seems to have much concern for her feelings and ambitions, and it’s not clear if Celia prefers it that way. She has opportunities that she wants to take, but she also wants to be there for her family.

As a group, the Delaneys are not especially likable, and I can understand Charles’s exasperation with them. But I mostly felt sorry for them. They’re locked in relationships and ways of living that are clearly not good for them, but they can see no way out. When they do strike out on their own, a plea for help pulls them back in. But is Charles right that they’re parasites? To me, the idea that they use their family name and the public fascination with them to gain success is not the problem. They can’t help that, and they do have genuine talent. They also, to varying degrees, want to be good at what they do. The problem is the way they feed on each other’s worst tendencies. It’s lovely that they have each other, but they don’t quite have themselves.

I read this as part of Ali’s Daphne du Maurier reading week. Visit her blog for more reviews of du Maurier’s work.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 6 Comments

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again

Like many people, I was shocked and saddened at the recent death of Rachel Held Evans, the author and blogger who helped so many people see that Christianity is a faith of love and acceptance, even when so many of its adherents fail to be loving and accepting. I read her blog off and on for years and very much appreciated her book Searching for SundayMy own faith journey was not unlike hers in that we were both raised in conservative evangelical churches and eventually made our way to the Episcopal church, while retaining a lot of concern for and interest in our more evangelical brethren.

I’ve had her most recent book, Inspired, on my shelf for a few months, and my sadness over her death got me to pull it off my shelf and read it. It’s similar to Searching for Sunday, except that instead of examining beliefs about the church, Inspired looks at how Christians have understood the Bible. In her view (and mine), the Bible is a collection of books of different genres and styles, and it’s important to consider the culture and worldview from which each book came when determining what it means. The Bible is ultimately not a literal history text (although it contains true stories), nor is it an instruction manual on how to live life (although it contains a great deal of good wisdom and advice).

Much of what Evans discusses here was not new to me. I studied the Bible at a fairly progressive seminary, and my church’s Education for Ministry program explored many of the same questions she tackles, but with greater depth. However, as with Searching for Sunday, I would have found this book immensely helpful, even life-changing, had I encountered it during the years when I was struggling with how my own attempts to understand the Bible in a literal way led me down paths that made no sense. Evans sums up my own feelings during that period:

The truth is, you can bend Scripture to say just about anything you want it to say. You can bend it until it breaks. For those who count the Bible as sacred, interpretation is not a matter of whether to pick and choose, but how to pick and choose. We’re all selective. We all wrestle with how to interpret and apply the Bible to our lives. We all go to the text looking for something, and we all have a tendency to find it. So the question we have to ask ourselves is this: are we reading with the prejudice of love, with Christ as our model, or are we reading with the prejudices of judgment and power, self-interest and greed? Are we seeking to enslave or liberate, burden or set free?

In each chapter, Evans tackles a different sort of Bible story — origin stories, deliverance stories, war stories, wisdom stories, resistance stories, gospel stories, fish stories, church stories. She introduces each of these chapters with her own riffs on the biblical stories, often bringing them into a modern context. (These were clever, but not particularly my favorite parts of the book. I imagine they are the sort of thing that will totally work for you, or really won’t work much at all.) Each chapter then goes on to talk about some of the controversies surrounding the different narratives, how Evans herself has grappled with them, and what various scholars and preachers have had to say about them.

My favorite chapter was the one on war stories, in which Evans writes about how difficult it is to reconcile the idea of a loving God with the triumphant stories of violent conquest in much of the Bible. And it’s not just the stories that are troubling, there’s also the tendency of so many Christians to avoid asking hard questions about them at all. It’s in the Bible, so it must be ok. But that’s not good enough:

When you can’t trust your own God-given conscience to tell you what’s right, or your own God-given mind to tell you what’s true, you lose the capacity to engage the world in any meaningful authentic way, and you become an easy target for authoritarian movements eager to exploit that vacuity for their gain. I tried reading Scripture with my conscience and curiosity suspended, and I felt, quite literally, disintegrated. I felt fractured and fake.

Instead, Evans encourages readers to wrestle with the text, as Jacob wrestled with God in the desert. She doesn’t come to any conclusion about how to read these texts, other than to keep wrestling, looking to the stories in the margins, particularly of women. And don’t settle for unsatisfactory answers:

I’m in no rush to patch up these questions. God save me from the day when stories of violence, rape, and ethnic cleansing inspire within me anything other than revulsion. I don’t want to become a person who is unbothered by these texts, and if Jesus is who he says he is, then I don’t think he wants me to be either. There are parts of the Bible that inspire, parts that perplex, and parts that leave you with an open would, I’m still wrestling, and like Jacob, I will wrestle until I am blessed. God hasn’t let go of me yet.

Posted in Nonfiction, Religion | 2 Comments

Don’t Look Now

The nine short stories in this collection by Daphne du Maurier are wonderfully dark, some of them downright terrifying. Two of them — “Don’t Look Now” and “The Birds”— have been made into classic horror films, and the stories are even scarier, especially in the case of “The Birds.” I love the Hitchcock film, but the sense of doom in this story is much greater, as du Maurier makes it clear that the crisis exists beyond the immediate setting. When the story ends, I still couldn’t help but feel that it was only a matter of time before the birds would win.

A few of the stories are just brief little curiosities. There’s “The Escort,” about a ghostly ship; “Indiscretion,” which is more comic than the other stories; and “La Sainte-Vierge,” which is probably the saddest of the stories. There’s no complex plot or character development in these stories. They just capture a moment of irony or strangeness, more startling perhaps than terrifying. And they’re short enough that they didn’t wear out their welcome, even if they aren’t stories that will stick with me.

Two other stories were entertaining enough, but offered little that really surprised me. “Kiss Me Again, Stranger” involves a man becoming captivated by a mysterious woman he meets in a movie theater. I found this pretty predictable, and the main character much too easily duped, which I guess was the point. “Monte Verita,” the longest story in the collection, is about a woman who disappeared in a hidden mountain city. I liked the idea of it, but I think it was longer than it needed to be.

Besides “The Birds,” the stories that made the strongest impression on me were “Split Second” and “Blue Lenses,” both of which center on women trying to explain situations that no one understands. In “Split Second,” a woman leaves her house to go on a walk, and when she returns she finds her house filled with strangers and all her things gone. In “Blue Lenses,” a woman has surgery on her eyes and wakes up to find that she sees everyone in a different and alarming way. In both cases, the women are certain of their own experiences, but no one believes them. What they are experiencing is terrifying enough without the additional problem of not being listened to. And, like in “The Birds,” there seems to be nothing that can be done about it.

Whenever I read Daphne du Maurier, I hunger to read more. Nothing of hers I’ve read so far tops My Cousin Rachel, which is a masterpiece of unreliable narration and ambiguous characterization. But everything I’ve read of hers has been a pleasure. What’s your favorite du Maurier?

I read these stories back in April and early May, but I saved the post until now, as part of the Daphne du Maurier reading week, hosted by Ali. Visit her blog for links to more or follow the #DDMreadingweek hashtag on Twitter.

Posted in Classics, Short Stories/Essays | 16 Comments

Praise Song for the Butterflies

Abeo Kata had a happy, relatively uneventful life in Ukemby (a fictional country between Ghana and Togo). There were some minor dramas here are there, but she was mostly shielded from them, focusing instead on the fun times, such as when her aunt Serafine came to visit from America. All of that changed when her father was placed under investigation for crimes committed in the government office where he worked. That event, plus some other trials and tragedies that followed close behind, led him to give Abeo to one of the shrines in the area, where she would live as a trokosi, or ritual slave.

Bernice L. McFadden shines a light on a horrifying practice, but I found the novel ultimately frustrating. It felt too slight for the subject matter, full of deep emotion but skirting quickly over it to focus on inconsequential details and characters.

The book’s chapters are short, often just three or four pages, and I was quickly swept along in the story. But at almost every turn, I wanted more. Momentous events occur over just a page or two, and then make little impact on the plot. There was a point where a character is extremely sick, leading to disastrous consequences, but then he almost disappears from the plot, causing me to look back and see if he actually died. A few characters are given lengthy introductions, just to bring about a single plot point and vanish. It just feels incomplete and the emotional moments unearned.

I’m not one who thinks a book needs to wallow in tragedy to effectively tell a tragic story. I appreciated, for example, that the novel skips over most of Abeo’s time in servitude. But moving too quickly over it, especially over the recovery, has the effect of simplifying the process. To be clear, the narrative says that many of the emotional beats take time, but we readers are given no way to feel that time.

I also found the writing a little awkward, with strange word choices that pulled me out of the story. This is the kind of thing I often don’t notice if I’m enjoying a book, but when a book isn’t working for me, I sometimes can’t avoid seeing it.

Still, with all this said, the book reads quickly, and I never stopped caring about what happened to the characters. I just wanted more time to dig into their experiences.

Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments