It’s the school holidays, and this means I’ve actually got time to a) read b) blog about what I’m reading. I’ve been flying through books like nobody’s business and I’ve picked the good, the bad and the brilliant to tell you about!
Firstly, the good:
Of late I have been making a concerted effort to read more books from outside of my cultural comfort zone (i.e. not British, and not pre 1950) and a new colleague is a huge fan of Adichie, so I duly borrowed Americanah from the library for some holiday reading. It’s the story of Ifemelu, an ambitious young Nigerian woman, her high school boyfriend Obinze, and their contrasting young adulthoods as they both attempt to escape Lagos for the promised land of America. Ifemelu goes to study in America, and finds herself suddenly exposed to her race and how it identifies and defines her in the eyes of others in a way she never experienced in Nigeria. While she struggles to find work and to make ends meet, she also struggles to assimilate to a new culture where she is, perplexingly, considered lesser than everyone else around her. The shock of this is enough to send her into a deep depression, during which she shuts Obinze out completely. Once recovered, she starts a successful, controversial blog, about race in America, dates American men, and finds herself moving far away from her Nigerian self. Obinze, meanwhile, never makes it to America, and finds himself sleeping on a friend’s sofa in London instead, working in menial, low paid jobs under a false name, unable to get the visa he needs to be there legitimately. He is forced to return to Lagos, where he becomes highly successful, but at the heart of his sanitised existence in a luxurious suburban compound, there is something essential missing. When Ifemelu returns to Lagos after years in America, will she be able to readjust after so long in another culture? And can she and Obinze ever reconnect, after so many years living completely different lives?
I loved the structure of the novel – it goes forward and backwards in time, and in and out of different characters’ experiences, allowing for a gradual unfolding of their lives and how they end up where they do. The characters were wonderfully realised; I felt like I knew Ifemelu and Obinze intimately, and was so invested in them and their fate. Adichie’s observations on the cultural behaviours and expectations in all three countries were incredibly thought provoking and I particularly enjoyed the extracts from Ifemelu’s blog, which raised points about race I’d never thought about before, and made me feel incredibly ignorant. I was utterly immersed in the story, and emerged from it feeling emotionally moved while also being incredibly challenged. I am now very much wanting to read more by Adichie and other contemporary African writers; recommendations would be welcome.
Now for the bad:
I was sent this by Penguin to take part in a promotional blog tour, and was very excited at the prospect of a neo-Georgian murder mystery featuring a former slave who had been brought to London to work for a wealthy white couple. It sounded very intriguing in the blurb – great marketing! However, I couldn’t make it past the first few chapters, and had to pull out of the blog tour, because unfortunately I could find nothing positive to say about it. The story itself is certainly interesting enough to keep reading – if it weren’t for the writing. Dear God, the writing! Every sentence has at least two similes, most of which are nonsensical and serve no purpose in terms of aiding description or telling the story – they’re just needless decoration. As an English teacher, nothing irritates me more than the current trend in literature for this very MA Creative Writing style of prose that seems to be pushing the excessive use of figurative language to the point where sentences actually become meaningless. This technique is nothing short of abuse of the English language and I cannot abide it. I’ll give you a few examples:
‘For a time, there was only the scratching of brushes against stone, like mice in a cupboard.’
The use of the onomatopoeic ‘scratching’ here is already sufficient to produce an auditory response in the reader; we can imagine the bristles of the brush making the harsh sound the word creates for us as we say the word in our heads. The random addition of ‘like mice in a cupboard’ adds nothing to this impression that has already been created, and instead just functions as a pointless and distracting addition to the sentence. One minute I’m imagining the scene the author is actually trying to depict – someone cleaning the floor – the next, I’m suddenly asked to imagine mice running in a cupboard. Why? These sounds and images bear no relation to one another. Why is this considered to be good writing? If one of my students had written this, I would have crossed out the entire simile and given them a good talking-to.
‘The wooden hulls clacked against each other like oyster shells in a bucket’…’I was black as a fly in butter’…’I felt watched as a clock’….’London air, wet as a kiss’…’his new black coat stretched tight as a cheek’…all of these examples are within the same two hundred word section. Utterly pointless simile after simile. I could go on and on.
I’m sure for some people this kind of writing is very atmospheric and wonderful but because I am a shameless pedant, I’m afraid I just can’t get on with it. All the Amazon reviewers seem to disagree with me, however, so I am clearly in a grumpy minority!
Finally, the brilliant:
I’m sure everyone apart from me has already read this, but it was a new discovery for me after spotting it on a recommendation table in Waterstones, and in my desire to read outside of my cultural comfort zone (as explained above), I snapped it up. The fictionalised true story of a middle aged couple’s resistance to the Nazi regime in wartime Berlin, this is a truly remarkable novel about the human cost of hatred and paranoia. This is both a damning indictment of the Nazis and of those who used their regime to fulfil their own pathetic desires to wield power over and cause suffering to others – and a wonderful affirmation of the essential goodness of the majority of humanity, and the lasting ability to love, to help, to protect and to fight against injustice, even in the face of fear and horror and hatred. I have never read a novel set in Berlin during WWII, and it was fascinating and horrifying for me in equal measure to understand more about what it was actually like for people living there at the time. I was moved to tears by the bravery of many of the characters, and by the needless suffering so many of them had to endure. I am so grateful that Michael Hofmann, the translator, made it possible for me to read this beautiful book. If you haven’t read it, you must.