In the utterly fantastic Americanah, the protagonist, Ifemelu, jokes/notes that all novels about Africa have yellow/orange/bright colours. While probably not categorically true, it’s certainly true in the case of Yaa Gyasi’ (also utterly fantastic) Home Going. I’m tempted to digress and ramble about book covers, but I’m wary of distracting you from how. good. this. book. is. and so I’ll stay focused. Look at me. Focused. Continue reading
Almost in time for Christmas I finished Julia Glass’s Three Junes, the last of the Christmas gift books from 2016. Why did I wait?! (Okay, it wasn’t on purpose. I kept the stack of Christmas books by my bed and picked one up everytime I had a lull between book club books, or top recommended, or stumbled-upon-it-and-couldn’t-resist). Anyway. Glad I finally read it. Glad for the gift (thanks, mum) and glad to be able to share it with you.
The internet loves Lesley Walton and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. They love the love story. The magic. The mystery of the ending. They love love love this YA novel. It’s enough to fill this reader with despair. How can so many people love a book that is so completely and totally average?
Maybe it’s like every time I’ve ever had a glass of wine with C. and R. I get super excited about the $15 bottle and its smooth taste, because really I can barely tell the difference between red and white. You get me – I’m accusing readers of The Strange and Beautiful as having unrefined tastes. Even though the readers are meant to be young adults who haven’t tasted enough to know what’s good or not. Ohmygoshdidshejustwritethat. Yes. Yes I did. Sometimes you need a trusted sommeli (*cough* let me, like Walton, make my analogy clear: a librarian. a teacher. a well-read friend) to steer you in the right direction. To correct your gushes of enthusiasm for the overly sweet – the gewurztraminer you can’t get enough of, the wine spritzer you claim as life changing.
On the surface this book should be good. It uses magic realism to explore… oh wait, nothing. Babies born with wings and mothers with a magical sense of smell, aunties that turn into canaries. All to suggest – get this – those who are different are sometimes mistreated by the rest of society that doesn’t quite understand difference. An overly pious man who brutalizes a young woman lets us know sometimes religion is hateful. It offers up some beautiful writing and then includes sentences like “death smelled like sadness” and images of women wearing *actual* wedding dresses to signal virginity. And then *actual* dirty wedding dresses to signal sexual awakening. You could defend these trite and surface elements as a consequence of the novels intended young adult audience, but then you’d run up against the inclusion of sexually graphic scenes and vivid moments of violence that – while certainly not to be forbidden the young adult, nevertheless read as intentionally provocative inclusions at best. Add in the underdeveloped and internally inconsistent characters, the absence of any plot conflict worth describing and a thematic depth better described as evaporation and you get… a wildly overrated novel.
Am I being overly arrogant in claiming to know what’s good or not in books? What makes for good value in reading? Sure. But it’s not a matter of taste. Books are not simply neutral objects awaiting the individual preferences of readers (*bracing for onslaught of outrage*). I appreciate different readers will enjoy different things – your Merlot for your Cab Sav – but there are qualitative differences and popularity is not one of them. Trust me?
“How was it possible to miss something you no longer wanted?” (Adichie, 7-8) asks our protagonist, Ifemelu, of herself in the opening pages of the (brilliant) Americanah by Chimanada Ngozi Adichie (also author of the brilliant Half of a Yellow Sun). In asking the question Ifemelu sets up the parallel plot threads that cycle through the story: love lost-found-lost-found-lost and immigration arrival-settle-resettle-departure-arrival-settle-resettle. More specifically she’s asking the question about a recent breakup – a question that – for this reader at least – resonates. In any case, throughout the story we witness Ifemelu grapple with determining what she wants, where she wants to be, what she wants to be doing, who she wants to be – and the ways she can, and cannot, make these decisions (and the ways these decisions are restricted by overt forces/characters or by the less direct, but no less powerful, figures (because they do often have personified characters) of race, class and gender. Continue reading