“My mother had not believed in friendships among women. She said women weren’t to be trusted. Keep your arm out, she said. And keep women a whole other hand away from the farthest tips of your fingernails. She told me to keep my nails long.”
Another Brooklyn is short yet vibrant novella. August, a Black woman in her thirties, looks back to her girlhood in the 1970s. The memories are presented to us as fragmented snapshots that perfectly capture the atmosphere of growing up in Brooklyn. After her mother falls ill August, alongside her brother and father, moves to Brooklyn and is drawn to a trio of girls, Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi.
“How safe and strong they looked. How impenetrable.”
In Another Brooklyn Woodson explores the way in which a young girl struggles to understand her own grief, the feeling of belonging and community you feel among your friends, the highs and lows of growing up. Memory too plays a big role in these pages, as August remembers, sometimes with more clarity than other times, those years. This novella is lyrical, heady with nostalgia, and vividly renders a difficult yet unforgettable period of its main character’s life. The fragmented structure gives the novel a fast pace, a rhythm even, but it did sometimes prevent me from becoming fully immersed in a scene. Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi too blurred together and I could often only tell them apart by their hobbies (dance, theatre, and… modelling…?). Nevertheless, I did appreciate how once August becomes part of the group her voice is no longer singular but becomes plural (‘we did this/we were that’). It gave us an idea of how intense their bond was.
“And now the four of us were standing together for the first time. It must have felt like a beginning, an anchoring.”
While I wasn’t wholly enamored by this novella I would probably read more by Woodson.
“With no words, Yeyemi says, I am the strength and fire in you, I am everything that is and was and every will be. You are the stuff my stars are made of. I am you and you are me.”
An Ordinary Wonder tells a moving coming of age, one that will definitely appeal to young adults (heads up: it does contain some potentially triggering content). The novel is set mainly in the 90s in Ibadan, Nigeria. The story is divided in classic two timelines (NOW and BEFORE) and is narrated by Otolorin, focusing in particular on her younger teenage years. Oto is intersex and is forced by her family to live as a boy, even if from an early age Oto has clearly identified as a girl. Oto’s father, a wealthy business man, refuses to acknowledge her existence. Oto’s mother blames Oto for her broken marriage and treats Oto in an appalling manner. Wura is Oto’s only ‘beacon’, but even she’s uncomfortable with the idea that Oto could identify as female. The BEFORE sections give us a glimpse into Oto’s life before moving to ISS (International Secondary School) and it is far from pleasant. Oto’s mother abuses her, emotionally and physically, and forces her to undergo ‘cleansings’ and ‘treatments’ at the Seraphic Temple of Holy Fire. Oto spends her childhood believing that she is abnormal and abhorrent, and is to be blamed for her mother’s unhappiness. While Oto tries to live as a boy, she is not always willing to hide her true self (trying out her sister’s clothes etc.). In the NOW sections we follow Oto, who is now 14, at the ISS. Here she once again tries to blend in with the boys but the appearance of an old bully threatens Oto’s newfound peace (away from her mother). She becomes fast friends with her roommate, Derin, who is ‘half-oyinbo’ (his mother is white). Not only does Oto excel at school but she is also able to learns more about what it means to be intersex.
I’m not sure whether the dual timeline added a lot to Oto’s overall story. I think that her childhood could have been summed up in just a few chapters here and there, rather than prolonging those BEFORE sections. The story too veers into the clichéd, especially the way the ‘bully’ storyline unfolds. I would have much preferred for that storyline to be a side-story instead of taking up most of the overall plot. The bully in question, Bayo, was beyond one dimensional. There is an attempt at giving him the usual ‘but he comes from a possibly abusive family’ sad backstory but this seems a bit like a cop out to excuse his most egregious behaviour. I also wish that Oto’s friendship with Derin had not been so immediate. The two become BFF overnight. Other students, especially some of the girls, are not fleshed out at all and serve as mere plot devices (like someone’s GF…ahem). Wura too was a somewhat disappointing character. Her bond with Oto didn’t convince me all that much. My biggest problem is that the first 70% of this novel is basically misery-porn in which we read scene after scene of Oto being bullied, emotionally and physically abused, sexually harassed, demonised, and ostracised. It wasn’t great. Oto is a sweet and somewhat naive narrator and to read of her being endlessly maltreated was kind of exhausting (I understand that a few scenes of this nature were needed in order to understand her circumstances and experiences but should those scenes make up 70% of the novel? I think not). Thankfully the last 30% sees Oto finally receiving some validation. There is an unavoidable misunderstanding between Oto and the person she loves which I could have done without but for the most part this final section delivers. Oto’s relationship with Mr. Dickson, her art teacher who is originally from Ghana, was truly moving. Their moments together were powerful and heart-rendering. Buki Papillon’s prose for the most part rendered Oto’s young perspective but there were a few phrases that were very, shall we say, ‘debut-like’, such as the overused “I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding”…surely there is another way to convey Oto’s anxiety or tension? I also thought that the “little/tiny/small” voice inside of Oto was unnecessary. This voice always voices her true feelings or fears…and it got kind of old. Why just not directly write what Oto fear or wants without resorting to that ‘little voice’? Still, there were elements of Papillon’s writing that I really liked. Her descriptions for example were extremely be vivid, at times quietly beautiful, at times vibrant and full of life (someone is as still as an “Esie statue”, “jealousy pierces my heart, stinging like a vexed scorpion”, words “sting like pepper”, Oto observing her mother during her father’s rare visits “it was like watching plucked efo leaves left out in the sun. She’d wilt slowly till he left”). Another aspect of this novel that really worked was Yeyemi, an entity that brings comfort and strength to Oto (often appearing in dream sequences). Oto’s book of proverbs also added a nice touch to her story as the proverbs she thinks of are quite apt. This novel deals extensively with Oto’s exploration of her identity, the bullying and abuse she experiences along the way, and, at long last, her self-acceptance. Overall, I would probably recommend this to fans of coming of age stories or to those who enjoy the work of authors such as Akwaeke Emezi and, to a certain extent, Won-pyung Sohn.
“I had always understood, of course, that the task of rooting out evil in its most devious forms, often just when it is about to go unchecked, is a crucial and solemn undertaking.”
As much as it pains me to admit this…I didn’t particularly care for this novel. While it is written in Kazuo Ishiguro’s trademark prose, which is both eloquent and introspective, the more I read and the less invested I felt in the story and in particular in Christopher Banks, our narrator and protagonist. It saddens me not to have enjoyed When We Were Orphans as I consider Ishiguro to be an excellent writer and certainly a favourite of mine. Then again, Ishiguro himself said that “It’s not my best book”. Still, while I wasn’t expecting When We Were Orphans to be as poignant as The Remains of Day or Never Let Me Go, I hoped that I would at least find it to be an engaging read. At first I was intrigued by the narrative. Although Christopher is a famous detective his investigations are only alluded to. This itself is very unusual and it subverts the reader’s expectations. Usually, when a book revolves around a detective chances are that whatever case(s) they are working on will be a central part of the story. Here instead Christopher’s job is treated like any other job. It is Christopher himself who is a mystery. Ishiguro introduces us to certain aspects of his life, for example at first we read many scenes in which he is socialising at glitzy parties or events. The story begins in the 1930s England and Christopher is slowly making a name for himself. We learn that he is an orphan and that he grew up in the International Settlement of Shanghai. As with other novels by Ishiguro our narrator finds himself recollecting a certain period of his life, in this case is childhood. He reconsiders figures and scenes from his past, scrutinizing and questioning his own memories, re-experiencing specific episodes both through the uncomprehending eyes of a child and through his newly acquired adult perspective. Scenes from his past are interspersed throughout Christopher’s narrative. In the present he meets Sarah, a young woman who also happens to be an orphan. Sarah seems intent on upward social mobility or so we can assume given that she expresses a wish to marry someone of importance. We also learn more of Christopher’s circumstances. Throughout his careful examination of his past Christopher remains a somewhat remote and cautious narrator. Usually I find cold or detached narrators to be right up my street (such as with Brontë and Kincaid’s Lucys) but Christopher’s opaqueness seemed a bit contrived at times. He remains a half-formed thing for much of his narrative. For instance, when he is thinking of childhood it is Akira who steals ‘the sh0w’. Child-Christopher remains an amorphous figure, who possesses no discernible traits. Still, I appreciated the way he considers the limitations of memory, how certain events are coloured by later ones, how some incidents will always remain unclear. What seems to drive his remembrance is the loss of his parents (the exact nature of which we learn quite late in the narrative). The second half of the novel sees Christopher back in Shanghai and here things take on a hazy quality. While in the first half there are many time skips, I never felt that I was missing out on any vital scene. Once Christopher is Shanghai however I started to feel mildly annoyed by how many things happened off page. Nothing is explained to us, we are simply made to go along with Christopher and his outlandish plans. He finds himself in the midst of the Second Sino-Japanese War and kind of loses his marbles. He makes foolish decisions and behaves in an abhorrent fashion. I could not for the life of me believe that he felt any particular strong feelings for Sarah. During his earlier reminiscence I did not feel his grief or anguish when he considered his parents. And yet, all of a sudden, it seems imperative for him to uncover the truth. The more ill-behaved he became the more antipathy I felt for him and the book as a whole. This character change was abrupt and doubtful. While Christopher never struck me as a particularly likeable or kind person he seemed a level-headed and sensible person. And then he just becomes this increasingly tyrannical, inconsiderate, and impudent man. The mystery was anti-climatic and the story lacked a cohesive structure or at least a rewarding storyline. Christopher remains undeveloped and uninteresting, while the secondary character seemed mere devices. Take Akira for example…his role in the story is disappointing. At the end especially he just ‘puffs’, vanishes, disappears. Christopher doesn’t think of him or their last encounter. Nevertheless Ishiguro’s prose is certainly refined and, to begin with, thoughtful. His dialogues always ring true, from the words they use to express themselves to the vernaculars they use, even when the motivations of his characters don’t. He certainly succeeds in evoking the society in which Christopher moves, as well as the cultural differences between England and China. While I didn’t particularly enjoy this novel I still consider Ishiguro to be one of the best writers ‘out there’.
“Loving a country besides the one you lived in was a recipe for disaster.”
The Star Side of Bird Hill is an enjoyable coming-of-age novel about two sisters, Dionne and Phaedra, who are sent off by their mother to spend their summer with their grandmother, Hyacinth, in a small town in Barbados. The girls’ aren’t too happy to leave Brooklyn, even if their homelife hasn’t been great given that their mother, who is suffering from depression and no longer works, can’t look after them (or herself for the matter). In Bird Hill they are forced to acclimatise to a different culture, and are often treated as foreign by their grandmother’s community. Although Phaedra, who is 10, misses her mum, she soon grows attached to Hyacinth, especially once she learns how vital a role she plays in the community. Fifteen-year-old Dionne on the other hand, repeatedly clashes with Hyacinth and her rules. Even if she resents her mother, for having sent her away and for forcing her to take care of both her and Phaedra, she’s clearly hurting. As the summer goes by the two sisters adapt to life in Bird Hill. Phaedra, who is made fun of by other young girls for being a bit of a tomboy, finds fulfilment in learning more of her family’s history and of her grandmother’s job as a midwife. Dionne takes far longer to adjust to Bird Hill and their grandmother’s presence. She flaunts her rules and seems intent on being as difficult as possible. After certain events happen, she too begins to reconcile herself with her life in Bird Hill and Hyacinth. Throughout the course of the novel we are given flashbacks into the girls’ childhood as well as the start and end of their mother’s relationship with their father.
“You practice being one kind of thing too long, and soon enough that’s who you become.”
While the storyline is somewhat conventional of this ‘coming-of-age’ genre, the author injects vitality into her story thanks to the character of Hyacinth and the vividly rendered setting of Bird Hill. Hyacinth was a force of nature (and funny too: “Oh Lord, please deliver me from these Yankee children”). I loved her no-nonsense attitude and the many wisdoms she imparts on her granddaughters. Phaedra too was a likeable character (who likes reading Jamaica Kincaid, always a plus in my books), who had a clear personality from the get-go. Dionne, in comparison, was a far weaker character. She’s very much the epitome of rebellious and angsty teenager who spends most of her time disrespecting her elders and thinking about sex. Which is fair enough, but because Hyacinth and Phaedra weren’t relegated to their ‘grandmother’ or ‘young child’ role, Dionne’s poor characterisation—which hinges on her being a teenager—stood out. The writing was heavy on the ‘telling’ and light on the ‘showing’. Conversations are summarised rather than being ‘played’ on the page, and because the third-person narrative switches from character-to-charcater the same events or information would be repeated over the course of a few pages. The flashbacks could have been better integrated within the narrative, as they often broke the flow of the story, and gave us chunks of backstory that could have been portioned out more uniformly. Still, I liked reading about Bird Hill, Hyacinth, and Phaedra. And even if the story touches on topics such as mental illnesses, it did so without delving too deep in them, so that it maintained an overall lighthearted, if bittersweet, tone. I would probably recommend it to readers who enjoyed Frying Plantain or other novel that focus on family relationships between women (mother/daughters, granddaughters/grandmothers).
“That was the thing that was at the heart of my reluctance and my resentment. Some people make it out of their stories unscathed, thriving. Some people don’t.”
In an eloquent and precise prose Yaa Gyasi interrogates a young woman’s relationship to her family, her faith, her past, and her self. Her brother’s addiction and her mother’s depression have irrevocably shaped Gifty, the protagonist and narrator of Transcendent Kingdom, who is now a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford. Her quiet and controlled existence is disrupted by the arrival of her mother, who has once again succumbed to a depressive state, barely responding to the world around her, let alone taking notice of her daughter. Gifty, who spends most of her time in her lab, where she’s researching the neural circuits of reward seeking behaviour (by experimenting on mice) finds herself looking back to her childhood, her college years and her first years at Stanford. Throughout the course of the novel Gyasi weaves together Gifty’s past and present, delineating her self-divide and her fragile relationship to her mother. Gifty’s recollection of her childhood is free of sentimentality, and she’s very much matter-of-fact when it comes to recounting her brother’s addiction to OxyContin, the racism she and her family are exposed to in America, the lack of support they receive (“They just watched us with some curiosity. We were three black people in distress. Nothing to see.”), especially from the members of their church. We also learn of her parents’ immigration from Ghana to Alabama, her father’s disconnect from his new home, her mother’s desire to fit in and adapt, the rift caused by their opposing stances (wanting to return to Ghana/wanting to remain in America). After her father’s return to Ghana, Gifty’s mother spends most of her time working in order to keep the family afloat, so it is Nana who becomes the central figure in her life. In spite of their age gap and their sibling spats, the two are very close, and Gifty looks up to her brother. An injury occurred while playing basketball lands Nana in hospital where a doctor prescribes him OxyContin for the pain. In the following years Gifty witnesses her brother’s spiralling further into addiction, while her mother desperately tries to ‘save’ him. While these experiences have affected Gifty’s relationship to her faith, and she’s somewhat embarrassed when reading her old diary entries, in which she pleads for divine intervention, as an adult Gifty finds herself craving that ardor. In college she struggles between wanting to be alone and wanting to connect with others. Her background causes some of her science peers to make scoffing remarks or prejudiced presumptions, and the few people who try to get close to her are inevitably pushed away.
Throughout the course of the narrative Gyasi shows how time and again Gifty is made to feel as if she cannot possibly find comfort in both science and religion. Yet, for Gifty, the two are not in opposition: “[T]his tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion, is false. I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded, I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.” Given that her childhood was disrupted by her father’s departure, her brother’s addiction, and her mother’s depression, isn’t it natural for Gifty to wonder ‘why?’. Why did her brother become an addict? Why is her mother depressed? Her search for answers, for a reason, for the ability to discern cause and effect, fuels her studies and in many ways her faith. Once she finds herself once again with her mother however her resolve not to talk or reveal her past is tested. This novel tells an emotionally devastating tale about love, forgiveness, guilt, pain, and identity. Reading this novel made my heart ache. Addiction and depression have left their mark on my family, and Gifty’s experiences hit too close to home. And yet, however upsetting it was to read about the insidiousness of addiction and depression, Gyasi incisive observations and wisdoms assuage my uneasiness. Gyasi exerts perfect control of her prose as she navigates Gifty’s childhood and adulthood. Her restrained style perfectly reflects Gifty’s self-restraint. She offers piercing meditations on family, philosophy, science, and faith, and Gifty’s quiet meditations on these subjects are articulated in a meticulous yet striking way. I’m not sure what else I can add other than I was (am) in awe of this book. It made me feel seen and understood.
“Nana was the first miracle, the true miracle, and the glory of his birth cast a long shadow. I was born into the darkness that shadow left behind. I understood that, even as a child.”
“I wanted, above all else, to be good. And I wanted the path to that goodness to be clear. I suspected that this is why I excelled at math and science, where the rules are laid out step by step, where if you did something exactly the way it was supposed to be done, the result would be exactly as it was expected to be.”
“It would have been kinder to lie, but I wasn’t kind anymore. Maybe I never had been. I vaguely remember a childhood kindness, but maybe I was conflating innocence and kindness. I felt so little continuity between who I was as a young child and who I was now that it seemed pointless to even consider showing my mother something like mercy. Would have I been merciful when I was a child?”
“The two of us back then, mother and daughter, we were ourselves an experiment. The question was, and has remained: Are we going to be okay?”
“My memories of him, though few, are mostly pleasant, but memories of people you hardly know are often permitted a kind of pleasantness in their absence. It’s those who stay who are judged the harshest, simply by virtue of being around to be judged.”
“I remember what it was like to be that age, so aware of yourself and of the theater of your private little shames.”
“It was boring, but I preferred this familiar boredom to the kind I found at home. There, boredom was paired with the hope of its relief, and so it took on a more menacing tint.”
““What’s the point of all of this?” is a question that separates humans from other animals. Our curiosity around this issue has sparked everything from science to literature to philosophy to religion. When the answer to this question is “Because God deemed it so,” we might feel comforted. But what if the answer to this question is “I don’t know,” or worse still, “Nothing”?”
“Thought I had never been an addict, addiction, and the avoidance of it, had been running my life”
“I didn’t grow up with a language for, a way to explain, to parse out, my self-loathing.”
“I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.”
“I like you best when you’re feeling holy. You make me feel holy too.”
“After nearly a decade of delirious revenge, rations, war, and death, we saw the world in shades of blood.”
In Man of My Time Dalia Sofer makes a fascinating and unsettling inquiry into morality. The novel is centred on and narrated by Hamid Mozaffarian. When Hamid, a former interrogator for the Iranian regime, travels to New York he reconnects with his younger brother, Omid, who he hadn’t seen or spoken to since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. As the day passes Hamid finds himself looking back into his past, tracing his history with his family and his country.
“The point is that in the autobiography there is a time-honored tradition of redemption and repentance, which is a concept dear to all: towbeh for Muslims, teshuvah for Jews, penance for Christians—who doesn’t appreciate a good metamorphosis story, a passage from wickedness to virtue? Even the contemporary secular tale, say, of the disillusioned drunk or the wayward hustler, hasn’t escaped this familiar trajectory, of darkness to light, anguish to liberation.”
From the very beginning readers will be aware of Hamid’s dubious morals. To label him as antihero however seems inadequate as Sofer’s protagonist challenges easy definition. He’s capable of betraying and self-betraying, of committing reprehensible acts and of shirking accountability. As Hamid revisits his childhood we are shown contradictory episodes: at times Hamid seems like a sensitive child who is made to feel ashamed of his own fragility, and then we see the same child becoming obsessed with the “demise” of insects. Hamid’s formative years are shaped by his difficult relationship with his father and by Iran’s growing unrest. As a restless teenager Hamid’s unease towards his father morphs into contempt, and he finds himself projecting his hatred towards his father’s authority towards those who rule the country. He becomes entangled with rebels, agitators, and idealists, and seems eager to prove himself to them. When Hamid’s family flee the country during the revolution, he refuses to go with them. From mutinous teenager (“there was something consoling about being maligned, having a grievance, and maybe even dying misjudged”) Hamid grows into a deeply alienated man who leads a solitary existence. His wife wants to divorce him, he has become estranged from his daughter, and he has parted ways from the man he considered to be one of his only allies. His cynic worldview and the rancour he feels towards everybody and everything (from every generation to Iranians who live abroad to Western ideologies) give his narrative an unsparing tone.
“We were, all of us, funambulists skywalking between the myth of our ancestral greatness and the reality of our compromised past, between our attempts to govern ourselves and our repeated failures. We were a generation doused in oil and oblivion, the city expanding in steel and glass around us, erasing at dizzying speed the alleys of our grandfathers, hemming us in along the way.”
As Hamid recounts his life-story, his growing disillusionment towards the revolution and his generation becomes apparent. His interrogation into his past doesn’t provide easy answers. There are plenty of instance when Hamid seems to consciously choose to do something he himself considers to be wrong. But we are also shown the sway that one’s family and one’s country have on a man. Sofer’s erudite writing was a pleasure to read. Hamid’s adroit narration provides us with plenty of shrewd observations about his country and history in general. He analyses his past behaviour and that of others. Hamid offers plenty of interesting, if not downright disconcerting, speculations about a myriad of topics. Through Hamid’s story Sofer navigates notions of right and wrong, good and evil, judgment and forgiveness. Troubling as it was, Hamid’s narration also provides plenty of incisive observations about human nature. The way he describes the feelings he experiences (love was a sweet interruption in the lonely march toward nonbeing) could also be startlingly poetic. Yet, while Sofer succeeds in making giving Hamid nuance and authenticity, her secondary characters often verged on the unbelievable. We aren’t given extensive time with any other character, which is expected given our protagonist (Hamid repeatedly pushes others away, from his family to his partners and his daughter: “I heard the sound of my tired breath inside absences I had spent decades collecting, with the same diligence and fervor with which my father once amassed his beloved encyclopedia”). However, the fact that they have few appearances made me all the more watchful of those scenes they do appear in…and I couldn’t help but noticing that the way they spoke at times seemed more suited to a movie. What they said often didn’t really fit in what kind of person they until then seemed to be or their age (Hamid’s daughter speaks in a very contrived way). I also wish that the story had remained more focused on Hamid’s childhood and that his relationship to his mother could have been explored some more. Still, this was a nevertheless interesting read. Sofer has created a complex main character and she vividly renders his ‘time’.
“What was to be said? Absence was our country’s chief commodity, and we all had, at one time or another, traded in it.”
“I lay in the darkness, the song of Bogotá humming several stories below the window.”
Patricia Engel’s Vida is a collection of nine short stories centred around the Sabina, daughter of Colombian parents, who grows up in the suburbs of New Jersey. Each chapter reads like a self-contained story, capturing a particular phase or moment in Sabina’s life. Although they are not chronological, they are ordered in a fairly linear way. In the first story, ‘Lucho’, Sabina is a teenager. After her uncle is convicted of murder Sabina becomes persona non grata. As the only non-white kid in her neighbourhood Sabina is already made to feel isolated from others. Lucho, a boy slightly older than she is, strikes up a friendship with her. He has a bit of ‘bad boy’ reputation, he cares little for rules, doesn’t wash much, wears tatty clothes. His home life is less than peachy, and perhaps this is why they feel drawn to each other. ‘Lucho’ was my favourite story (a 5 star read). Engel’s understated prose perfectly conveys Sabina’s teenage languor, her sense of otherness, and her attraction to Lucho. The other stories were far less striking. Two of them seem writing exercises (one is narrated in the 2nd person, while in other one Sabina refers to her current lover as ‘you’) as they seemed to emphasise style over substance. Most of the stories follow Sabina as she moves from city to city, from lover to lover. All these boyfriends and sexual partners blurred together, their personalities somewhat insipid. I wish that this collection would have focused more on Sabina’s family. Sadly, the only two stories that seem to feature her parents are the first and last ones in the collection. Still, with the exception of those ‘you’ chapters, I really liked Engel’s style and her wry humour. It is simultaneously muted and touching. And even in the more forgettable stories there were moments that spoke to me (it may be something Sabina is thinking about or a conversation she’s having with someone else). Engel also manages to incorporate quite a few topics throughout the course of her stories. Rather than providing hurried assessments or observations, she tends to centre an entire chapter to a certain event/theme: from eating disorders and domestic abuse to 9/11. While not overly sentimental, she showcases empathy in the way she treats her characters and their behaviours/experiences. If you enjoyed Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta, chances are you will also like this.
“I wondered if all daughters fought with their mothers this way when they grew up.”
Frying Plantain presents its readers with a vibrant coming-of-age. Through the course of twelve chapters Zalika Reid-Benta captures a girl’s transition from childhood to adolescence into young adulthood. But this is far from a conventional Bildungsroman as within each chapter Reid-Benta hones in on a particular moment of her protagonist’s life, playing with perspective and style. Kara Davis, a second-generation Canadian, feels divided between her Canadian nationality and her Jamaican heritage. Kara lives in Toronto with her hardworking single mother. Everyone Kara knows seems to find fault with her: her relatives, her mother in particular, scold her for her “impertinence”, while her peers often tease her for being too “soft” or a goody two shoes. In most chapters Kara learns a lesson of sorts. In the opening chapter Kara, who has just returned from a trip to Jamaica, begins to tell a rather tall tale about a pig head to impress her classmates and her neighbourhood’s children (who aren’t as gullible as the white kids). As her story becomes increasingly fantastical, she lands herself in a spot of trouble. In the following chapter, which takes place a few years later, Kara becomes the victim of a cruel prank by her ‘friends’. Another chapter revolves around a somewhat tense Christmas dinner at her grandparents house. While the chapters can be read as a series self-contained narratives, read as a whole Frying Plantain provides its reader with a detailed and nuanced story of growing up. The fraught mother-daughter bond between Kara and her mother is present at each stage of Kara’s life. This pressure to succeed, to excel, drives Kara and her mother apart. Kara’s mother too has a troubled relationship with her mother. While the tension between these women often results in disagreements and fights, Reid-Benta conveys the love and affection that underlines their ‘difficult’ relationships (mothers wanting their daughters to achieve what they themselves couldn’t). Reid-Benta vividly renders family tensions, the gap between generations, the self-divide created by Kara’s Canadian nationality and her Black identity. The realism of Reid-Benta dialogues was utterly captivating. During the first chapters I was struck by Reid-Benta’s ability to so accurately portray a child’s mind. The last few chapters did loose me somewhat as I was more interested in Kara’s early experiences. Nevertheless this is a great debut novel and I look forward to reading whatever Reid-Benta will write next.
“In the Ojibway world you go inward in order to express outward. That journey can be harrowing sometimes but it can also be the source of much joy, freedom, and light.”
It is difficult to describe Medicine Walk as a work of fiction as this novel reads like reality. In a gracefully incisive prose Richard Wagamese tells a moving father/son tale. By turns brutally honest and deeply empathetic, Wagamese’s narrative explores the many undercurrents of this complex father/son dynamic. He renders with clarity Franklin Starlight’s tangled feelings—sorrow, rancour, pity—towards his estranged and alcoholic father.
“He wondered how he would look years on and what effect this history would have on him. He’d expected that it might have filled him but all he felt was emptiness and a fear that there would be nothing that could fill that void.”
Set in Canada during the 1950s Medicine Walk follows sixteen year old Franklin, referred throughout the majority of the novel as ‘the kid’, who lives on a farm with his guardian, ‘the old man’. When his father reaches out to him, Franklin finds himself unable to refuse him. Years of drinking have finally taken their toll on Eldon. Knowing his death is imminent, Eldon asks his son to travel alongside him to the mountains, so that he can be buried in the Ojibway warrior way, facing east. Franklin reluctantly embarks on this journey, and as the two make their way into the mountains, old wounds are reopened. He has few memories of his father, and in most of them Eldon appears as a chaotic and disruptive individual, hell-bent on self-destruction and far more interested in staying drunk than acting like Franklin’s father. It is ‘the old man’ who takes on a father role for Franklin. Still, Franklin has clearly suffered, and his relationship with Eldon is strained. It is perhaps his approaching death that makes Eldon finally open up to Franklin.
“His life was built of the stories of vague ghosts. He wanted desperately to see them fleshed out and vital. History, he supposed, lacked that power. ”
As his body begins to shut down, Eldon finds himself recounting his life to Franklin: his childhood, marked by poverty and loss, fighting alongside his best friend in the Korean War, what led to him to a path of spiralling alcoholism and self-hatred, before finally turning to his relationship with Franklin’s mother. Eldon’s troubled past brings about questions of cowardice and bravery, of loneliness and connection.
“The certainty of failure, the landscape of his secrets, became the terror that kept him awake.”
Wagamese’s story hit close to home as Franklin’s confusing emotions towards his father are depicted with incredible realism. Is it fair for Eldon to seek forgiveness when he’s about die? Should Franklin condone him in light of Eldon’s traumatic past? Wagamese doesn’t offer us simplified answers, letting his characters talk it out (with each other and themselves).
“The light weakened. He could feel the thrust of evening working its way through the cut of the valley and he watched the shapes of things alter. The sun sat blood red near the lip of the world and in that rose and canted light he sat there filled with wonder and a welling sorrow. He wiped his face with the palm of his hand and he stared down across the valley. Soon the light had nudged down deeper into shadow and it was like he existed in a dream world, hung there above that peaceful space where the wind ruled, and he could feel it push against him.”
In many ways Medicine Walk feels less like a novel that a long conversation: between a dying man and his child, between a man and his past, and between people and nature. Wagamese compassionate portrayal of addiction and shame, as well as his affecting examination of grief, family, history, forgiveness, and freedom, make Medicine Walk a book of rare beauty.
“He sat on the fence rail and rolled another smoke, looking at the spot where the coyotes had disappeared. The spirit of them still clung to the gap in the trees. But the kid could feel them in the splayed moonlight and for a time he wondered about journeys, about endings, about things left behind, questions that lurk forever in the dark of attic rooms, unspoken, unanswered, and when the smoke was done he crushed it out on the rail and cupped it in his palm while he walked back to the barn in the first pale, weak light of dawn.”
“This story you’re reading contains my memories of the final visit I made to the seaside town where I passed my childhood—of my last summer at home.”
Goodbye Tsugumi is the quintessence of Yoshimoto. Written in her quietly poetic prose Goodbye Tsugumi is a novel that is light on the plot. Yoshimoto introduces us to her characters without preamble, offering little in terms of backstory, yet she’s quick to establish the dynamic between Maria and her capricious best friend Tsugumi. Maria’s feelings are rendered in a language that is both simple and lyrical, as Yoshimoto often juxtaposes Maria’s inner thoughts with ordinary details of her environment. Yoshimoto is particularly attuned to nature, noting the smell of the sea, raindrops, the sand. She truly conjures up Maria’s “little fishing town”, almost giving it an ethereal quality.
The friendship between Maria and Tsugumi is the focus of this short novel. In spite of their contrasting personalities, the bond between the two runs deep. Tsugumi’s prickliness stems partly from her frustration towards the mysterious malady she suffers from. Maria, who’s going to a university in Tokyo, decides to spend her summer with Tsugumi’s in her beloved village. Yoshimoto captures with clarity Maria’s impressions and feelings, vividly rendering this particular phase of her life.
An atmosphere of nostalgia envelops Maria and Tsugumi’s story, making certain scenes particularly bittersweet.
However much I liked Yoshimoto’s prose, I can’t say that I particularly cared for Tsugumi. Her capricious nature was at times excused by her condition, which is fair enough but doesn’t really give her the right to be cruel or rude.
Still, this makes for a breezy read, and fans of Yoshimoto will most likely enjoy this.