Monthly Archives: January 2015

PURPLE HIBISCUS by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

purple hibiscus by chimamanda ngozi adichie

This is a real gem of a book. The words dance off the page. The story is heart wrenchingly sad yet also uplifting. It’s beautifully told and paced, evocative of its Nigerian setting, whilst universal in its themes.

Kambili is 15 years old and has lived most of her life stifled by her father’s strict and fanatical, Catholic beliefs. Wearing trousers is forbidden, not being first in catechism class leads to a beating, grace before meals lasts so long the food congeals on the plates, and Kambili’s  gravely ill, paternal grandfather is estranged from his grandchildren because he refuses to convert. But a half term visit to Kambili’s Aunty Ifeoma awakens something in the teenager and her brother Jaja, changing their lives forever and giving her a voice she has never before dared to use.

In many ways this is just a coming of age story. But Adichie’s deft characterisation and exquisite attention to detail transforms it into something so much more.  Nothing is black and white in the world she portrays – both Kambili’s parents for example are complexly drawn and as the secrets at the heart of the family are revealed, so too are new unexpected dimensions to their personalities. There’s a sweetness and innocence to the tale – Kambili’s attraction to a charismatic young priest, for example, is left as just that rather than taking us into other territory – but there’s also a terrible darkness that casts a shadow throughout the book and that gives PURPLE HIBISCUS much of its power. Some of that darkness comes from the political context that provides a backdrop to Kambili’s story, the corruption damaging Nigeria at that time and the consequences for those like Kambili’s father who are shining a light on the activities of the military regime, but this is well balanced with the more personal story being told, mirrors  and echoes rather than dominates it.

I loved AMERICANAH and reading PURPLE HIBISCUS has made me even more determined to buy a copy of the book Adichie is most well known for, HALF OF A YELLOW SUN – and soon.

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THE CIRCLE by Dave Eggers

the circle by dave eggers

This is a really clever book. Not too clever for it’s own good (which is what I fear from Eggers’ better known novel, A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS) but clever in that it’s a satire on the internet age and a dystopian vision of the future, yet for much of the book feels likes neither. Rather, it feels like – and is – the engaging story of a young woman and the struggle she faces between work and family loyalties. Mae Holland has got a new job with the Circle, a company that’s a cross between Google, Apple, Paypal, Twitter and Facebook. A company built on the principles of community, transparency and shared data, headed up by “three wise men” who inspire hero like levels of worship amongst the company’s fast growing numbers of hip, young employees.

Mae has been taken on because of a college friendship with one of the Circle’s inner circle and is under enormous pressure to succeed. The book tracks the way she is gradually absorbed into the company’s culture, the way it takes care of her every need, elevates her every thought and opinion, and transforms her into the perfect Circle citizen. It also tracks the parallel process by which she disengages with everything “off campus” – her love of canoeing, her ex boyfriend and her sick Father, whose money worries are eased when the Circle agrees to pay his medical insurance. Peppered with the kind innovations that are no doubt being developed by the internet conglomerates as we speak, THE CIRCLE treads a fine line between utopia and dystopia. One person’s vision of transparency and openness, is another’s nightmare of intrusion and surveillance. In Mae we have a believer who, whilst she momentarily questions the Circle philosophy, has been so successfully assimilated that she soon becomes one if its most enthusiastic proponents. She’s also an innocent who wants very little more than to please others, even if that means staying up all night to share her views, sign petitions, smile, like, friend, frown at oppressive regimes, fill in surveys and rate products. This stream of opinions makes up one tiny part of the flood of information that the Circle argues must be shared to empower all citizens alike. But, Eggers asks, is information always power? Do everyone’s opinions matter all the time? Is someone completely knowable? And do the same rules about responsible citizenship apply online as do offline? The novel climaxes with one of Mae’s proposals – that the right to vote be dependent on having a Circle account – about to be realised and her being shown the potential ramifications. In a week when Apple has declared the biggest quarterly profits ever recorded by a company, the prospect doesn’t seem entirely preposterous or even far off.

There’s much to smile at in THE CIRCLE and much that’s familiar – the tyranny of email, mailing lists and social media messages, the bizarre connections you are supposed to form with other people just because you both happen to like the same brand of shampoo, for example – and  this is well balanced with the darker, sci fi elements. I actually found the every day more compelling and interesting than Eggers’ handling of the more dramatic scenes in the book –  perhaps to some extent I too was sucked into the Circle and it’s mission to end the chaos of an orderless world. Unusually, the plot’s not the main attraction here for me. What I most loved about THE CIRCLE is the clever ideas – and the sense that, despite so much about our world having been changed by the internet, we are really only at the beginning of the internet age. There’s always a risk the book will seem out of date in a few years but I suspect Eggers’ questions won’t be, and that THE CIRCLE will go down in history as a remarkably prescient and relevant piece of writing.

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THE PAYING GUESTS by Sarah Waters

the paying guests by sarah waters

There’s something thrilling about a new hard back book and when it’s a Sarah Waters, one of the few writers for whom I can justify the financial investment and the sheer discomfort of carrying something as unwieldy as a small brick around with me for a few days, that thrill takes on an additional frisson of anticipation. So it’s with enormous sadness that I found THE PAYING GUESTS so lacking in what usually makes her books so appeal to me.

As ever, Waters manages to take us to a particular place in time and bring it alive – on this occasion London’s Champion Hill in 1922. The mannerisms, attitudes and class divisions of the period are captured beautifully, with different generations showcasing shifting post war norms. Extra marital affairs, abortion, housework and the plight of well to do war widows are all put under her gentle spotlight, and the result is as much a piece of social history as a work of fiction.

Another Waters’ trademark is her ability to tell cracking stories and THE PAYING GUESTS is true to form. There’s tension, drama and secrets by the lorry load. And yet I kept expecting something much cleverer. Almost of all of her previous novels have tricked me with the most unexpected twists in the tale or sudden changes of perspective that shed a totally new light on everything I’d read so far. I turned every page of THE PAYING GUESTS with the anticipation of such alchemy, preparing to be shocked when it came. But it never did. And so a well told and gripping story about two women who fall in love, struggle to be together and to sustain their love in the face of tragedy is – simply that. Nothing more, nothing less. And if it hadn’t been Sarah Waters name on the front cover, I’d be perfectly content. But instead, whilst I have undoubtedly enjoyed THE PAYING GUESTS, I also feel a little cheated and let down.

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THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt

the secret history by donna tartt

I had high hopes of this book – the critics loved it, various friends recommended I read it and I loved THE GOLDFINCH. In so many ways it  lived up to, and even exceeded, my expectations, but it also left me feeling a little dissatisfied. For whilst reading THE SECRET HISTORY has been a huge pleasure, somehow the overall effect is not quite the sum of its parts.

It goes without saying that Tartt’s writing is sublime. Her attention to detail means that we physically inhabit the Hampden university campus where the novel is set, can perfectly picture everything from its clock tower, green shutters and Vermont light, down to patterned china that says so much about each of the various locations where the story unfolds, and the grooves in the battered mirror that some of the students use to snort coke. This effect is further enhanced by the narrator, Richard, immediately taking us into his confidence – from the outset we learn his darkest secret and that this is the story of a murder in which he has been complicit. We are given access to the inner sanctum of the small group of classics students to which Richard belongs, to the wisdom of their brilliant and charismatic tutor Julian Morrow, who exerts enormous influence over each of the young men and women who take his classes. And we become part of their elite club, sharing in their experiences, participating in their education, caught up in the short lived but emotionally intense bubble that is their self-absorbed, youthful friendship, where they are at the centre of everything and everything is possible.

The back cover of my edition of the novel calls it a thinking persons’ thriller and certainly the quotations, references to Greek myths, obsession with human, natural and poetic beauty, and the rich seams of philosophy and history, mark THE SECRET HISTORY out as different from your usual book of this genre. It’s not an inaccessible book though and the big themes it tackles – the nature of fate, duty, sacrifice, loyalty – are finely balanced with a beautifully paced, gripping narrative that builds to the murder we first learn about in the book’s opening pages, then takes us yet further still as we find out whether those responsible will get away with it. It’s unusual in that rather than finding out who committed murder we are compelled to turn each page because we want to find out why, something I found particularly appealing. Tartt herself describes THE SECRET HISTORY as “not a whodunit [but a] whydunit.”

In Richard we find a passionate narrator. Far more likeable than the rest of the group – aloof, controlling Henry, the twins Charles and Camilla, neurotic Francis and Bunny, who ends up dead – our sympathies lie with him as an outsider,  flattered by the others’ friendship, hopeful some of their allure will rub off on him. And yet even Richard is immoral, selfish, weak, an impression that grows stronger as we journey with him and share his insight into his friends motivations for murder, as well as his own. Penniless and without any family support, he arrives in Hampden with dreams aplenty and plans to “fabricate a new and far more satisfying history”. With hindsight he tells us how all that potential for any number of stories was soon reduced to just the one, and how he has never managed to walk away from it.

The book’s opening is arresting, touching and a glimpse into the ruin and despair that awaits Richard and his friends. It closes with an enigmatic dream in which Henry tells Richard neither are happy. Each page in between is clever, well crafted, controlled and profound. The critics are right, I am glad my friends recommended it, yet somehow I feel let down on finishing THE SECRET HISTORY. Perhaps there’s something missing. It’s like the most incredible journey you ever made, without the joy of arriving. The most stunning of landscapes where nothing stands out. Or perhaps it’s that there’s a tension between a plot that hinges on a moment of unbound pagan ecstasy and that I am enthralled by the words Tartt puts on the page, in thrall to force that is THE SECRET HISTORY. The book is captivating but it holds me captive too – meaning that, like Richard, I am haunted as much by what might have been, as by the story itself.

Without a doubt, this novel deserves all the accolades it has attracted. Without a doubt I will read it again and again. And with a different set of expectations, without a doubt I’ll appreciate it even more. For different reasons, some books are even better the second time around and I think this may well be one of them.

 

 

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