GAN Quest: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Polemics too thinly disguised as fiction…

😦

americanahAfter living for some years as an immigrant in America, Ifemelu has decided to return to her native Nigeria. As she sits in the hairdressers having her hair braided, she reminisces over her adolescence in Nigeria and her life as a student then an adult in America. Her experiences have led her to start a blog discussing the reality of life as a non-American black person in the US, and her blog posts are sprinkled throughout the book. She makes the point that, until she became an immigrant, she had never considered herself as black, and she draws clear distinctions between those in the black community who have grown up as Americans and those who are foreign to the culture, making the further point that in terms of social strata the two groups are treated differently by the white elite.

In fact, she makes a lot of points. And many of them are interesting and insightful, if repetitive and hardly original. There is a tendency, which seems to be happening more and more, for literary authors to use the novel form to make polemical statements. Some do it well, so that the book can be read on two levels – enjoyment of the story and appreciation of the message. Others forget to put in the story. Many of these books are highly successful and well regarded, as this one is, so I’m perfectly willing to accept that my objection to being preached at is subjective, due partly, I suspect, to the fact that I read a lot of factual political books and so am looking for something rather different when I come to fiction.

I think back over the literary books I consider great and find that most of them were making political points or observing their societies with a revealing and critical eye. But they also tell a story, have great characterisation, fabulous prose and some kind of tension that keeps me turning the pages. Will Becky Sharp beat or be beaten by the society at which she is thumbing her pert nose? Why is Beloved haunting her mother? Will Miss Flite ever be able to set her birds free?

Here’s the story of Americanah. Back when she was a teenager, Ifemelu fell in love with a boy. They separated when she went to America. He is now married and has a child. Ifemelu intends to contact him when she gets back to Nigeria to try to revive the old embers. Do you care if she succeeds? I don’t. In fact, I’d be rather disappointed if she does. It’s a plot that wouldn’t even hold together a quick YA romance, much less a 400-page novel with literary pretensions. Therefore I abandoned it a third of the way through.

All the rest (of the part that I read) is observation mixed with chip-on-the-shoulder polemics. Part of my problem with this book, and with so many others about the ‘immigrant experience’, is that I don’t think Ifemelu’s life is actually bad enough to justify her eternal whining. She is one of the privileged in this world of ours – not poor in Nigeria, given a scholarship to study in America, welcomed in by that country, educated, professionally employed, well-fed, still at liberty to return to her own country any time she wishes. The ‘racism’ that she meets with seems mainly to take the form of her feeling pressured to have her hair straightened in order to get work. I sympathise, but it’s hardly slavery, and frankly when she finally lets her hair revert to its natural state, no-one sacks her or pokes fun at her or calls her names. Please don’t think that I’m for one moment minimising the impact of racism or even cultural pressure, but most of Ifemelu’s experiences could so easily have been seen as a cause for celebration rather than resentment. Sometimes discrimination is in the eye of the beholder, and Adichie’s eye seems determined to find a racial nuance in every aspect of her character’s interactions with the world.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The prose is fine, occasionally beautiful, but mainly workmanlike (no doubt she would complain about the sexism inherent in that word). Not exceptional enough to carry me through, though. I realise I’m swimming against the tide on this one – in fact on this whole trend of thinly disguised polemics. I abandoned Annie Proulx’s Barkskins for almost exactly similar reasons. But reviews are personal things, and personally I am bored by these books, so can’t recommend them. My 1-star rating reflects the fact that I couldn’t bring myself to read several hundred more pages of the same and it always seems to me ridiculous to give a book a higher rating if it couldn’t entice me to finish it. But it would probably have earned 3 or even 4 stars in reality, had I struggled through to the end.

(I read this as part of the Great American Novel Quest, but it will be obvious that it doesn’t rate as great for me.)

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 3
Book 3

TBR Thursday 83…

Episode 83…

 

Ooh, the TBR has dropped 2 again this week – to 165! I knew it was the start of a trend! I shall be in single figures any time now, I’m convinced of it! So long as nothing unforeseen happens…

Here are some of the ones that are getting close to the top of the heap…

Factual

the wicked boyCourtesy of NetGalley, from the author of the brilliant The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (and the slightly less brilliant Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace)…

The Blurb says: In the summer of 1895, Robert Coombes (age 13) and his brother Nattie (age 12) were seen spending lavishly around the docklands of East London — for ten days in July, they ate out at coffee houses and took trips to the seaside and the theater. The boys told neighbours they had been left home alone while their mother visited family in Liverpool, but their aunt was suspicious. When eventually she forced the brothers to open the house to her, she found the badly decomposed body of their mother in a bedroom upstairs. Robert and Nattie were arrested for matricide and sent for trial at the Old Bailey.

At a time of great tumult and uncertainty, Robert Coombes’s case crystallised contemporary anxieties about the education of the working classes, the dangers of pulp fiction, and evolving theories of criminality, childhood, and insanity. With riveting detail and rich atmosphere, Kate Summerscale recreates this terrible crime and its aftermath, uncovering an extraordinary story of man’s capacity to overcome the past.

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Fiction

 

americanahNext up for the GAN Quest. I’m not expecting this to be The Great American Novel but I’m hoping it will be A Great American Novel. Can’t be worse than Absalom! Absalom!, right? 😉

The Blurb says: As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu—beautiful, self-assured—departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze—the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor—had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion—for their homeland and for each other—they will face the toughest decisions of their lives.

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Crime

 

the other typistRecommended by the lovely Raven way back in 2013, it’s taken some time for this one to reach the top of the heap…

The Blurb says: New York City, 1924: the height of Prohibition and the whole city swims in bathtub gin. Rose Baker is an orphaned young woman working for her bread as a typist in a police precinct on the lower East Side. Every day Rose transcribes the confessions of the gangsters and murderers that pass through the precinct. While she may disapprove of the details, she prides herself on typing up the goriest of crimes without batting an eyelid.

But when the captivating Odalie begins work at the precinct Rose finds herself falling under the new typist’s spell. As do her bosses, the buttoned up Lieutenant Detective and the fatherly Sergeant. As the two girls’ friendship blossoms and they flit between the sparkling underworld of speakeasies by night, and their work at the precinct by day, it is not long before Rose’s fascination for her new colleague turns to obsession.

But just who is the real Odalie, and how far will Rose go to find out?

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mrs hudson and the malabar roseAnd NetGalley again. Not exactly a Holmes pastiche, more a riff on a theme, I think. It’s had mixed reviews so far, so we’ll see…

The Blurb says: As snow falls on Baker Street, the wintry city is abuzz with rumour and excitement: the Malabar Rose – a fabled and frankly enormous ruby – has been sent as a gift to Her Majesty Queen Victoria by the Marharajah of Marjoudh. An extraordinary condition is attached to the gift, though: the gem must be displayed at London’s sumptuous Blenheim Hotel to be admired by all. How can the safety of this priceless jewel be assured? The authorities wisely enlist the help of Sherlock Holmes and his colleague Dr Watson… but fortunately for them, they are also on the receiving end of help from Holmes’s redoubtable housekeeper Mrs Hudson and her able assistant, Flotsam the housemaid.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

 

Great American Novel Quest – The Second Batch

The Quest continues…

 

Great American Novel Quest

The first batch of ten contenders produced some fantastic reads, but so they should have since they were carefully chosen as some of the traditional front-runners in the race to be The Great American Novel. However, the list was also heavily weighted towards Dead White Men, with the addition of the occasional living one. All white and only one woman. This time round I’ve selected a rather more diverse group – 6 from the pens of female writers, three of whom are black, and a couple of recent books that haven’t been around long enough for us to know what their eventual status will be.

peanuts writing 4

There has been much interesting and thought-provoking chit-chat amongst my fellow readers as to the near impossibility of a book achieving that pesky fifth criteria which it needs to be declared The GAN…

For the elusive fifth flag, it must capture the entire ‘American experience’. That is to say, it must seek to include all the various very different aspects of culture that make up the American whole.

…though I would (and did) argue that American Pastoral does. I’ve found coming up with a revised fifth criterion that’s better than this one to be impossible also – to skew it so that favourite books can get in would certainly increase the number but would kind of take away the point, which is surely that The Great American Novel is one of the rarest of beasts, perhaps mythical. And entirely subjective.

peanuts writing 2

But, to be honest, the quest is more about finding Great American Novels in general than identifying one ‘winner’, so I’m quite content that several in this second batch are unlikely to be The GAN. I’m hopeful that some will be GANs and that more will be great novels. And if one of them happens to gain the elusive fifth flag, then that will be an added bonus.

peanuts writing 3

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So… a drum roll, maestro, please… for…

The Second Batch

.
Beloved by Toni MorrisonStaring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement by Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale HurstonWhen Janie, at sixteen, is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before meeting the man of her dreams, who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds …”

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichiea story of love and race centered around a young man and woman from Nigeria who face difficult choices and challenges in the countries they come to call home. Fearless, gripping, at once darkly funny and tender, spanning three continents and numerous lives, Americanah is a richly told story set in today’s globalized world: Adichie’s most powerful and astonishing novel yet.

 

Moby Dick by Herman Melville In part, Moby-Dick is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopaedia of whaling lore and legend, the book can be seen as part of its author’s lifelong meditation on America.

Absalom! Absalom! by William FaulknerThe story of Thomas Sutpen, an enigmatic stranger who came to Jefferson in the early 1830s to wrest his mansion out of the muddy bottoms of the north Mississippi wilderness. He was a man, Faulkner said, ‘who wanted sons and the sons destroyed him.'”

Gone with the Wind by Margaret MitchellMany novels have been written about the Civil War and its aftermath. None take us into the burning fields and cities of the American South as Gone With the Wind does, creating haunting scenes and thrilling portraits of characters so vivid that we remember their words and feel their fear and hunger for the rest of our lives.”

The House of Mirth by Edith WhartonThe tragic love story reveals the destructive effects of wealth and social hypocrisy on Lily Bart, a ravishing beauty. More a tale of social exclusion than of failed love, The House of Mirth reveals Wharton’s compelling gifts as a storyteller and her clear-eyed observations of the savagery beneath the well-bred surface of high society.

 

Middlesex by Jeffrey EugenidesMiddlesex tells the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides, and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family, who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City and the race riots of 1967 before moving out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan.

Lolita by Vladimir NabokovHumbert Humbert – scholar, aesthete and romantic – has fallen completely and utterly in love with Lolita Haze, his landlady’s gum-snapping, silky skinned twelve-year-old daughter. Hilarious, flamboyant, heart-breaking and full of ingenious word play, Lolita is an immaculate, unforgettable masterpiece of obsession, delusion and lust.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher StoweStowe’s powerful abolitionist novel fueled the fire of the human rights debate in 1852. Denouncing the institution of slavery in dramatic terms, the incendiary novel quickly draws the reader into the world of slaves and their masters.”

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – (carried over from the first batch) an intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America’s heart. Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows “even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order” (Slate).

(NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.)

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Many thanks to everyone who has joined in the discussions and/or suggested contenders. I have another 25 or so still to come after this, but am still looking for recommendations. I’d particularly like to add some more cultural diversity to the list (there are no black male authors on it, for example, and none from authors with Latin-American or, indeed, Native American heritage). Also, more women are needed to even things up a bit – there are very few female authors amongst the remaining 25, since I’ve included most of the ones on my list in this batch. And I’d love to mix some outstanding modern American fiction (1980 to 2010, say) in with the classics, whether they would be contenders for GAN status or not. For preference, though, they should shed some light on that great conundrum which is America.

peanuts writing 1

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So… what do you think of the list? Are there ones that you would endorse… or dump? Any recommendations?