20 Books of Summer, #1–4: Adichie, de Bernières, Egan, and Styron

The first four books for this summer’s colour theme took me from Australia to New York City to Nigeria, and into a mind plagued by depression.

 

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2003)

This was my last remaining unread book by Adichie, and that probably goes a long way toward explaining why I found it underwhelming. In comparison to her two later novels, and even her short stories (of which this reminded me the most), the canvas is small and the emotional scope limited. Kambili is a Nigerian teenager caught between belief systems: her grandfather’s traditional (“pagan”) ancestor worship versus the strict Catholicism that is the preserve of her abusive father, but also of the young priest on whom she has a crush. She and her brother try to stay out of their father’s way, but they are held to such an impossibly high standard of behaviour that it seems inevitable that they will disappoint him.

Adichie’s debt to her literary hero, Chinua Achebe, is evident from the first line onward: “Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère.” It also sets up, with a certain lack of subtlety, the way in which religion is wielded as a weapon in the novel. Meanwhile, the title suggests rarity, beauty, and fragile hope. Had this been my first taste of Adichie’s fiction, I probably would have stopped there, so in a way I’m glad that I read her first book last. Now I just have to wait with tapping fingers for the next one… (Free from a neighbour)

 

Blue Dog by Louis de Bernières (2016)

A sweet coming-of-age novella about a boy moving to the Australian Outback to live with his grandfather in the 1960s and adopting a stray dog – a red cloud kelpie, but named Blue. I didn’t realize that this is a prequel (to Red Dog), and based on a screenplay. It was my third book by de Bernières, and it was interesting to read in the afterword that he sees this one as being suited to 12-year-olds, yet most likely to be read by adults.

Mick’s father is dead and his mother has had a breakdown, so Granpa is the only one around to look after him, though out at the cattle station the boy mostly fends for himself, having adventures with stinging lizards and cyclones and bushfires and cursed caves. All along, Blue and his motorcycle are constant companions. Taylor Pete, a wry Aboriginal man, and Betty Marble, a pretty blonde hired as his teacher, are two amusing secondary characters.

This reminded me of Gerald Durrell’s writing about his childhood, and was pleasant airport and plane reading for me: light and fun, but not fluffy, and offering an armchair traveling opportunity. I especially liked the Australian lingo and the blue and black illustrations at the head and foot of each chapter, with a flipbook-style cartoon of a running dog in the upper right corner of each odd-numbered page. (Public library)

 

Emerald City by Jennifer Egan (1993)

Each of these 11 stories has a fantastic first line – my favorite, from “Sacred Heart,” being “In ninth grade I was a great admirer of Jesus Christ” – but often I felt that these stories of relationships on the brink did not live up to their openers. Most take place in a major city (Chicago, New York, San Francisco) or a holiday destination (Bora Bora, China, Mexico, Spain), but no matter the setting, the terrain is generally a teen girl flirting with danger or a marriage about to implode because the secret of a recent or long-ago affair has come out into the open.

Recurring elements include models/stylists/fashion photographers and people getting conned out of money. The title story is set in New York, described as “a place that glittered from a distance even when you reached it.”

To me the best story, for offering something a bit different, was “One Piece,” about a brother who seems to hurt everything he touches but comes through for his sister when it counts. Egan’s characters are caught between emotional states: remembering a golden age, regretting a moment that changed everything, or hoping that the best is yet to come. “The Stylist” was the one story that reminded me most of A Visit from the Goon Squad. As soon as I closed the book, I found that I had trouble remembering details of any of the stories. (Little Free Library in suburban Philadelphia, May 2019)

 

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron (1990)

(Visible darkness must have a colour, right?) I had long wanted to read this and finally came across a secondhand copy the other day. What I never realized was that, at 84 pages, it is essentially an extended essay: It started life as a lecture given at Johns Hopkins in 1989, was expanded into a Vanity Fair essay, and then further expanded into this short book.

Approaching age 60 and on his way to Paris to accept a prestigious award, Styron could feel his depression worsening. Rather than being proud or grateful, he could only doubt his own talent. The pills his doctor prescribed him for insomnia exacerbated his feelings of despair. When he threw away the journal he had been keeping, he knew it was a potential prelude to suicide. Hearing a piece by Brahms on a movie soundtrack was the one thing that reminded him of the beauty of the world and the richness of his life, enough for him to reach out and get seven weeks of treatment at a mental hospital, which was what saved him. These experiences, recounted in sections VI and VII, are the highlight of the book.

Styron also muses on the creative temperament and the ubiquity of suicide among writers, especially those who, like him, had an early trauma (his mother died when he was 13). The prose is forthright and intimate, ably evoking a psychic pain that is “quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it.” This made me want to try his fiction, too. (Secondhand purchase, June 2021)

Favourite lines:

“each day’s pattern of distress exhibits fairly predictable alternating periods of intensity and relief. The evening’s relief for me—an incomplete but noticeable letup, like the change from a torrential downpour to a steady shower—came in the hours after dinnertime and before midnight, when the pain lifted a little and my mind would become lucid enough to focus on matters beyond the immediate upheaval convulsing my system.”

“Alcohol was an invaluable senior partner of my intellect, besides being a friend whose ministrations I sought daily—sought also, I now see, as a means to calm the anxiety and incipient dread that I had hidden away for so long somewhere in the dungeons of my spirit.”

 

Next two in progress: A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy and Ruby by Ann Hood.

 

Read any of these? Interested?

16 responses

  1. Never read Styron, but the memoir sounds fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sophie’s Choice is the other of his books that I’ve heard the most about, but I’ve been afraid it would be mawkish.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. buriedinprint

        It’s not…but it’s hard work! 🙂

        Like

  2. I’ve not read any of these. (I must be one of the few people on earth not to have read Captain Corelli’s Mandarin either). I enjoyed Half of a Yellow Sun, so maybe Purple Hibiscus would underwhelm too – I ought to read the Chinua Achebe though. There are so many books I ought to read! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love that you (accidentally?) put Mandarin — my husband and his birding friend use “Captain Corelli’s” as their joke/rhyming slang name for Mandarin ducks!

      Now that I’ve read all of Adichie’s work, I’d say Americanah is definitely the pinnacle of her fiction. Her short stories are really good, too, and give a flavour of all the rest of her work.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oops! I was obvs on autopilot. 😀

        Like

  3. I remember loving Darkness Visible. He writes about that Brahms piece so well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Talk about the power of music! That scene really made the whole book for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I often feel that way about short story collections, that I can’t remember anything about them. The exception is George Saunders, because his stories are often so odd!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Of course, I didn’t keep any notes, so wasn’t really doing myself any favors! But then again, I didn’t keep notes on 3/4 of these, and can remember the others better…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I felt similarly about Purple Hibiscus, as you know. I read lots of Egan’s novels around the time Goon Squad came out and liked them all, but they’ve all been weirdly forgettable – I think I’ll give Emerald City a miss.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Her short stories are definitely missable. I still have a copy of Look at Me, so will read that someday.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That was one of the ones I read and enjoyed and has now completely vanished from my head!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Ooh, Hardy, hooray! I haven’t fancied Purple Hibiscus and then I happen to have edited several chapters and essays about it, which has removed all joy from the idea of reading it!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, how funny — yes, I can see how that would make you lose interest in reading it!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve read them all, except for the de Bernieres (he’s one I’ve picked up many times but have never quite gotten to reading). The amazing thing about Purple Hibiscus is that in 2003 there weren’t many (not even mainstream) publishers telling this kind of story; Adichie stood out like a gem. So if you had discovered her then, against the backdrop of an often-samey-same publishing industry, I think you would have carried on with her. At least I did! Even though I’ve loved all the others more. 🙂

    Like

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: