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)
“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?
Mini-Reviews of Three Recent Releases: Chariandy, Dean & Tallack
Brother by David Chariandy
Canadian author David Chariandy’s second novel was longlisted for the Giller Prize and won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Narrator Michael and his older brother Francis grew up in the early 1980s in The Park, a slightly dodgy area of Toronto. Their single mother, Ruth, is a Trinidadian immigrant who worked long shifts as a cleaner to support the family after their father left early on. From the first pages we know that Francis is an absence, but don’t find out why until nearly the end of the book. The short novel is split between the present, as Michael and Ruth try to proceed with normal life, and vignettes from the past, culminating in the incident that took Francis from them 10 years ago.
The title is literal, of course, but also street slang for friends or comrades. Michael looked up to street-smart Francis, who fell in with a gang of “losers and neighbourhood schemers” and got expelled from school at age 18. Francis tried to teach his little brother how to carry himself: “You’ve got to be cooler about things, and not put everything out on your face all the time.” Yet the more we hear about Francis staying with friends at a barber shop and getting involved with preparations for a local rap DJ competition, the more his ideal of aloof masculinity starts to sound ironic, if not downright false.
I came into the book with pretty much no idea of what it was about. It didn’t fit my narrow expectations of Canadian fiction (sweeping prairie stories or hip city ones); instead, it reminded me of The Corner by David Simon, We, the Animals by Justin Torres, and Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge. It undoubtedly gives a powerful picture of immigrant poverty and complicated grief. Yet the measured prose somehow left me cold.
Brother was published in the UK by Bloomsbury on March 8th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Sharp by Michelle Dean
“People have trouble with women who aren’t ‘nice,’ … who have the courage to sometimes be wrong in public.” In compiling 10 mini-biographies of twentieth-century women writers and cultural critics who weren’t afraid to be unpopular, Dean (herself a literary critic) celebrates their feminist achievements and insists “even now … we still need more women like this.” Her subjects include Rebecca West, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron and Renata Adler. She draws on the women’s correspondence and published works as well as biographies to craft concise portraits of their personal and professional lives.
You’ll get the most out of this book if a) you know nothing about these women and experience this as a taster session; or b) you’re already interested in at least a few of them and are keen to learn more. I found the Dorothy Parker and Hannah Arendt chapters most interesting because, though I was familiar with their names, I knew very little about their lives or works. Parker’s writing was pulled from a slush pile in 1914 and she soon replaced P.G. Wodehouse as Vanity Fair’s drama critic. Her famous zingers masked her sadness over her dead parents and addict husband. “This was her gift,” Dean writes: “to shave complex emotions down to a witticism that hints at bitterness without wearing it on the surface.”
Unfortunately, such perceptive lines are few and far between, and the book as a whole lacks a thesis. Chance meetings between figures sometimes provide transitions, but the short linking chapters are oddly disruptive. In one, by arguing that Zora Neale Hurston would have done a better job covering a lynching than Rebecca West, Dean only draws attention to the homogeneity of her subjects: all white and middle-class; mostly Jewish New Yorkers. I knew too much about Sontag and Didion to find their chapters interesting, but enjoyed reading more about Ephron. I’ll keep the book to refer back to when I finally get around to reading Mary McCarthy. It has a terrific premise, but I found myself asking what the point was.
Sharp was published in the UK by Fleet on May 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for a proof copy for review.
The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack
I’d previously enjoyed Malachy Tallack’s two nonfiction books, Sixty Degrees North and The Undiscovered Islands. In his debut novel he returns to Shetland, where he spent some of his growing-up and early adult years, to sketch out a small community and the changes it undergoes over about ten months. Sandy has lived in this valley for three years with Emma, but she left him the day before the action opens. Unsure what to do now, he sticks around to help her father, David, butcher the lambs. After their 90-year-old neighbor, Maggie, dies, Sandy takes over her croft. Other valley residents include Ryan and Jo, a troubled young couple; Terry, a single dad; and Alice, who moved here after her husband’s death and is writing a human and natural history of the place, The Valley at the Centre of the World. (This strand reminded me of Annalena McAfee’s Hame.)
The prose is reminiscent of the American plain-speaking style of books set in the South or Appalachia – Richard Ford, Walker Percy, Ron Rash and the like. We dive deep into this tight-knit community and its secrets. It’s an offbeat blend of primitive and modern: the minimalism of the crofting life contrasts with the global reach of Facebook, for instance. When Ryan and Jo host a housewarming party, all the characters are brought together at about the halfway point, and some relationships start to shift. Overall, though, this is a slow and meandering story. Don’t expect any huge happenings, just some touching reunions and terrific scenes of manual labor. David is my favorite character, an almost biblical patriarch who seems “to live in a kind of eternal present, looking neither forward nor backward but always, somehow, towards the land.”
Tallack has taken a risk by writing in phonetic Shetland dialect. David’s speech is particularly impenetrable. The dialect does rather intrude; the expository passages are a relief. I’ve been to Shetland once, in 2006. This quiet story of belonging versus being an outsider is one to reread there some years down the line: I reckon I’d appreciate it more on location.
The Valley at the Centre of the World was published by Canongate on May 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.