Tag Archives: America

Silence Once Begun (2014) – Jesse BALL

I think we all know that I’m a sucker for any book about Japan/set in Japan/written by Japan. And since early reviews for Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun were positive, I thought I’d check it out for myself.

Jesse Ball, an investigative journalist, has come to Japan to solve a mystery. He has heard a story, and he wants to solve it. In the 70s, a man named Oda Sotatsu turned himself into the police, confessing to a crime. What is interesting, though, is that he only did this because he lost a card game. And once he confessed, he remained silent until he was executed. As Ball trawls through the evidence presented to him 40 years later, he finds himself trapped in a web of deceit and lies.

Silence Once Begun is dedicated to K. Abe and S. Endo, and it’s easy to see why. Both Abe and Endo are major Japanese writers, dealing with themes of existential isolation in a post-war Japan, and though that’s not quite what’s going on here, you can delineate the through-line that led Ball to this place. Particularly in the first half, there is a vague sense of unease and oppression—even though the events of the crime took place almost thirty years earlier, none of the affected parties are willing to talk to Ball about it, and when they do, they all seem to contradict each other. Nowhere more has the spawn of the marriage of crime fiction and postmodernism—the unreliable narrator—been more present. And yet, when the key player in the events surrounding the Narito Disappearances himself is dead, perhaps that is all that can be done.

When I read The Cuckoo’s Calling earlier this year, I was struck by how formulaic the formal structure—Strike goes to each person, interviews them, takes notes, and thinks. Perhaps this is simply a result of the genre, but while Rowling seems constrained by this, Ball gets around it by actively drawing our attention to the (un)natural structure of his piece—though this is a novel, it is masquerading as a piece of true crime, so it would make sense for it to look like this.

There’s a weird tension in this novel that I am still trying to wrap my head around. So often in Silence Once Begun, the setting seems irrelevant to the story—despite the general Abe-esque tone of the novel, the fact that this is the story of an American journalist coming to find a story in Japan is rarely touched. Which is a shame, because the novel is set in Sakai, a dirty part of Osaka that is beautiful in its ugliness (I’m allowed to say that—I used to live there). This is particularly apt, since much of the action takes place in the 70s, a time when Japan was still moving fast towards becoming the modern behemoth it is today; and like all developing countries, it was leaving lots of people behind, a fact that opens up narrative possibilities like no other.

And yet, so much of the final act twist revolves around some very particular specificities of the Japanese legal system, including the fact that confessions carry an almost disproportionate weight in trials. It’s like Ball wants us, for long tracts, to ignore the fact that this is a white man telling a story of Asian people—until the very end. I’m struggling to think of another novel that ignores its unusual setting with such abandon for so long, only to make it important for the dénouement.

Silence Once Begun is a short, arresting read. Reading certain passages, you could easily believe this is a lost Abe novel, trying to come to terms with an increasingly isolated world in which we live, where each person’s lived experiences are seen to be as valid as every other’s.

(Unrelated to anything—the cover for this novel only reminds me that any novel about Japan is allowed to have no colours on its cover other than white, red and black.)

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The Son (2014) – Philipp MEYER

Better people than me have tackled this book in better pieces, and there is no way I can get through the complexity of this novel in 500 words. As such, I’ve chosen to pull out a few themes that resonated with me, and go from there.

About halfway through The Son, Peter’s Mexican mistress, María, turns to him and says: “You think that talking about this will allow me to forgive you. Telling you changes nothing.” I wonder if Meyer believes this, because this book does an excellent job of talking about it—where it is the history of Texas. Just as The Secret River eviscerated Australian history for all of us here, The Son lays bare the sins of the history of Texas for all to see. Meyer doesn’t do it to seek forgiveness, but to remind us of the sins upon which Texas is built.

Each of the main characters—Eli, Peter and Jeannie—are alive in a time of great change. Eli is alive to see the near-genocide of the Native American tribes that, for so long, managed and controlled the lands; Peter, to see the lengths white Americans will go to in order to maintain their control; and Jeannie, to see the complete modernisation of the Texan economy, from farming to oil.

This is a novel about white privilege, and how that creates power imbalances. Though the three main characters are each, in their own way, outsiders—Eli was brought up by the Comanche; Peter is a pacifist with liberal tendencies; and Jeannie is a woman—again and again, we are reminded that, in the face of true discrimination, this is irrelevant. They are allowed to be in these positions because they are part of a rich, white family. They are part of the movement that obliterated the Native American population first, and then drove out the Mexicans. And I don’t think Meyer sees this changing any time soon—the sting in the tail of this novel is the few chapters from a fourth point-of-view character that reminds us all that Texas, and America, have a long way to go in dismantling that privilege.

That does not mean that Meyer portrays the Native American tribes and Mexicans that populate this book as angelic figures, as victims unable to stop the onslaught of the big scary white men. The Comanche, in particular, are given ample page time to breathe, and as Eli becomes one of their own, it becomes clear that there are, in fact, very few differences between them and the Europeans seeking to destroy them. Both groups commit heinous crimes to ensure their enemies remain subdued, and both have complex honour codes that require men to be men.

In the end, this is a novel about power. It shows us how power beguiles those who crave it, and reminds us how, in the process of taking it, power dehumanises us all. The McCullough family might have ended up one of the richest and most powerful families in all the land, but these stories show that, just under the surface, they have had to sell their souls to get there. None of the three main characters are close to their spouse or children—in the pursuit of power, they have had to sacrifice those closest to them.

Philipp Meyer’s ability to deftly balance the ostensible positives of modernisation with the atrocities committed in order to ensure its progress is a sight to behold. The Son marks him out as one of the most interesting and gifted chroniclers of modern American history.

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The Flamethrowers (2013) – Rachel KUSHNER

As I continue my (very selective) quest to check out this year’s Folio Prize shortlist, I find myself up against a wall of Yanks. The Flamethrowers is one of five American books on the eight-strong shortlist—hopefully not a sign of what is to come in this year’s Booker). In any case, I opened it hoping the rave reviews I’d read were reflective of the book itself.

Moving to New York to chase a boy and a dream, Reno finds herself caught up in a life like nothing she has ever seen before. Rapidly swept up by events beyond her control, she finds herself travelling the world in a time when political upheaval means no one is safe.

I wrote last week about another shortlisted novel that managed to balance substance and style in a way that felt compelling and real. Unfortunately, coming to The Flamethrowers was something of a let-down. It feels like it wants to be a big, important novel. Certainly it seems to be doing everything in its power to breakdown the stereotypes of books usually ascribed to female authors—there is no doubting this is big, bold and political in intent.

Ostensibly the largest problem with the novel, though, is a structural one—we jump around from place to place, leaving the reader confused and isolated. Instead of taking the time to engender an emotional connection between the reader and the protagonist, Kushner gets sidetracked by all the historical events and movements she is so clearly fascinated with. There’s no mistaking that many of these events are fascinating in their own right—the 70s was a time of huge political upheaval in both the US and Italy—but by trying to crowbar all of them into one novel has the effect of diluting the potency of each one. Instead of tying them all into one grand narrative, they come off as disparate and monotonous.

These kinds of widescreen novels can be saved if the common thread between narrative strands is strong. Unfortunately, the strand in The Flamethrowers—our protagonist, Reno—is not. She often comes across as nothing more than a tool to allow Kushner to explore the times and places that interest her, rather than a real person. Her seeming inability to react to anything that happens to her (and, to be fair, quite a lot does happen to her) opens a distance between character and writer that so often spells doom for a novel.

The Flamethrowers is not a bad book, but it does feel like a lot of what is wrong with contemporary literary fiction has been shoved into it: sweeping temporal and spatial settings that make it hard to get a grip on anyone or anything; characters that devolve into caricatures; and a tone that comes off as self-important. Check it out if you’re interested in 1970s Italian political history—otherwise, it’s a long, meandering ride.

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Southern Cross the Dog (2013) – Bill CHENG

The recent win by 12 Years a Slave at the Oscars has once again reminded us all that the United States is a great nation built on a terrible past. The complete and utter subjugation of one group of people to do the nation building of another is a scar that has still not healed in the United States. Bill Cheng attempts to unpack just a tiny part of this history in his debut novel, Southern Cross the Dog. (I’m not going to lie—I picked this up almost exclusively for its title. I’m a patriotic sucker like that.)

After the Great Flood of 1927, Robert Chatham is left alone. As he drifts around Mississippi, he finds that being an outsider in the deep south is not easy.

There is no question as to who the villains are in this piece. Off the top of my head, I can think of no white character that is kind to a black character for any extended period of time. And, one supposes, this is historically accurate. Though we might be in the early twentieth century here, we are closer in culture to 12 Years a Slave than we are to speeches about dreams.

And yet, despite the fact that this part of history is ripe for telling stories of injustice and heartbreak, Southern Cross feels somehow soulless. There is no question that the writing is excellent—Cheng’s evocation of a time and place is near flawless—but one can never feel truly close to these characters. Perhaps it is the constant narrative jumps—just as you get close to one person, you have to recalibrate your emotions to prepare for another depressing tale. These kinds of non-chronological narratives can allow authors to play with reader perceptions of events and characters, but the fact that Robert seems never to change in each episode leaves you wondering why bother doing it in the first place.

This is not to say there are not moments when Cheng’s ability to write matches his ability to evoke a human response from his characters. Sketches from Robert’s youth are gorgeous—there is one in particular where the three Chatham men are out hunting, only to be stumbled upon by a duo of white men who have no qualms about beating young black men to remind them of their place. It’s horrific, and the pain of the injustice of this society is keenly felt, unlike in many other places through the novel.

I am curious to see what Cheng does next. If he returns to this Southern Gothic-style tale, I would love to see him try and push the boundaries a little further. Though the politics and argument are there, they are not moulded into a piece of fiction that grabs you by the throat, that makes you feel for these people. Fiction is more than pretty words and big ideas—it’s about making your reader feel something.

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On Such a Full Sea (2014) – Chang-rae LEE

Chang-rae Lee chaired the judging panel for the Man Asian Literary Prize a few years ago, and since then, I’ve been meaning to get around to reading some of his work. So walking into the bookstore the other day and seeing his new sci-fi novel staring at me was a sign.

In the future, nation-states are no longer the norm. Ethnic groups have spread out, and it is now more common to see Chinese in America than Caucasians. One such young woman, Fan, has been trained from a young age to be a diver, to farm the fish the one percent eat. But when her boyfriend goes missing, she starts a quest that will change her life.

This isn’t a novel about a dystopian future (the lower classes are almost never seen, only described in hushed tones) so much as a novel about current trends in social mobility. While the best kind of sci-if takes elements of contemporary society and moulds them into a possible future, Lee essentially asks what it would be like if global society simply continued as it were, preserved in some static bubble, the only thing changing the technology and pop culture we consume.

It’s unsettling to read about the future of the upper class as living in a society where sushi bars and wood-fired pizza are the pinnacle of the culinary experience. Isn’t this where we are now? It is jarring that a novel so concerned about gently mocking the upper classes of the West and their obsession with organic food and cleanliness should be set in the future. It seems like something of a missed opportunity—you could transplant the action into contemporary America, and end up with a piece that carries more weight and emotional punch.

Fan self is little more than a cipher through which Lee can present his ideas. Her hero’s journey, such as it is, is to find her boyfriend, who left their safe, middle-class town one day and never came back. The narration makes it clear that Fan is not a woman of action: “the funny thing about the tale of Fan is that much of what happened to her happened to her”. Though we are repeatedly told that this woman, and her quest to find her one true love, sparked a rebellion movement in an otherwise perfect town, there is no suggestion that . Which would be fine if Lee presented her as an imperfect woman whose influence is a side-effect of her personal journey, but the reader never gets a sense that this is what’s happening. Instead, the disconnect between what the town venerates her for (running away) and what happens next (not much) is so great, one cannot help but feel disappointed as her tale unfolds.

Instead, her road trip allows Lee to present different facets of this new world, a world that, we are reminded again and again, is highly stratified. And yet, there is movement. For all the talk of being three vastly different communities, almost all the secondary characters we meet have been through some upheaval of their own.This is most obvious in the final act, when Fan is taken in by a man and his family who are about to make millions from a medical breakthrough. But Oliver has a secret, and the reveal will make your eyes roll from sheer narrative convenience. If you want people to believe that this future is bad, you need to show it.

I don’t want every dystopian future to be like The Hunger Games in its brutality and moral ambiguity. But if a writer chooses this genre, he or she is doing it for a political purpose—to highlight current issues that need to be changed. Though Lee’s On Such a Full Sea engages with contemporary issues, he doesn’t use the genre to its full effect, leaving readers wondering if the whole thing wouldn’t have been better off in another setting.

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Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World (1993) – Donald ANTRIM

It’s hard to know where to begin a review about a book like Elect Mr Robinson. We could talk about the scathing and biting social satirical tone of the whole work, lending it a kind of Desperate Housewives-on-steroids feeling. We could talk about the bizarre extended hallucinations of the main character, in which he is a buffalo living underwater with his fish wife. We could even talk about the shocking ending, which places Elect Mr Robinson firmly in the Easton Ellis school of late 80s/early 90s American violence literature.

I suppose we should start, though, at the beginning. From the very first page, there is a sense of unease as one plunges into the Donald Antrim’s world. Having killed off the previous mayor (the body now resides in his freezer, dismembered), Mr Pete Robinson has eyes on the job for himself. He thinks he, a third-grade teacher recently unemployed, is most suitable, despite his unusual obsession for medieval torture techniques, a hobby that manifests itself in his basement collection of dioramas. In an attempt to win favour with his neighbours, he decides to set up a home school

Clearly Pete is an unreliable narrator. His tone is strangely formal and polite, leaving the reader somewhat distanced from the action he describes. This also had the effect of sucking any irony out of situations, leaving us to deal with this bizarre parallel world as though it were straight. This is extremely discomforting, because so many of the little things are recognisable, even twenty years after publication. People are still worried about their neighbours, going out of their way to build elaborate fences and hedges to keep the bad people out. The extension Antrim builds—that people would build landmine-filled backyards, and booby-trapped moats—seems weirdly logical.

As a result, there are some hilariously memorable scenes. At one stage, Pete’s wife is seeing a therapist that encourages her to find her inner animal spirit. With no trace of irony, she announces that she is a coelacanth, a species of prehistoric fish. No one else in the room blinks. I mean, it’s completely ridiculous, but in this bizarrely twisted world of suburbia, the quest for some kind of spirituality in an otherwise barren landscape means that everyone is deadly serious about enlightenment.

And then there’s the ending. I can’t talk about it here—to spoil it would be to deny you a great pleasure as a reader. A quick glance on some other online reviews suggests that it has polarised readers: people love it or hate it, and their entire reading of the novel is coloured by their reaction. All I will say is that I love it. It is hugely jarring, and completely unexpected, but somehow acts as synecdoche for what Atrim is trying to show us as a whole: the dangers of taking things too far.

Most satirists tend to take one part of our world and mock it mercilessly. They shift the balance of one facet of our society just enough for us to examine it more closely. Antrim shifts everything. In doing so, he packs layer upon layer into a novel of less than 200 pages, forcing the reader to examine what it means to live in contemporary America. And though his contemporary is our history, it rings no less true today.


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The Art of Fielding (2011) – Chad HARBACH

Considering Australia’s recent Ashes performances, this seems as good a time as any to make a confession: I don’t like cricket.

I know. I’m probably the worst Australian ever. What I’m about to say probably makes me even worse.

I enjoy baseball. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I love it, but I did play it for almost ten years as a kid, so I have a soft spot for it. I even went with my family to the Olympics in 2000 to see Australia play a few games.

It was with all of this in mind that I picked up The Art of Fielding, a well-received debut American novel ostensibly about baseball.

Henry Skrimshander has been called to Westish College in Wisconsin on a baseball scholarship. He has been spotted by scouts, and his natural talent is what they want for their floundering team. But no one is perfect, and one day Henry makes a mistake that will have surprising and unexpected effects on everyone around him.

The first chapter of The Art of Fielding is almost perfect. I think, had this been a short story, it would be a glorious piece of literature. The tone Harbach hits is exactly what it should be, as he tells the story of a young kid from South Dakota who loves playing baseball simply because he enjoys it slowly realising that someone might actually pay him to do so. His innocence at his own ability is instantly loveable, in a dopey kind of way.

You really feel for Henry as he struggles to come to terms with the fact that, yes, he isn’t perfect. I’m hoping Tsiolkas covers similar ground later in the year with his new novel, but perhaps in a better way. Henry’s existential crisis comes not from without—he doesn’t collapse in upon himself because he feels pressure to perform from his parents, from his coach, from his teammates—but from within. He is so used to being very good at what he does—and it appears to be the only thing that makes him truly happy—that to suddenly make a quite large and quite obvious mistake shatters him.

The obvious comparison to make with The Art of Fielding is, of course, Jonathan Franzen. Harbach adopts a similar tone, this deeply American style, with equal parts cynicism about the present, and rose-tinted glasses for the past; and the way the story is told—cycling through the different points of view in this quasi-family created on-campus is almost exactly the same as The Corrections. And in the same way, it feels like it is something of a throw-back, a yearning for a simpler time when men holed up in tiny universities could be seen as eternal bachelors without rumours about their sexuality flying; when sport could unite a tiny town; when romance was real. It’s kind of cute in its innocence.

I’m not sure The Art of Fielding is exactly groundbreaking fiction: I didn’t feel like I was ever in danger of having my mind blown by what was about to come. But it is a nice novel to read, easy to digest, and never really challenging. I mean this in a positive manner, I hasten to add—sometimes it’s good to just immerse yourself in the lives of well-drawn characters that feel like they could be your friends.

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We Need New Names (2013) – NoViolet BULAWAYO

Booker Prize season is on again! I’ve only read one longlisted book (Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire), but I have a gap in my reading pile, so I’ll be filling it with a few choices off the list. NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel, We Need New Voices, is the only African novel on the longlist, and I figured that’s as good a place to start as any.

Darling and her friends live in Paradise, a slum in the midst of Zimbabwe’s lost decade. Mugabe is in power, and the poor are just getting poorer. Darling and her friends roam the streets, dealing with poverty, hunger and sickness in the only way they know how—telling stories and playing games to escape. But Darling finally goes to America to live with her aunt, she finds herself missing her friends.

There is no reason to compare Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie to NoViolet Bulawayo. The latter is a good ten years younger, and Nigeria and Zimbabwe almost could not be further away from each other on the continent of Africa. And yet, here are two women who, within the space of several months, have published novels on the immigrant experience in America. But while Americanah felt like a polemic disguised as a novel, We Need New Voices is a much more coherent volume.

There are, of course, many similarities: both are frustrated by the constant generalisation of an “African” experience, and the repetitive conversations they have with white Americans who think they know everything about “Africa” because they saw a BBC new item the other day—though Bulawayo seems less angry about it than Adichie.

Both find themselves longing for their homeland, though while Adichie misses it for the comfort of her family and the life she was leading, this yearning sits more uncomfortably in Bulawayo’s novel: Darling’s experiences in Paradise, the ironically named slum in which she grew up, are the bottom of the bottom. With her friends, they go around stealing guavas off trees, even though a diet consisting solely of this fruit gives the eater chronic constipation, because they have nothing else to eat. One of her friends, at the tender age of 11, is pregnant because her grandfather raped her.

I feel bad about my reaction to We Need New Names. I don’t know if it’s because I have Poorly Treated Child Novel exhaustion (see Past the Shallows, Floundering, The Mary Smokes Boys etc.), but I had trouble being shocked by what Bulawayo was writing about. There is no doubt that the situation in which these children find themselves is horrific—particularly the pregnant 11-year-old girl—but it also felt somewhat unreal, removed from reality. Bulawayo is trying too hard to get us to emote, to feel something for these children, and forced emotion never rings true.

Darling leaves Zimbabwe just after the 2008 reelection of Mugabe. The realities of this election are witnessed by the kids, whose parents’ hope for the future, held in the promise of a new government, is crushed when votes are rigged and retributions for “incorrect” voting are meted out.

The America sections are much better, as we watch Darling come to terms with the huge amount of wealth on offer in the country, but just out of her grasp. She has heard stories of being rich in America, and assumed she would simply become rich by being there: her disillusionment with this is shown in tandem with her becoming more American, to the point where the final chapters are written in a language where all Zimbabwean patois has been erased. Darling’s uneasy transformation is complete.

There can be no question that Bulawayo is a talented writer, and every now and then, there is a passages of such pure brilliance, you forget that this is her first novel. Let’s hope these passages are the ones Bulawayo takes on board in the future.

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Americanah (2013) – Chimamanda Ngozi ADICHIE

It’s been seven years since the release of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s excellent novel, Half of  a Yellow Sun. It has become so popular, it is about to be released as a film, which I am very much looking forward to. I loved it, and was very excited to hear that she had finally written a new novel. What made me even more excited, though, was that this was to be a book about race in modern America: something that interests me greatly.

Ifemelu and Obinze meet each other in high school, and quickly fall in love. But when Ifemelu is accepted to an American university—a dream Obinze has had for many years—their relationship peters out as Ifemelu finds herself in a new and strange land. As she settles down into American life, she quickly realises that this is not the land of the brave and free at all. Particularly if you are not white.

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way: I don’t think Americanah is going to be as popular as Half of a Yellow Sun, but to be fair, I don’t think Americanah is as good as Half a Yellow Sun, particularly if we critique it in terms of what we expect from the modern novel. Anyone reading the blurb and expecting a love story spanning decades and continents is going to be sorely disappointed. The relationship between Ifemelu and Obinze is nice at the beginning, but once the two grow up and Ifemelu moves to America, there is a sense that their relationship has come to a natural end, a move that makes narrative sense. The scattered chapters we get of Obinze’s new life without Ifemelu simply distract from the main thrust of the novel.

But in many ways, this shallow love story is not the point of the novel. Adichie has spoken before in interviews about the two kinds of black America: African-Americans, people whose ancestors are slaves brought from Arica during the slave trade era; and American-Africans, people who have migrated from all parts of Africa in the twentieth century, either to escape persecution and unrest, or simply for work or education. To many non-black Americans, there is no difference between the two groups. In response, it seems, Adichie has written a book about the second group of people—the African immigrant coming to America.

It could be argued that this novel is the immigrant take on the Great American Novel. This is certainly not a novel of Nigeria—of that, there can be no doubt. It is a novel about ostensibly the most prominent divider of American society—skin colour. From Ifemelu’s first experiences of going to America to try and get a better education, Ifemelu is privy to incidents that are awkward and painful to read, no matter how well-meaning some participants might be.

Perhaps the first hint that Ifemelu is being discriminated against because of the colour of her skin is the face that she cannot seem to get a job, no matter how often she applies, no matter how well behaved or well-presented she is.

I keep wanting to call Americanah an angry novel, though I’m not sure why. In many ways, it reads like Adichie finally releasing some of her own pent-up anger about how she has been treated by people in America. As an author surrogate, Ifemelu acts as a cipher for Adichie, and it’s not hard to extrapolate many of Ifemelu’s feelings and thoughts to Adichie herself.

As I mentioned in my review of Questions of Travel, it’s nice to see that we’re getting good novels about the internet. Adichie deftly draws the disconnect between real-life and blog Ifemelu, particularly in relation to her speaking about her own feelings about the way she is treated in America. And lo and behold, her blog suddenly becomes a site for other people with similar stories to come and share their own experiences in a country still divided quite sharply across racial lines. It is not until the latter half of the novel that we get to read some of these blog posts—which is a shame, because many of them are mini-essays talking about race in modern America. It would have been great to have one at the beginning of each chapter, scattered throughout the book as food for thought.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t necessarily consider Adichie to be a great stylist of the English language—she is not a bad writer, but I don’t go to her novels to find vast tracts of lyrical prose pushing the boundaries of the English language. In many places in Americanah, she almost veers off into a tone suggestive of personal non-fiction. No, I don’t really know what I mean by that either—tonally, in many places, it reads less like a novel, and more like a non-fiction piece about race and representations of race in America. It’s very odd, but it’s a testament to Adichie’s passion that it never feels too out of place.

That is not the point of her novels, anyway. Interestingly, Adichie makes reference to this in the novel itself, suggesting that people writing about race in America can only do so if they do it in an indirect, lyrical way, so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of the (largely) white audience for whom they are writing.

Perhaps the biggest problem I have with the novel is the way in which Adichie seems to gloss over the racial tensions that still exist in Nigeria. She sets up Nigeria as a place where everyone is Nigerian, and America as a place where not everyone is necessarily American. This is a weird thing to assert, particularly considering the fact that the novel for which she is most famous is a novel about the Nigerian Civil War of the 1960s, the effects of which are still being felt in modern Nigeria. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that the lines between the three main ethnic groups, the Igbo, Yoruba and Harusa remain in sharp relief. Racism and discrimination against people because of race/tribe exists in every country, so the slightly idealised version of Nigeria presented here rings a little hollow at times. Of course, once you read the end of the novel, which seems to advocate a return to the homeland, then this makes more sense.

I have no idea how to review this. As a novel, Americanah shouldn’t work: the characters are little more than ciphers for Adichie to get her message across; the pacing is all over the shot, particularly the final return to Nigeria; and the structure doesn’t quite work. But I don’t care. This is an important novel, if not for the way it is written, but for the potential it has to start a conversation, not just in America, but in the West, about race and immigration.

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Thinner Than Skin (2012) – Uzma Aslam KHAN

I’m heading west, away from the holy trinity of North East Asia to the mountains of Pakistan. This is Uzma Aslam Khan’s fourth novel, the second to be published by small American press, Clockroot Books.

Having decided to go to Pakistan to research glaciers deep in the mountains of the wild north, Farhana and Nadir quickly find themselves out of their comfort zone. Already living an unstable relationship, their lives quickly spiral out of their own control, leaving them in a strange country, surrounded by even stranger people, moving away from safety, hoping against all hope that things will get better.

How much blame can we ascribe to one event? Can one event, one moment in time, truly affect us more than the accumulation of the smaller bits and pieces of our everyday lives? These are the questions Khan is seeking to answer, while at the same time, leading us on a tour of what must be one of the most beautiful, dangerous and underexplored parts of the globe.

Saif-ul-Maluk (جھیل سیف الملوک) is a lake in northern Pakistan, near the borders of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, China and India. It is a glacial lake, formed by the melt from the glaciers in the mountain ranges surrounding it. Saif-ul-Maluk is also the spiritual, physical and literary heart of the novel. It is easy to trace every event in the novel to and from the shores of Saif-ul-Maluk

Critics often talk about landscape and place becoming a character in a book, and while it often sounds wanky and ridiculous, there is a school of writing that foregrounds the environments in which stories take place. Cormac McCarthy, for example, uses southern USA in his work, while Tim Winton evokes Western Australia in his. Just like this, then, Khan makes full use of the area in which she has set her tale to inform and enrich her own tale. From the descriptions of the lake itself, to the evocations of San Francisco, to the final third, which is set on a mountain face in the Himalayas, Khan connects her story to the environments in which it is set. This adds a dimension not seen in so many novels, a dimension that pays huge dividends.

Farhana and Nadir have come to Pakistan with another American friend, Wes, despite Nadir’s misgivings. It is ostensibly a reason for Farhana to come to the country of her mother, to find an identity she feels she has lost having been brought up in America, though this is not a theme Khan seems to pursue with any particular enthusiasm—something I am grateful for. She is more concerned with far more universal themes, one in particular.


People do bad things every day. They do things that hurt the people they love the most; they do things that hurt complete strangers. How do we react to these moments of wrongdoing? Do we forgive the people who hurt us? And so we don’t just get the first person musings of Nadir, who is consumed with guilt over the events on the lake, though his recollections seem to be open to questions. Khan gives us alternating chapters told in third person, with Maryam the focus. In fact, it is Maryam that opens the novel, and her reflections on family and fate are what tie the novel to the mountains against which it is set.

Inevitably, then, the opposite of forgiveness is also explored—revenge. This is certainly the preoccupation of Maryam’s story strand, even if she herself does not necessarily want to undertake the act herself. Payment must be made for the death of her daughter, and as Irfan points out at one stage, this would usually be in the form of a court system or a police force, but because of where they are, nothing like this exists. Instead, it is up to the people to hand out justice/revenge. Interestingly, it is Nadir who eventually becomes the target of this justice, because Farhana is a woman, so cannot be touched. Or so he thinks—as with all first-person narrators, his recollection of events is not exactly accurate.

The biggest problem with this novel is that it makes me want to go to Saif-ul-Maluk, which is probably not a good life choice, because it’s a deeply unsafe part of the world—something that provides yet another layer to the backdrop of these intensely personal events taking place. The threat of sectarian violence—the kind we see on the news with depressing regularity—is mentioned again and again by all the characters, though three of our main four seem quite blasé about it. Of course, as with all good Chekov’s guns, if you refer to something again and again, chances are it’s going to become important by the end of the text. So, inevitably, terrorism rears its ugly head at the end of the novel, nicely tying in with other themes. Nadir and Farhana have not escaped cleanly from the crime they committed: as with all small communities—even ones that are constantly on the move—word gets around, and the option for revenge, for payback is taken. It takes time to eventuate, but Nadir discovers much too late that people have been watching him, ever since they left the lake.

Without spoiling too much of the ending, it is revenge that eventually wins out, in ways not entirely expected. Nadir and Farhana are finally made to pay for what they did to Maryam’s family, by a man who professes to be a friend; while lingering questions are finally answered as someone else chooses the path of revenge, though in a far more public manner. It is easy to plan revenge, but much harder to allow forgiveness in: it is, of course, thinner than skin.

Dealing with themes of forgiveness and revenge—base human emotions that we all experience, Thinner Than Skin is a layered, complex and mature novel from a writer at the height of her powers. It is perfectly constructed, both structurally and thematically, devoid of unnecessary words and ideas. Khan is in control of the language she uses to tell her story, leaving the reader blown away both by the power of the English language to describe both the natural and the internal.

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