The title of this novel is curious, encapsulating the pervasive discomfort of the most modern period of Africa in Achebe’s trilogy. Obi Okonkwo, descendant of the protagonist of the first novel, has been sent to England to be educated in the Western manner so that he can join the bureaucracy in Nigeria; the people who sent him are the members of an Igbo social club who have organized to retain their collective identity in their new urban surroundings. They have pooled their money for Obi’s education and look on him as an investment for their own future, a sign that their people can cope with the new order as well as their neighbors have. This is a parallel to Ezeulu sending his own son to be educated in Christian ways in Arrow of God, and in the same way as the earlier novel the end result is not predictable or simple. Obi learns too much in his sojourn in England and is no longer quite of his people when he returns. He joins the civil service but sees its corruption, officials taking bribes at every turn. In fact the book begins with Obi’s arrest and conviction for taking a bribe himself, so that his downfall is already complete at the start, and the novel backtracks to show the disintegration that preceded his crime. He never intends to be dishonest but his moral character is not strong. As is usual with Achebe, the novel does not depict these events in a didactic or heavy-handed manner; we simply witness Obi’s life as though we were perched on his shoulder. The book is skillful but much less engaging than the earlier novels because it is a study of weakness and uncertainty; Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart may be caught up in his own blindness but he has great purpose, bent as it is; and Ezeulu in the second novel is a pillar of surety. Obi, by contrast, has lost his sense of who he is and his trajectory is downward. This kind of novel suffers from Achebe’s detachment. He is meticulous in cataloguing Obi’s small and continuous failures without creating much sense of empathy. In this kind of novel it would be better to offer more of his feelings, his interior, which was never necessary in the earlier books. It is nevertheless a fine book, but not a fine read. But it is a true depiction of what has been implied from the beginning of the cycle by the changes that overtake the Ten Towns and Nigeria through contact with Britain.
This novel follows Things Fall Apart in time sequence and offers a look at a later period of the history of the Ten Towns, after the British have become more established in this region of Africa but before the extreme alterations of the homegrown culture of the Igbo people. Here Achebe tells the story of Ezeulu, whom he refers to in his preface as “that magnificent man,” the priest who carries the god Ulu inside him and who lives as the presence of the god among the Ten Towns. This notion of divinity as being present and tangible within the circle of believers is one of the most fascinating in the novel and in the culture that it describes. In the long ago the Ten Towns performed a powerful magic that brought Ulu into being as their supreme deity, and the story of his creation is part of the tapestry of their tales and history. This idea is a window on the interplay of spirit, world, and cosmos that overlies the people of the towns; there is no contradiction in the notion that a god can be created by his worshipers but nevertheless be a god and partake of eternity. This is simply how the universe works. The culture of the Igbo is beautiful and complicated and belies any notion to the contrary – contradicting Western notions of what is savage or barbarian. The most beautiful moments of the book are the conversations as they veer from tale to proverb to history; the debates among the elders are the most lovely moments. These people share a common knowledge base that makes certain ideas like bedrock – what a father says to a son cannot be a lie, for instance. The final conflict between Ulu and the British unfolds with a deep blindness from both sides. This is a very beautiful novel if you open yourself to the way these people communicate with each other. It defies description; it is not a critique or condemnation; it simply presents events and allows them to unfold.
This is a book I have read at least a half dozen times, most recently a couple of weeks ago when I decided to read Achebe’s entire African Trilogy. When I first took up the novel, it taught me what simplicity of style could achieve. Achebe can write gracefully and sometimes lyrically but he is not very much interested in that side of language. I don’t mean that he has no interest in writing well. His purpose, I think, is to be clear, and to write plainly about a vanishing life, and through that, about all vanishing lives. His particular focus is to capture the way these people speak to one another, in parables and references to shared storie. The protagonist Okonkwo and his people have an intricate, ceremonial, specific life that they live. His world encompasses a few miles in every direction, a small cosmos of peoples, villages, kinship relations, gods, ghosts, families, obligations. Achebe employs a kind of omniscience in the telling of this story that remains tightly focused on the people of Okonkwo’s village. The characters are rich even though their part in the novel is often small. Achebe is not writing a psychological novel though he does illuminate the psychology of his protagonist. The book focuses on the story of Okonkwo’s obsessive sense of duty to himself, to his image in the community, and to the traditions of his ancestors; he is particularly interested in wiping away the memory of his slackard father from village memory. The appearance of Christian missionaries in the second part of the book add the layer of disintegration to the already complex story. You understand that you are watching a way of life that is facing a drastic transformation. For such a slim volume to contain such a vast world, a whole cosmos in fact, is a feat that is belied by the simplicity of the book. This novel is always in my top ten list.
Gordimer is well established and has no need of another fan, which is a good thing, because I am not quite one. This is the third of her novels that I have read, if memory serves, though the others were decades ago. She is an extraordinarily accomplished stylist though there are occasional passages that struck my ear as clumsy. She has a habit of remarking repeatedly on her protagonist’s breasts, which are apparently quite fine; were this the book of a male writer I would mock that a bit. In her case I figure that it means something but I’m not quite sure what. The figure of Hillel, the woman at the center of the book, is easily the most puzzling Gordimer character I have encountered, and I think this is deliberate since she draws Hillel so very enigmatically. Again, were this book by a male author, I would simply dismiss it as a statement that Hillel’s importance arises from the men she sleeps with, which is a true statement no matter how sympathetic you are to the book and the author. What makes her interesting is that in her course of partners she takes us on a tour of politics in Southern Africa at the time just prior to the end of South Africa’s apartheid. But the journey has a rather empty feeling and Gordimer is left to struggle for an ending. Hillel, who does very little other than float mysteriously through parties, political meetings, and along sunny beaches, has no real narrative that can resound as it ends. Even when one of her husbands is killed, even in her grief, she is pale and uninvolving. This is a deliberate choice by Gordimer and it is accomplished with such exactness that it can scarcely be an accident, but exactly what the book intends to convey is lost on me. My reaction to the earlier novels that I read was more or less in the same vein. It is the importance of her material that draws me to read her from time to time, and that importance is quite real. But her kind of fiction is not really what I look for.
When you read the work of a good writer, you feel its distinctiveness, and if the book is a surprise to you, it feels as if there is nothing else like it. I had read Sheridan stories years ago but had never cracked this book until recently. What a treat to read something so sure-handed! The world of Chapelizod unveils itself as if it were the center of everything, a village and countryside quite taken with itself. Sheridan colors every foible of each person we encounter: there are the mysterious figures in the background, of course, but it is the foreground where the book takes flight. There are so many people, such an ensemble, Puddock and Aunt Becky, Magnolia and her mother, the two doctors and their wives, the virtuous Lily, the tremulous Gertrude, the sleepwalker gentry, the wicked old witch. Lovely rich portraits. Having read only Le Fanu’s shorter works before, I found his sprawling Irish village to be a world unto itself, as rich as any such locale in any novel I remember. His focus is so drawn to the periphery, to the comic possibilities of nearly every character we meet, even the slightest, that the novel nearly forgets itself. The story of the villain and the hero, with all its tinge of the supernatural, is secondary to the landscape. Le Fanu was more fascinated by Chapelizod than by the mystery that dutifully appears and resolves; it’s not that this aspect of the book is bad, it’s just that the world overshadows the story so completely, through Le Fanu’s really wonderful eye and ear. The book does require patience, and you need a taste for the leisurely manner of the writing.
I entered this book with high hopes and exited with a sigh that it had taken it so long to do so little. The story telegraphs its next move so far ahead of time that it becomes a slog to read. The writing is clear and precise; would that it were more concise. From the moment the death of Sarah, the oldest and forgotten daughter, is mentioned, it’s clear that what’s coming is something like a poltergeist novel. It is not Waters’ fault that I am tired of reading about the upper class of England; that’s my problem. But it would be a blessing if she added something new to the mix. The novel feels as if it will never end, especially once you realize that the cause of the disturbances at the Hundreds is never going to be clear. Ambiguity is a fine thing but better when paired with brevity. In a book like Le Fanu’s The House by the Churchyard the story also takes forever but the writing is lively, the portraits of the Irish villagers rich, and the comic turns make the waiting for the mystery to reveal itself worth all the time. In this novel, the characters are uniformly bitter, dark, depressed, unhappy, living in the wrong era, decaying like the house. The house itself is a bright spot, depicted in such delapidated detail, you feel as though you are sitting under a ceiling that is about to collapse. The high point of the haunting is told by the “as I heard this story later” device made necessary by the fact that the novel is in first person and the person in question was not in the house during those events. This is the most perplexing choice. It renders the crux of the book as a ghost story told to us rather than one that we experience in the direct way that is possible with fiction. This was flat disappointment, I am sorry to say, since I know how good Sarah Waters can be.
This is one of those books that makes its own ground; told through a child’s consciousness, the novel explores the life of a city prior to and during World War II. But describing it in that way tells you nothing about the book, which is about the life of the city as much as it is the life of the child, and about many of the specific people in the city, and the pattern of life in the city, and the legends of the city, and the history… One of those books that does something not quite like anything else I’ve read. It reminded me of magical realism, though I think that’s a tired term; the book echoed fairy-tale atmosphere, but the magic in it intersects with the real history of the Italian, Greek, and German invasions of Albania, grounding the fantasy-feeling into the harsh reality of warfare. The writing is full of concise, aphoristic sentences that I read two or three times before moving on, savoring them, letting the thoughts sit in my head, enlarging. It’s that kind of prose, the words linger. But there is nothing heavy-handed or strained; the whole book feels effortless. A bit of magic. The edition of the book I read had a couple of cover-quotes that talked about the primitivity of Albania, which was curious since the word would never had occurred to me in relation to the book. The novel simply chronicled the life of the stone city that still feels, as I think about it, as if it has stood on its mountainside forever, and still stands there, in spite of everything.
Reading this novel was a marvelous experience. The writing is to be admired in all ways; the language is rhythmic, the images verdant, and the world of the book settles around you so that you can let go of your own world and live in Divakaruni’s space for a while. As is mentioned on the cover, the story has the feeling of a fairytale, though this is subdued and carefully executed, never standing in the way of the realism of the work. I thought the story of the rubies and the one ruby that the family holds onto for decades was a perfect microcosmic pattern, both literal and symbolic. The study of the women of the household felt so detailed. Without much effort, the author makes them real and yet through them we see the situation of women in their world, their strength and their limitations, their need for protection from men who take advantage of them. As with most of the South Asian fiction I have read, the marriage of the women is a consuming theme. There is a perfect moment in the work when Sudha’s mother-in-law proves what a monster she is, trying to force Sudha to abort her unborn daughter. I was enthralled until this was resolved. The book became a bit disjointed in its last fifty pages or so; this is one of those novels that feels as though it ends several times before it finally stops. But that is a small worry in a wonderful read.
The pile of books I have been meaning to read has begun to shrink. It is a virtual pile, not an actual one. I gave up on the physical pile and shelved all the books stacked there. Well, truth be told, there were several stacks. There were the books I bought in batches, there were the books I was given by friends on holidays and birthdays. Free books that arrived in the mail from publishers as part of their marketing. Occasional boxes of books from my publishers, or gifts gathered during visits to my editor. Not all the books are what I would have selected for myself but they are mine and it is a sin not to read a book I think or at least try to read it, and so here I am, now that I have time. Sampling and choosing. It is a very welcome era, reading steadily again, but as I write about each of the books it looks to be drawn from an odd old-fashioned eclecticism. That’s part of what makes it fun. I am reading in a way that feels partly chosen and partly random, discovering authors, pleased by most of them. Since I am a nitpicker when it comes to books, the result is always mixed. Something to quibble with. But it is lovely to discover that reading is the same thing for me now as it was when I first started. Not quite as magical, surely. Rarely do I get lost in a book so utterly. Remembering my early days of reading Robert Heinlein, especially. But I fall into the rhythm of reading anyway. I have more patience with difficult books, quirky books, than in the past. Retirement brings that ease of days so I am no longer, at least not so often, chased by the worry that I need to be doing something else. The stack of books to be read is not infinite. I will reach the end. Then I will be free to choose new books, make a new pile. Oh, let it be so.
I have loved Edmund White’s books since I first discovered them. I like this one mildly. I read it with some absorption, but more as a memoir than a novel; the chatty, I’m-talking-to-you-directly quality rarely attracts me in any book. but since I’m interested in White, the quality of talky-talk worked better than usual for me. But I was still weary of the voice by the end. This is not a novel in which the book becomes transparent and one feels the action as though it is happening around one. It is a long monologue. There are some wonderful passages of prose. White is as honest as any writer can be, and just lays it all out. He is like Genet in his unapologetic approach to writing about sex, but not as determined to be seen as a shadowy figure; in fact, he is almost desperately amiable, an aspect of his personality that he refers to directly in the book, his need to be liked, to be loved, by as many people as possible. There are absolutely hilarious passages – Tina chasing him through Rome in her car when he refuses to have sex with her is the best of them, but there are many more. But the sex is wearing. It is one thing to have 3,000 lovers; that would be, perhaps, a pleasant prospect. It is another thing to read about someone having 3,000 lovers, especially when he makes such a gargantuan effort to detail many of them. But White’s purpose is to write this life as it was lived. It is a perfect snapshot of being gay in the seventies. As for the passages about his writing, I never care for reading a book about a writer; there are too many mirrors involved. Nevertheless I admire the book and am grateful to have read it. The lesson I take, for myself: in having sex, only more is more. In writing about sex, only less is more.