Category Archives: Fiction — general

On Beauty, by Zadie Smith

onbeautyHaving read and really loved Zadie Smith’s Swing Time a few weeks ago, I had a harder time with On Beauty, although it is just as well written with as much wit and insight. The big struggle for me with On Beauty is that, while it’s told from an omniscient point of view with several major characters, one of the central characters, Howard, is a man I found so unpleasant I couldn’t bring myself to care what happened to him (or else I was actively hoping for the worst to happen to him).

I don’t mind flawed characters. I don’t even need characters to be “likable,” exactly, as long as there’s something there that’s interesting and that I can relate to, or that intrigues me. But Howard — a middle-aged white academic married to a black woman, raising three young adult children and locked in a professional feud with a fellow academic whose family life becomes entwined with Howard’s in myriad ways — is both awful and boring. And I really felt this was a flaw in the book, not in my appreciation of Howard. Several chapters in, Howard’s wife, Kiki, who has not decided whether or not to forgive him for a spot of infidelity, reflects that whatever else he did, he could always make her laugh. As the reader, I had to that point seen nothing in the story to indicate Howard had a sense of humour. He certainly never made me laugh. Kiki thinks of herself as having married her best friend, while I found it impossible to believe that a woman as interesting and vital as Kiki could ever have had this limp dishrag of a man as her best friend.

I did enjoy all the other characters and points of view, and the story itself was interesting, but Howard as the big soul-sucking cypher at the centre of the narrative was a major flaw I never got over. After I read it, I found out that it’s sort of a riff on the novel Howard’s End, which I’ve never read. Maybe I’d have appreciated it more if I had, but the end of this particular Howard couldn’t come quickly enough for me.

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy

This boutmosthappinesok took me quite awhile to get through. Not that it’s not brilliantly written — it is. But one of the issues with reading more diverse books from writers of different cultural backgrounds — which is something I am consciously trying to do — is that the introduction of a lot of unfamiliar setting, vocabulary, and background can slow the reader down, and it certainly did for me in this case. 

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not a simple, easy to read novel. It may not be an easy read even for someone who is very familiar with life in contemporary India, the politics of the Punjab, and the roles of transgender people in Indian culture. The writing is dense, the story multilayered with many different points of view and characters whose stories don’t intersect till near the end of the book. It’s the story of Anjum, a transgender woman growing up in Delhi, eventually finding a niche in the community as part of a group of recognized-yet-outcast trans women called hijras. The role of the hijra in Indian society is fascinating and I did a little googling to learn more about it afterwards, but Roy writes (as is, I think, appropriate for a writer immersing a reader in a different culture) as though we already know all this, leaving the reader to piece together the bits of information. Then, just as we’re absorbing Anjum’s character and world, the scene shifts to a different place and time, a whole new cast of characters.

This book is very well done, but it’s also quite a lot of work. at least, it was for me — so readers who are not already very familiar with the world Roy is writing about should be prepared for a total-immersion course.

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Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanahAmericanah is the first book I’ve read by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and one of the few books I’ve read at all by African novelists. It tells the love story of two people who are apart for most of the book — the main character, Ifemelu, and her high school and college boyfriend, Obinze. When student life in Nigeria is interrupted by political unrest and frequent strikes at their university, Ifemelu moves to the United States to get her degree. The plan is for Obinze to join her eventually, but amid the struggle of trying to adapt to immigrant life and earn a living, Ifemelu slips into depression and cuts off contact with Obinze. When she begins to rebuild her American life, she starts afresh, leaving Obinze in the past.

Meanwhile, Obinze moves to London, where he too struggles to make a living. His position is even more difficult than Ifemelu’s, because he outstays his original visa and tries to live and work in the UK as an undocumented immigrant. For a boy who grew up as the son of a university professor, living an enviable upper-middle-class life in Nigeria, this is a huge come-down indeed.

By the time both return to Nigeria and their paths cross again, they have both changed greatly (and Obinze has acquired a wife and child). Yet the attraction between them has not faded with the years. The final section of the novel explores where their relationship goes from there. But the bulk of the story is the tale of their separate years apart, the insights each of them gains into their very different immigrant experiences in two different countries. Adichie’s writing not only gives the reader a very clear picture of life in Nigeria, but of the subtle shadings of cultural difference between Nigeria, the U.S., and the U.K., as well as racial and class differences within each of these countries. Ifemelu parlays her trenchant and witty observations about life as a “Non-American Black” in the U.S. into a wildly successful blog, and it is the fineness of those observations, the keen eye for detail in a character, a scene, a hairstyle, an item of clothing, that drives this thoughtful and often funny novel.

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Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew J. Sullivan

midnightbrightideasI’ll pretty much pick up any book with the word “bookstore” in the title, or any book that’s set in a bookstore (whether wholly, or just in part). In the cast of Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, with its appealing title and cover, the titular bookstore provides the backdrop for a story that takes the main character, bookstore employee Lydia Smith, on a reluctant journey into her own past.

Lydia enjoys her quiet life — a steady relationship with her kind and undemanding live-in boyfriend, and her work at a bookstore where she finds pleasure not only in the books but in the patrons, including the many outcasts, misfits and homeless (or nearly homeless) people who take shelter there. When tragedy invades the bookstore one night and a man hangs himself among the upstairs bookstacks, Lydia is horrified. But the horror becomes more personal when she realizes that the dead man not only has ties to her, but to a past she has done everything possible to distance herself from.

It was at this point (as often happens with me in reading) that I realized I was reading a mystery novel, even if it’s not marketed primarily as such. Lydia has to follow a trail of clues to find out the connection between the violent death in the bookstore and another act of terrible violence in her own past — and to find out who committed the original crime, and why.

This is the sort of book that, midway through avidly turning the pages, I found myself thinking, “This author has set up SUCH an intriguing mystery — can he possibly resolve it in a satisfying way?” The answer is almost yes … everything is resolved and does tie together, but the author has to introduce a couple of pretty big coincidences to make the resolution work, and I’m always wary of staggering coincidences. There’s also a method of leaving clues that is way too clever to be believable … but I still found the story enjoyable, and thought Lydia, in particular, was a very likeable and relatable character, as a person who has tried to construct a new life amid the ruins of tragedy. I don’t agree with every choice Lydia makes (especially a big one at the end) but I always empathized with her.

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Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

homefireHome Fire is the rare book that retells a classic story for the modern era in a way that, to me at least, never feels at all forced. With a book like Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, even though I enjoyed it, I felt some elements of the plot, some things the characters did, were shoehorned in there only because they paralleled plot points in The Taming of the Shrew. In Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie retells Sophocles’s Antigone in the setting of a family of Pakistani immigrants to the U.K. Isma, Aneeka, Parvaiz, Eamonn and Karamat are parallels to Ismene, Antigone, Polynices, Haemon and Creon, but they are also real, flesh-and-blood people, living out their lives against the backdrop of a country torn by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim suspicion. The opening scene, with Isma going through a rigorous security screening at Heathrow Airport and missing her flight to her graduate program in the US, sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

The parallels to the classic Greek tragedy are not heavy-handed, though they do get more direct in the later sections of the story. (You don’t have to have read or remember Antigone to appreciate the novel; it works perfectly well as a story on its own, but for those who know the play the parallels add a great deal of richness and interest). Instead of a father who killed his own father and accidentally married his mother, Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz suffer a different kind of “family curse” — a jihadi father who abandoned his father in the UK to go fight with Islamic militants.

Like the curse of the gods on Oedipus’s family, the absent father’s choice shadows the lives of all three of his children. The role of the overbearing Creon, King of Thebes, in the play, is filled here by Karamat Lone, Home Secretary in Britain’s Conservative government. He, too, is of Pakistani Muslim origin, but in order to rise to power he has recreated himself, marrying a white American woman, ceasing to be an observant Muslim, and lecturing other Muslims on the importance of assimilating to white British culture and not standing out.

When Karamat’s son Eamonn encounters first Isma and later her sister Aneeka, it’s inevitable there will be conflict between the two families. How shattering that conflict will be is clearly foreshadowed by the fact that the novel is based on a Greek tragedy.

Point of view throughout this novel moves from one character to the next, with sections told from the perspective of each of the major characters. At first I found it jarring that we did not return to the point of view of a character we’d already met and grown close to, but I found each of the characters so compelling, believable and intriguing that the book never ceased to engage me. I knew this story was going to break my heart — again, Greek tragedy set against the background of modern racism and terrorism wasn’t likely to turn out any other way — but I could not put the book down until I found out exactly how. 

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Swing Time, by Zadie Smith

swingtimeZadie Smith is one of those writers I have been meaning to read forever but never getting around to, probably because her work comes with so much literary acclaim I was afraid it was going to be impenetrable and a little boring (because let’s be honest, some — by no means all, but some — books that win a lot of literary awards are less than fun to read). I couldn’t have been more wrong. When I finally picked up Swing Tim(because of the happy coincidence of it appearing both on the Booker Prize longlist and my library’s list of available e-books this summer), I was immediately drawn in to a believable character with a compelling voice and a richly drawn world that I found hard to put down. I will definitely be reading more of Zadie Smith.

The first-person narrator of Swing Time (who never reveals her name, though it took me more than halfway through the book to realize this) is a young girl of mixed race (black mother, white father) growing up on a North London council estate in the 1980s. She takes dance lessons as a young girl, and though she shows no remarkable talent, she develops a passionate interest in dance and the history of dance, immersing herself in old Fred Astaire movies on TV and VHS, and devouring the biographies of dancers as her recreational reading. In young adulthood, she is suddenly catapulted from her entry level job in television to an entirely different and more glamorous life when she gets hired as a personal assistant to a major pop star, and plunges into the world of the rich and famous.

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The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes, by Bridget Canning

wandajaynesThis is one of several recent novels by Newfoundland writers (and one upcoming one) that I had the privilege of reading before it was published, when I got to judge an unpublished novel contest a few years ago. The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes was one of the very strongest contenders, and it’s terrific to read it in its finished form.

Wanda Jaynes is a youngish Newfoundland woman, an adult-ed instructor whose job is about to be budget-cut out of existence, and is in a long-term relationship with attractive and charismatic musician Ivan. Her life is pretty average — until the day she goes to the supermarket at the same time as a man with a gun, and finds herself in the unexpected position of stopping a mass shooting.

Overnight, with the help of a viral video, Wanda goes from being a nobody to being a local hero — a position she’s not at all comfortable with. The novel explores serious issues — post-traumatic stress, the dark side of internet fame, random acts of violence — yet manages to be wickedly funny, largely due to the wry voice of Wanda as the point of view character. There’s also a wealth of great detail here about contemporary St. John’s life that really rings true.

This connects to something I said about the last Newfoundland novel I read, Berni Stapleton’s This is the Cat: if you’re going to introduce fantastical or hard-to-believe elements into a realistic story, the realistic bits really have to ring true. The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes contains no talking cats or restless ghosts, but Wanda does find herself catapulted into a realm of experience most of us don’t share: we rarely get to take out a would-be mass murderer with a well-aimed can of coconut milk, nor do most of us become the focus of overnight online fame. But as Wanda moves through these unlikely events, the everyday details of her life feel completely believable and lived. It was those everyday details that drew me into the story originally: I, like Wanda (and, I believe, like the author) teach in an adult-education program, and while I wasn’t personally affected, I vividly remember the round of real-life budget cuts to our sector that, in Wanda’s fictional world, kicks off her horrible, no-good, very bad day. Details like this ground the reader in Wanda’s world and make it easy to follow her into her less likely adventures.

To draw yet another parallel to a book I’ve read lately, the details about Wanda’s internet fame, from her viral YouTube video to the way she becomes an instant meme, are very much grounded in the social media world of the mid-2010s, in the same way the use of teen slang and hip-hop music grounds Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give in the year it was written. Like Thomas’s YA novel, Canning’s book will feel “dated” in a few years, but I think that’s fine, because it’s a snapshot of what it means to “go viral” and become famous at this specific moment in time. It’s not meant to be a universal experience, because the way the world reacts to Wanda’s sudden notoriety is unique to this time and place.

What is universal is the way Wanda’s life starts to unspool in the face of trauma, the way the cracks in her relationships and her own view of herself can no longer be ignored once the pressure is on. Bridget Canning has written a funny, serious, fast-paced, thoughtful contemporary novel that remains light while exploring heavy subjects. This is an extremely readable and enjoyable book, and I hope to read more from Bridget Canning soon.

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