Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah (2013)

The English Book Club members spent their Christmas holidays reading a fascinating novel Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Nigerian Adichie, born in 1977, is an award-winning novelist whose work has been translated into over thirty languages, including Finnish. She lives in both Nigeria and the United States. Americanah is Adichie’s third novel.

Americanah asks us to position ourselves regarding questions of race, identity, and belonging, as well as the priviledges and restrictions brought to our lives by the origins of our birth and the fact of our sex. Adichie’s main characters feature a strong female and a soft male, Ifemelu and Obinze, lovers since high school. While young, their Nigeria is ruled by the military; towards the end of the book a newly democratic state. After high school and a year or two of university studies in Nigeria, Ifemelu discovers an academic life in the United States. At first struggling to find her place in the foreign society, later graduating and launching a popular blog dealing with race issues Ifemelu seems to find her own voice. Meanwhile Obinze, due to the choicelessness of life after graduation in Nigeria, tries his luck in London. 15 years later both have returned to Nigeria to find their homeland and themselves again.

The multiplicity of themes and questions in Americanah is both exhausting and inspiring. What does it mean to be black or white? How does the relationship between Africa and the West represent itself to people in each sides? What is the role of being a male or a female in defining one’s life and ambitions? Finally Americanah also asks: Where do we belong to and why? What is the place we want to call home and to whom do we relate to? Where do we find happiness? Any of these would suffice as a theme of a successful novel alone. Adichie succeeds in binding them all to the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, although, in order to keep her novel within a reasonable length, some more in depth than others.

Members of our Book Club seemed to enjoy the novel – even with its nearly 500 pages, everyone attending the meeting had finished the book. While its themes are vast and various, the novel is easy to read, a delight in its language and description of places and people. Americanah is an intellectual book without being pretentious. The story of Ifemelu and Obinze takes a hold of you and does not let go, not even after the last page. Chimamande Ngozi Adichie convinced us deeply – many of us decided to read more of Adichie’s work in the future.

Americanah is warmly recommended to anyone who likes a good story that not only refreshes its reader but also gives food for thoughts.

-Piia-MariaAdichie

foto: librarything.com

Mainokset

Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Grain of Wheat (1967)

”The last five hundred years of European contact with Africa produced a body of literature that presented Africa in a very bad light and now the time has come for Africans to tell their own stories”, as Chinua Achebe, who has been considered as a forefather of modern African literature, writes in the preface of “A Grain of Wheat” by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (in the edition from 2012). The book was written originally in 1967, but since then the author has edited some parts for later version. At the book club, we all had our own, different editions, but could not come up with the idea of the parts that have been modified.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s acclaimed position as a rewarded Kenyan author gave some high expectations for the content of the book. Undoubtedly the theme of the book –  the wake of the Mau Mau rebellion and Kenya being just on the verge of gaining the independency from Britain  in the early 1950´s – has defined it to be one of the most important works that has witnessed Kenya´s process of becoming an independent country. There are heroic actions and heroic characters among the oppressed in the book, but that is only a one side of the harsh reality.

A heroic character is Mugo, a hardworking peasant, who once as an orphan boy was raised by her drunkard aunt, is a man who is appreciated by his society. He is living alone, and seems to be content with his somewhat unsocial way of living. As he once stands to defend a fellow village woman against a policeman, he gains the status of a hero. This equals with the status that once had belonged to a man called Kihika; him who had understood the importance of resisting the colonial power and violence. Another important character in the story is Gikonyo, a husband to Kihika´s sister, who also shows a lots of courage through his resistance.

One of the defining questions for the reading of the book could be formulated as “what or whose is the voice in the book”?  It was easy to see that the voice belongs mainly to the repressed, who are fighting against tyranny and authority which equals with the white male patriarchy of the colonialists.
The voice in Ngugi´s text is very masculine, as well. We do hear some women voices (eg.Mumbi´s), but the story is mainly focusing to the world of men. Men are pondering what is the responsibility of a man to himself and what is the responsibility to the community that surrounds us. We also wanted to raise a theme of “a hero versus a traitor”; how delicate and fine is the line between these two human features. And how easily features such as silence and inarticulateness can be interpreted as depth and courage of human nature.

Due to a lack of female voices, the book was unfortunately felt a bit outdated. A classic in the genre of African literature, however…

-Marikagrain of wheat                                                              foto: librarything.com

Doris Lessing: The Grass is singing (1950)

The Grass is singing, the debut novel by Doris Lessing, was first published in 1950, soon after Lessing had left Africa for Europe. Doris Lessing was born in Persia, but spend the most part of her young years in Rhodesia (Nowadays Zimbabwe), until at the age of 30, she decided to move to England with her son. The book was published in Europe as well as in America, and the impacts of this publishing was not left unnoticed: in 1956 the Rhodesian government declared their decision and claimed her right to return to the country.

It was a good decision to start the season on African literature with this novel. The book clubbers seemed to enjoy the reading. The structure of the book, namely the order of the events is memorable. The start of the story has a features of detective story, but the flow is gradually changing into a compelling drama, where events follow after another, yet the pace of life in the story is starting to slow down. Towards the end, the pace of the narration seems to be coming to a standstill.

Lessing has an incredibly subtle way of depicting the atmosphere of African countryside of the late 1940’s. She sees the colours, she conveys the abundance of nature’s phenomena. The wife of Dic, Mary, once a city girl, is now living in the countryside and is set at the mercy of the unpredictable changes of the seasons. Her previous social life in the office has been replaced by home which for her is only an uncomfortable shack and the nature around her does not provide any stimulus. The novel deals with the issues such as opression, heat, isolation, repressed sexuality, and the tensions between white and black people. A highly recommended book for anyone who wants to read a psychological novel set in the early years of racial segregation.

-Marika

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                                                                 foto: Librarything.com

Lloyd Jones: Mr. Pip (2006)

Reading opens up new worlds, as an old phrase goes. Not only as a way of escapism, but if reading a fictional novel manages to raise up curiosity to know more about the factual world, and it even makes the reader to start looking up the historical or geographical facts behind the story, the book manages to be more than just a random piece of entertainment. Lloyd Jones’s novel Mr. Pip is a serious work of art and teaches, at least for yours truly, something from the history of few islands of the Pacific Ocean, namely from Papua-New-Guinea and Bougainville.

The focus of the book lies on the character of Mr. Watts, also known as Mr. Pip, who is an only white man inhabiting the island Bougainville. The events occur in the late 1980´s or in the early 1990´s. He gets the full attention of other people as, in the midst of a war that is lurking behind the corner, he decides to open a shut-down school and start teaching again for the children. We learn about his special kind of behavior through the eyes of one of his pupil’s, a girl named Matilda. Matilda and other children get to know the classic story by Dickens, when his novel “Great Expectations” is being read aloud in the class room. The main character in this classic is known by the name Pip.

The violence in the book is pretty bad, so the book cannot be recommended for the faint-hearted. The war between soldiers and rebels start to come closer to the islanders, and eventually passes the island with its destroying effect. The glance at the history of Bougainville gives us some explanation for this situation: the influence of the mining in the era caused some uncertainties. “Bougainville Copper Limited was an Australian copper, gold and silver mining company that operated the Panguna open cut mine on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea (PNG) from 1971 to 1989. Mining operations were officially halted in 1989, when employees were attacked during an uprising and the power source was cut. Australian colonial government was said to treat the employees unfairly, and Bougainvillean people were seen to ‘get nothing’ ”. * Along with these circumstances, the events of the book are accelerated.

Matilda’s story in the book is touching and quite cruel. Despite her young age, she does not have time or place to ponder over things that teenagers of her age normally would think about; the maturing, the sexual awakening, her education.  Under these special circumstances her attention is drawn more into the adult’s world, the politics under the colonial power and the absence of her long lost father. She struggles through her young life with Dickens’s book as her guiding light, and she tackles with questions like ’what does it mean to have a “heroic character”’ or ’how can one come over physical and mental obstacles, and come terms with the injustice of the world?´.

“Mr. Pip” has also been made into a film. It will be interesting to see whether the film version will live up to the book version.

This book was the final one for the readings of the book club and closed the spring term of 2017. The theme for the season was New Zealand, so therefore this book did not “hit directly the target” yet the author originates from NZ. However, this book reminded us Australia and New Zealand are far from being monolithic federations. There are numerous cultures and languages that exist in Down Under.

*) quoted from Wikipedia: Bougainville Copper

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Cover photo: Librarything.com

Keri Hulme: The Bone People (1984)

The Bone People won the Booker Prize in 1985 and for its own part, raised the awareness of the existence of Maori culture outside the borders of New Zealand. Furthermore, a film called Once were warriors made a worldwide breakthrough in the 1990’s and brought even more social awareness to this minority that has suffered from the lack of basic human rights for ages.

Maoris are indigenous people of the island of New Zealand. It is known that first maoris of the island arrived to the island by long canoes from Polynesia around the 14th Century. As the Europeans started to conquer the island through Colonialism, Maorian tribes were mistreated and the population of the maoris started to decrease. The cultural resurrection of the Maori heritage started to occur at some point in the 1960´s. E.g. the language of Maori people has been legalized and brought to the curriculum of the country´s schools relatively recently, in the 1980’s.

Keri Hulme participates in this process of revival through the contents of the book. She weaves the story  in her magical way by introducing Maori words along the journey. The arrangement and relationship between her three main characters could be seen to reflect the past of the Maori tribes. The struggle of the existence has been an ongoing and fierce battle.

It is difficult to write about this book, as the story does not follow the conventional storyline and is in some ways “out of this world”.  The lives of the three characters are presented in fragmented ways, but which get their meanings in relation to each other. A woman, a man and a child have their own struggles to fight with, yet the caring and loving emotions seem to be evolving. The connection of this three is unique and biased. Isolation is a big theme, and violent actions occur. It is not always easy for the reader to accept the actions and their consequences.

A relation to the nature can be sensed in the book, and some symbols for Maorian culture is presented, such as the importance of art works & tattooes, and the respect to the past and magical stories. Keri Hulme made an important work through her writing, although the story would have not suffered from some further editing or simplification, in my opinion. One of our bookclubbers considered this to be the most outstanding book she has read for a while.

-Marika

Cover (Finnish version): Kirjasampo.fi

 

 

 

 

Katherine Mansfield: The Garden Party and other stories (1922)

Kathleen Mansfield Murry (14 October 1888 – 9 January 1923) was a prominent short story writer who was born and brought up in colonial New Zealand and wrote under the pen name of Katherine Mansfield. At the age of 19, Mansfield left New Zealand and settled in the United Kingdom, where she became a friend of modernist writers such as D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. In 1917 she was diagnosed with extrapulmonary tuberculosis, which led to her death at the age of 34. Despite her young age, she travelled and lived in various countries (England, Germany, France, Italy) and published short stories. She is a highly appreciated modernist, whose writings seem never get old, not even for a reader of today.

For the readers of the book club for this spring term, what could be a better introduction to the literature of New Zealand than the short story collection by Katherine Mansfield? We dwelled on the first two stories of the book – ”At the Bay” and ”the Garden Party”. The stories are set on the coastal area of New Zealand. The abundance of nature is described so passionately and the gallery of personalities of the stories is so vivid, that we interpreted these perhaps be based on her own life. At the Bay, the story concentrates on the events of one summer day. We come to learn that Mansfield’s subtle way of writing gives room for many kinds of interpretations. Maybe this was necessary in order to get texts published at that era. At the Bay we get to know a woman who does not fit in the social norms set by others and is thus despised. We learn that a motherhood can be far from being a loving relationship but it is a rather compulsory thing that is expected to be performed for the sake of reproduction purposes. Mansfield brings forth some taboos of that time and perhaps is among the forerunners to write about these subjects, as a continuation for the latter part of Victorian era, when patriarchal male supremacy was being questioned in the literature for the first time. In her stories, women are mostly content of living a life without a marital partner.

Class divisions are presented even in a more apparent way in the Garden party. It is a story about the afternoon of an upper class family, whose life seem to filled with roses and lilies and piano tunes. . . However, the innocence and the immunity of the family as an isolated part of the society is questioned by Laura, a young girl of the family. She observes her surroundings carefully and starts to question and break the invisible barriers that separate her family from the others. She begings to ”wake up”as a member of the society, so to speak.

We really liked the short stories we read and shared the observations of many details. Yet we were genuinely surprised by the fact how modern these themes still felt today. It is almost 100 years since Mansfield wrote her stories, and she seems to have reached something essential on the human existence and being, for the questions she deals with are still relevant questions to be asked in today’s society.

-Marika

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Cover: LibraryThing

Patrick White: Voss

A brief summary of the colonial past of Australia: The Commonwealth of Australia was established in 1901. Prior to that, Australia had been taken over by British settlers gradually, an area after another. It is recorded that the first British ship to land on an Australian shore was  in 1770, and a remarkable landing occurred in 1788, when the ship landed with a load of British convicts – the punishments of these prisoners were turned into a settling of  the new territory, namely in Australia. This conquest of the new land was being executed at the expense of the evacuations of the aboriginals, who were forced to moved away from the Southern parts. The conflicts were inevitable (Source: Maailmalla – Afrikka ja Oseania, 2009, free translation). It is in this context where the story of Patrick White’s Voss start.

Patrick White, a winner for Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973, is an Australian author who is considered amongst the great novelists of the twentieth century. Despite the literary honor, his name might be forgotten amongst the younger readers of today. He published short stories and plays, and altogether twelve novels, of which we read his work Voss, published in the late 1950’s.

Voss is described as a book of a man’s odyssey across the Australian landscape and a love story. Despite the appetising ingredients of the good story, our book club readers did not find the novel too tasty. The protagonists of the story, a German traveller/explorer called Voss and Laura Travelyan, a young and intelligent woman of higher class, are introduced almost right away, of which the reader is thankful for. We come to learn that there is a colonial governance system in power in the 1840´s. Voss gathers an expedition group around him and the journey for the search can begin. At this point, the reader is already a bit confused – where are they heading for, what are the relationships among the explorers, and why Laura and her cousin are SO upset when they see the ships leave the shore?

Whether it is necessary to hang on to the illogical details as these mentioned above, as a whole, this is probably one of the reasons why the reading of this book was such a challenge. The sentences are full of adjectives and constructed in complex ways – whether it is intentional from the author to convey the atmosphere of the 19th century or not, we just found it difficult and boring to follow the text. However, some biblical references and an exceptionally strong female character (Laura) were some features that the book club paid attention to.

Also, the fact that the ”love story”of the lovers was almost non-existent and thus non-credible, could exactly convey the liaisons of the past times – for just to ”imagine” your beloved was meaningful. What a disappointment, though, to witness this in White´s novel. Also, the story is a white man’s story that seems to leave the aboriginal experience into the shadows.

As a conclusion, book clubbers decided to recommend the book for readers, who want to challenge themselves and who suffer from insomnia – the book makes you fall asleep surprisingly fast. 🙂

-Marika

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Cover: Kirjasampo.fi