Petina Gappah: The Book of Memory (2015)

The last choice for the reading of our dear English speaking book club under the theme Africa in Fiction, as seen from the Inside and the Outside of the Continent ended to the very same country from where we started this year´s book readings: Rhodesia was the land in Doris Lessing´s the Grass is Singing, and now we ended our literal journey to Zimbabwe, once known as Rhodesia but since 1980 known as Zimbabwe. (Mind though that Zimbabwe had already announced its’ independence 15 years before).

Pettina Gappah´s “The Book of Memory” was published in 2015. It took six years for her to finish the story, after her breakthrough with her first short story collection “An Elegy for Easterly”. In “The Book of Memory”, she writes in English, yet adds, from time to time, some sentences in Shona, her first language.

The focus on the book lies on an albino woman, Memory, or Mnemosyne, who is imprisoned in Zimbabwean penitentiary, on a death row convicted of murdering a wealthy white man, also known as her adoptive father. She starts to write down her life story, and from early on, we come to learn that her life, as she recalls it, was turned upside down, not actually as a consequence of the death of Lloyd, but as a consequence of “a long-ago day in August when the sun seared my blistered face and I was nine years old and my father and my mother sold me to a strange man”.

This special feature or flashback of her life defines her life as who is now and how the reader interprets her life to be. Also, as due to her albino appearance, which means that she lacks skin pigment, she is somehow stigmatized by her surrounding society: she is considered to be an outsider with her special features.

Petina Gappah writes an intriguing novel, where plot is being developed in the dialogue between the present and the past. Some of our book club readers found this way of telling too complicated in its’ structure, but some did not mind too much. Also, some sentences expressed in Shona language was felt confusing as the lack of translation left the meaning untouched (unless the reader puts an effort to find a dictionary). Despite these few flaws, Gappah way of writing feels fresh. She  touches upon different social levels of the Zimbabwean society and gives some glimpses on the historical past. The personal tragedy in the story is almost too unbearable, but Gappah manages to write it down in a manageable voice.




Yaa Gyasi: Homegoing (2016)

Two half-sisters are born in Gold Coast (now known as Ghana) in the 1700s. The country is a British colony and the other sister, Effia, marries a British man, the governor of the Cape Coast Castle. The other sister, Esi, ends up in to the dungeon of the same castle to be taken away to America in a slave ship.

The second book in the spring term of the English-speaking Book Club was a very strong historical and fictional novel of Yaa Gyasi. It was very heavy stuff and had a lot of food for thought for our ”five o’clock tea  conversation”. It was very well written and I just couldn’t let it out of my hands.

The structure of the book is very simple. It follows two branches of a family tree through 300 years of African and African-American history. Every chapter is a story of a daughter or a son of the previous character. Other branch tells a story of a family in colonized West African country and the other is about people forced to be in slavery and their offspring in America. It’s like a collection of short stories connected to each other. In some stories the connection with the family is very strong and in some the characters don’t even know who their parents are and sadly the reader is the only one who knows the connection to the bloodline.

A man is a very cruel animal and it was not so easy to watch the photos from the dungeons in Cape Coast Castle and it’s ”door of no return”, one of the locations in the book.

Homegoing is a book about systematic racism and stealing human dignity. It’s about the time when human being was much more valuable merchandise than gold. Still it doesn’t feast with the nastiest details but leaves them haunting in reader´s mind. It’s full of misery but full of hope too. It’s a book about slavery but also about the world changing towards freedom and self-determination of every man and independence of a country. And it has some lovely magical realism in it too which makes it more enjoyable to read.

The strongest impact of this book is that it tells stories of individuals instead of stories about nations or big crowds. It’s like a history book but instead of telling about the years of the historical events or the names of the rulers, it gives names and faces to the individuals in the way that anyone can identify with their stories. It’s fiction but it feels very real. It’s an eye-opening approach to the history of African-American’s. It reveals why the prejudice and racism still exists and for example why American prisons are occupied with people with color.

In many of the short stories I wished to know more about the characters, although the fast cuts to the next generation were effective. Some characters were so strong that I could’ve just read the whole book about them.

Yaa Gyasi (born 1989) is a writer born in Ghana but has lived almost her whole life in USA. It’s hard to believe that Homegoing is her debut novel and we were wondering what she could write after this. I would recommend this to anyone who wants a bigger picture and other angle in our recent history, and want’s a book with the flavor of life.



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.



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:

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.




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


Cover photo:

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.


Cover (Finnish version):