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.




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.




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):





Christos Tsiolkas: The Slap (2008)

“Bogan, doone, arvo, dag, yobbo, mussie, wog”….Christos Tsiolkas, the author of Greek origin and identified as an Australian author, manages to introduce some characteristics of Australian English through his choosings of vocabulary in his novel The Slap. Published in 2008, the book became an international  bestseller.

The book club agreed on the visual qualities of the plot – the book could be easily seen as a film format. And we came to learn that Tsiolkas is actually a recognised screenwriter, and the book has been made to a film.

Tsiolkas introduces events that take place in Melbourne, the Australian city that seems to have a variety of multicultural families and friendships. There are descendants of Greek (Hector, Manolis), Indians (Anouk) and Brits (Connie), to mention but a few. We come to learn that Australian is not solely a person from Perth, but identities are formed in the dialogues with other cultures.

The events of the book start from a barbeque party, where a man slaps a child of 3 years old across the face. The child is not of his own. The story is constructed through voices of different characters – The chapters are named after eight persons who all witness the slapping in the party.

Reader is asked questions such as what is a modern family about? Where goes the limit for marital rights and obligations? The slap does not leave the reader aside but constantly asks: Whose side are you on?

Some of the book club members liked the book a lot, whereas some found the language rather vulgar and unapproachable. This is what the book is about – Tsiolkas exaggerates, pushes some persons to their limits and leaves the reader a bit flabbergasted. Yet, there are also true survivors in the story, such as a teenager called Connie. She seems to possess the qualities that make you miss the best moments of the teenage years.



Cover: LibraryThing

Margaret Atwood: The Heart Goes Last (2015)

When talking about her recent works, such as Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood defines her stories of a genre of “speculative fiction”, instead of science fiction, to which her works are too often categorized. ”Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen”, as she is said to insist to the UK’s Guardian*.

Atwood´s recent novel, The Heart Goes Last, continues this tradition of “specfic”. As a story of a dystopic near-future, the story starts with an alarming scenario – a married couple, Stan and Charmaine, is like any other ordinary American couple, but what puts them in a difficult position is that they have lost their jobs and their housing, and are forced to live in their car. Which, of course, is far from an easy way of living. As a hope for the better future, they become involved with a new kind of experimentation, Positron project, where they are promised a good-quality housing in an isolated area. But naturally there is a condition to that … every month spent in their new and comfortable house needs to be compensated with a month spent in a prison and with charity work for this community.

The setting for the story is not too unordinary. However, things start going more unpredictable, when Charmaine realizes that their home is inhabited by a certain couple, with whom she accidentally bumps into when they are shifting their turns at change of the month. This brings challenge to the stability of their lives. Nothing is the same anymore, especially as they realise that there is no turning back to their previous lives.

The readers of the book circle were pleased to read this piece of writing from Atwood. Atwood’s story makes references to different themes and touches upon the questionable phenomena of the future, such as organ selling, alternative substitutes for pleasures and nurture (in the forms of robots), alternative ways of living, clones, etc. Yet, it was interesting to see that the dystopic society that Atwood creates in her story is not a gloomy one on the surface, but resembles more of the atmosphere of the 1950´s America we have been offered through the popular culture. We seem to think that this time period was filled with more naivety and innocence than today, and these characteristics are portrayed in the behaviour of the protagonists.

Or maybe it is just Atwood’s way of maintaining the humorous tone in her writing. However, under the surface, we can feel the striking resemblances to more serious issues, for example to the organized system of nazi regime….

* (If you are more interested in the subject:



Cover: LibraryThing

Rachel Joyce: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2013)

Do you remember literary figures, such as Forrest Gump, Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise or the hundred-year-old man who climbed out of the window and disappeared? Add to this company a male protagonist called Harold Fry and these characters form a company, who are on the road, and whose journey makes the story of looking for oneself and one’s identity. What makes the story interesting is not the destination in itself, but what happens on the journey.

By making comparisons, I am not saying that Harold Fry would make the most memorable impact on the reader as a literal person.  (Or will his image become more alive, if/when the story were made into a movie? We don’t know he will ever end up into a film character, but our book club was making a guess that there could be potential for that…) But he is sympathetic in his own, charming and solemn way.

Harold Fry is an average pensioner, residing an average house and living his mediocre life with his ordinary wife. Something changes, when he gets a letter from an old friend Queenie Hennessy who writes a letter of goodbye to him. She is about to die in cancer. This sets out a flow of events that puts the life of Harold and his wife in a new gear. Instead of posting the return letter to the nearest post box, he decides to walk a bit further…and actually he decides to deliver the letter for Queenie personally. However, the distance is a bit too much, from the Southern part of England to Scotland.

And, of course, along the story we come to learn that there are deeper things in Harold’s life than meets the eye.  The walk will become his personal pilgrimage. The slogan for his life could be the advice he gets from a young girl: “You have to believe”. This small idea becomes like an obsession to Harold. Yet, at the same time, the problems of his past are beginning to be resolved. The book tackles with the serious issues, but the style of writing makes issues lighter. This style works for a while, but along the story it starts to lose its’ grip as the amount of absurdities just seem to increase. This happens in Forrest Gump as well, but unfortunately this story is not so epic. Some readers might find this novel both funny and very moving.

If you got attached to the story, you might also want to take a look at another book by Rachel Joyce, “The Love song of miss Queenie Hennessy”. This book is a parallel story to that of Harold Fry, but now the events are told from Queenie Hennessys’s point of view.



Cover: LibraryThing

Xiaolu Guo: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007)

The stories of expats – the descriptions by someone who has left his/her country of citizenship (temporarily or permanently) and is now residing as an immigrant in another country –  form usually interesting scenarios for the reading. The encounters between two different cultures bring interesting phenomena or observations to the surface – those, that are often caused by misunderstandings between languages or other cultural codes. Sometimes misunderstandings are light and funny, sometimes more provocative and the story goes deeper under your skin. (Of the latter type of migrant literature in Finland can we name for example Kissani Jugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci).

Xiaolu Guo depicts a story of a young Chinese woman who starts her life from a scratch when she moves to England, London.  We follow her story for about one year span. Helplessness is a feeling that would best describe her presence in this new country, where she has no previous connections nor decent language skills for survival. The exploration of a new culture goes into deeper level, as she starts a relationship with an Englishman. The encounter of these two people is one of a kind, as the start of the relationship starts from the misunderstanding. “I want to see where you live”, she says. “Be my guest”, he answers back. She interprets this as an invitation to come and live in his house.

The structure of the book was one of the most appealing features of the book. Each chapter has a word as a headline, which resembles that of a dictionary. This gives a good frame for the book, as the meaning of the term for her is explained in each chapter. The sentences of the story follow the level of her language skills. The more time proceeds, the more skillful and complex the simple sentences develop into. Some witty observations of her new home country are also interesting: for example, when there are 26 characters/letters in English alphabets, Chinese has equivalent 50 000 characters(!). She also likes to play with the words and their meanings, as we can read from the words such as “ill-legal” or “demon-strator”.

Eventually, the integration to the new country becomes perhaps easier for the protagonist, when she learns the language faster through the love affair. Their relationship forms the basis for the book, and the tension between the protagonists is original.

This book is not solely a feel-good roman, even though the lightness, humour and the themes of the story could indicate that, but tackles with serious issues. Some of the members liked the book, as it brought into mind the own reflections from the past –  how did it feel to be young, more naïve and how eager were we ready to “hit the road”. Also, the progression and development of the protagonist’s language skills are interesting to be followed as the story proceeds. As a contrast, some of your book clubbers did not like this novel too much, and would have left it unread, unless weren´t part of the book club.

(Concise= narrow or giving a lot of information clearly and in few words)



Cover: LibraryThing