Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiuchie is the first novel of hers I’ve read; friends of mine rave about her previous novels, so I plan to read those, as well. I found myself very drawn to her head-on explorations of race and class in Nigeria and the U.S. The novel is also a love story about a couple, Ifemelu and Obinze, whose lives, over time, radically shift and change and by doing so, reflect the politics of the world(s) they inhabit. Very impressive, too, is the innovative use of Ifemelu’s blog about “Racial Disorder Syndrome” that’s interspersed and integrated throughout the text. I’ve not seen a blog used this way in fiction before.
I’ve also recently read Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles, which takes place in a gloomy, unnamed, Eastern European country. The nameless narrator – who is not a sympathetic character – agrees to housesit for his friend, Oskar, who’s in California getting a divorce. Oskar is obsessive-compulsive while the narrator is a slob who brings “chaos” with him wherever he goes. At the heart of the book is the question of why Oskar would ask such a messy soul to take care of his precious, obsessively neat and ordered home. The answer, when it comes, is unexpected and strange, and yet totally believable within the context of the novel. I love the non-clinical glimpses into the mind of someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and I also love the fact that neither the narrator nor Oskar is a conventionally likeable character. The narrator’s voice is truly compelling, and the story that unfolds is both macabre and humorous.
Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father, by Alysia Abbott, is another compelling read. Alysia lost her mother at age two, and her father, an openly gay man who was also a serious (and perpetually struggling) poet, raised her in nomadic fashion as a single dad in San Francisco during the 70s, those days of freewheeling sex among the gay community. Alysia attended poetry readings with him, learned to be fiercely independent, and played “DressUp” with her dad’s friends’ flamboyant clothes. When AIDS ravaged her father’s community, Alysia and he had to learn to cope in this new, grim landscape. I identified with both Alysia and her father: he, for his struggles with parenting while trying to remain a fully engaged writer and sexual being; her, for her life as the child of an unconventional father, trying to find her own way. Abbott, never sentimental, writes with lively, clean prose that makes the story far more heartrending than if she’d told it as a four-hankie, weepy, woe-is-me tale.
The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande, is another clear-sighted memoir about a struggling family, this time a Mexican family. For many years, I owned a home in Mexico, and considered it my second home (I still do). Therefore, I’m always fascinated by stories of Mexico, whose culture is so different from that of the U.S. Grande’s childhood was torn between two parents and two countries, as she followed her father to “El Otro Lado” (The Other Side) – aka The U.S., where he tried to build a better life. However, her family was irrevocably fractured by poverty, distance, and alcohol. It’s a brutally honest book, lifting the curtain on a kind of Mexican family we rarely read about. Grande’s burning desire to live a radically different life from that of her family is powerful, and well realized, thankfully.
The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus is a kind of horror story told in exquisite, lilting prose. A terrible epidemic has struck the country and the sound of children’s speech has become lethal to adults, so that the sound of your own child’s voice can kill you. What an ingenious metaphor for the trials of raising children, whom, no matter how much you love them, will inevitably wound you at times. It’s also a metaphor for the need to truly communicate with those around you in order to survive. It’s an intellectually stimulating read, with the beautiful, underpinning horror making it emotionally stirring.
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