Friday, 30 September 2011

It's such a great read, I have to share my thoughts.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's taken me a few days to emerge from the world of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I totally understand why this book is a prize winner.

Post-colonial Africa holds a morbid fascination for me. There are several excellent non-fiction books that describe the inexorable slide of newly independent nations into despotism and chaos. Crises of the day are tattooed into our memories by media coverage, be that accurate or otherwise, but we are often left ignorant of the post-colonial devastation of Africa. Apart from the association of a country called Biafra with acute starvation, I had little memory of Nigeria's independence or Biafra's secession. I was too young (not often that I can say that these days). Genocide was a word that I associated with other places, other times. That was until I read this book. It’s such a powerful piece of writing that I feel I’ve lived through it.

Adichie’s alternating third-person viewpoint lets the reader into the strongly differing characters of Ugwu, Olanna and Richard. Kainene is something of an enigma as we never read from her viewpoint and that suits her character very well.

Ugwu brings his latent intelligence out of the humble village and grows in the relative splendour of Odenigbo’s home. He experiences lust, envy, loyalty and self-loathing as he travels through the story. A boy with a strong moral code, he does commit offences as do all the characters, but his ethics are perhaps the purest.

Richard is self-obsessed, insipid and weak-willed. He’s doomed to always be ineffectual and peripheral. The world goes mad around him as he indulges in the delusion of being an author. It takes a great deal of life tragedy for him to find backbone. Like a fly on the wall, the corruption, murder and starvation pass him by, personally, but he observes everything up close, uncomfortably so.

Olanna gently rejects the opulence of her parents’ corrupt lifestyle and opts for a more altruistic existence with the academic idealist Odenigbo. The small sacrifices that she makes snowball into a cataclysm of starvation as the country tears itself in two and then suffers forcible reunification. Her relationship with Odenigbo mirrors the fate of their homeland.

Kainene is the strongest of them all. As the others lurch from crisis to infidelity, she is the stalwart. Protected from the emotive events by a social awkwardness, she provides a focused ending to the book.

These characters are so real that I could swear I’ve met them. They’re fallible, admirable, alluring and frustrating. Each comes into their own at different times in the story.

The settings tickled my senses. Privileged Nigerian society led me into a web of decadent iniquity. I wandered through the Nigerian gardens, sniffing their blooms, tasted Ugwu’s pepper soup, and indulged in drunken intellectual rants of an evening.

During the food shortages I found myself running to the cupboard and digging out tinned goods that had been at the back of the shelf for ages. I opened a can of mystery meat and enjoyed my corned beef and mustard sandwich with the savour of someone who has been close to starvation for three years. Or was it one hundred pages? I ran a very tight kitchen for that phase of the book.

In addition to brilliant characterisation and aromatic settings, this book also deals excellently with many tricky themes such as the apparent futility of intellectual altruism, mankind’s inherent capacity for cruelty, and racism within racism (black, white, tribal).

Adichie conveys all of this with a seamless power of observation, imparting a storm of emotion and a litany of events without the reader feeling that a story has been told. This is a story that lives.


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Saturday, 17 September 2011

Spread your tiny wings

Little Bird of Heaven by Joyce Carol Oates

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was a wonder to me. A wonder that I enjoyed it so much, bearing in mind that the pivotal event is handed, pre-announced, to the reader. The rest of the book circles around this event, delivered mostly in two narratives that move in towards it, away from it and then meeting back up at the end. I gave Testimony by Anita Shreve a low score and that followed a similar format. Why then is Little Bird of Heaven by Joyce Carol Oates a more enjoyable read?

I found the author’s style off-putting for the first few pages. This was the first of her books that I’ve read and the constant use of dashes for pauses and italics for emphasis nearly made me put it down. I’m glad that I didn’t. It soon became a book that I looked forward to picking up every chance I had.

Krista Diehl’s first person narrative is very touching. She recalls events over the course of several years, admitting her own naivety and showing how her intuition developed into perception during that time. Her absolute, unwavering faith in and love for her father is something that any man could only hope for. That man is on a clear path to doom and Oates tells the reader on the first page that Eddy Diehl will die in a hail of police bullets. What is gripping is the emotional turmoil the characters endure as the Diehl family is ripped apart by infidelity and false accusation. Sections of narrative are introduced e.g. a section from Eddy Diehl’s perspective during his initial police interrogation, that give valuable insight into his state of mind and the mistakes he makes.

Oates uses concentric story circles of two men, Eddy and Delray, hell-bent on self-destruction through their attraction to the ill-fated Zoe who ultimately betrays them both and leaves a poison legacy of suspicion. Outside of these two men run the stories of Eddie’s daughter, Krista, and Delray’s son, Aaron. Krista is described through her own thoughts and words. Aaron is described more in the physical sense initially. His dominant presence is tangible and Krista’s attraction to him seems terrible but logical.

As Aaron becomes older, his persona turns into Krull and this character comes to life through his actions and reflections. As he, in effect, loses his father, the character becomes more sympathetic and he moves into a similar space as Krista. Both he and she have lost their fathers and Jacky DeLucca’s confession brings them together years later. This reunification is also telegraphed early on by Oates, giving credence to what otherwise might seem an improbable turn of events.

I did have a problem with the Jacky DeLucca character. When Krista meets her for the first time, Jacky’s dialogue is very heavy and I felt like the story was being delivered through her mouth. The same with her confession at the end. She seemed too eloquent and I just wanted her to stop. It was obvious that the killer was one of Zoe’s murkier lovers and Jacky’s lengthy disclosure didn’t sound like a woman dying of liver cancer. That’s my only complaint.

To end on a high point, this has to be the first book I’ve read that ends with a sex scene and well done it is too. The requiting of eighteen years of lust is a fitting climax and it’s bittersweet. I’ll definitely try more from this author.


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Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The summertime has come (and gone) and the hills are softly blooming

As Gary Newman (who?!) would say, it's a burning car. The cool autumn draws in and our citizens resort to the traditional method of generating warmth. Pic taken recently by a member near Bohernabreena, County Dublin.

Well, there hasn't exactly been a summer here in Ireland, but I've finished my free giveaway of PERIL on Smashwords. If you downloaded it then I hope you enjoy the trials and tribulations of Ger Mayes. All reviews gratefully received - the good, the bad and the ugly.

P.S. If you're a LibraryThing member, look out for PERIL as a member giveaway.

If you've enjoyed reading Ruby's blog then please sign up to Ruby's News for freebies, advance review copies of upcoming novels and occasional updates. Thanks!