Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus today, and I wanted to write about it while it was still fresh in my mind.  I wanted to write about it because the books that I write about manage to stay fresher in my mind than the ones I don’t.  It’s my book group’s pick for this month – our meeting is Sunday.  I really hope that my fellow members read it because I want to talk about it!  It’s one of those books that grew on me as I read it, and by the end, I didn’t want to put it down.

This was Adichie’s first novel, but I found it to be as captivating as the only other one of hers I’ve read thus far, the epic Americanah.  It’s a far more quiet novel, though; it sneaked up on me with an emotional heft that took my breath away.  A coming of age story set in modern Nigeria, it follows fifteen year-old Kambili and her family: her older brother Jaja, her mother and father, and her father’s sister Ifeoma and her family.img_0469

Kambili’s father is wealthy, publishing a progressive newspaper and owning factories, and his children lack for nothing physically.  However, their house is a quiet one, where every day has a schedule and no one speaks out of turn.  Laughter is nonexistent, and the household is strictly religious (Catholic.)  Kambili loves her father, wants to make him proud with her grades at school, but she also fears him.  As the novel progresses we get more of a picture of what’s going on inside the house – it becomes obvious that the father is physically abusive not only to their mother but also to Kambili and Jaja.  One day a girl at school asks Kambili why she always runs to get into the car her father sends to pick her up instead of walking and chatting with the other girls.

“I just like running,” I said, and wondered if I would count that as a lie when I made confession next Saturday, if I would add it to the lie about not having heard Mother Lucy the first time.  Kevin always had the Peugeot 505 parked at the school gates right after the bell rang.  Kevin had many other chores to do for Papa and I was not allowed to keep him waiting, so I always dashed out of my last class.  Dashed, as though I were running the 200-meters race at the interhouse sports competition.  Once, Kevin told Papa I took a few minutes longer, and Papa slapped my left and right cheeks at the same time, so his huge palms left parallel marks on my face and ringing in my ears for days.

Things begin to change when Kambili’s Aunty Ifeoma manages to convince her brother to let the children come stay with her and her family for a week during a school break, under the pretense of going to visit a pilgrimage site.  Ifeoma, a widow and university professor, is a vibrant, strong, colorful woman, and at first Kambili doesn’t know how to behave around her or her opinionated children.  She is painfully shy and afraid to do or say anything that she’ll have to later confess to her father.  This includes even having a relationship with her grandfather, whom her Papa considers a pagan heathen, since he never converted to Catholicism.  As Kambili and Jaja stay with Ifeoma, they start to open up, speak their minds more, laugh, and learn a new way to be a family.  Inevitably, this new consciousness chafes against the ways that their Papa controls them and their mother.

This was one of those books that had potential to be “too heavy” for me, a self-described wimp when it comes to sad things in books.  But Adichie has such a succinct yet beautiful way of writing, with not a word wasted, that even when she describes painful events, it’s not too much to handle.  Ifeoma’s home and community in Nsukka is such a vibrant, loving environment, I longed to be there, embraced and cared for by her and her children. We also meet a kind, strong, attractive young priest named Father Amadi, who is a positive, fatherly figure for Ifeoma’s children and other children in Nsukka.  He and Kambili develop a unique friendship and he helps draw her out of her shell, giving her a glimpse at another way to embody the Catholic faith.  He’s a lovely character.

I’m so glad we chose this novel to read for my book group.  I had it on my TBR, but you know about my TBR, right?  Things might linger there for one, two, three years before I “get around to them,” if I ever do.  Don’t make the same mistake I made – get your hands on a copy of this gorgeous, sad, but ultimately hopeful novel sooner rather than later!

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Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

I haven’t read a lot of sci-fi in my life.  It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve really started exploring that genre.  So I don’t know if that makes me a good person to write a review of Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon or not.  I was drawn to this book because I’m interested in Nigeria, and this is set in Lagos.  I’d heard positive things about Ms. Okorafor’s other books like Binti and Who Fears Death.  I was also interested in the book’s premise:  shapeshifting aliens land in the waters off of Lagos – what do they want?  How are people going to react?

18753656A famous Ghanaian rapper, a female marine biologist, and a soldier are all on the beach when the massive BOOM rattles their ears and makes them drop to the ground.  Within minutes a massive wave rolls in from the sea and takes them into the water.  We never find out exactly what happens to them in the water, but they emerge with a mysterious woman.

There was something both attractive and repellent about the woman, and it addled Adaora’s senses.  Her hair was long – her many braids perfect and shiny, yet clearly her own hair.  She had piercing brown eyes that gave Adaora the same creepy feeling as when she looked at a large black spider.  Her mannerisms were too calm, fluid, and… alien.

Not surprisingly, once strange things start happening and word gets out, all hell breaks loose.  Some people want to get to this mysterious woman/creature.  Some people want to get the hell out of Lagos.  Others just want to exploit the chaos for their own gain.  What makes this novel interesting is the way in which Okorafor weaves Nigerian mythology and elements of magical realism into what could have been just another first contact story.  I admit that some of this went over my head but I still enjoyed it.  She also weaves in elements of feminism, environmentalism, and gay rights advocacy into the narrative.  She vividly depicts all different kinds of Lagosians, from the fundamentalist Christian priest who is mainly concerned with lining his pockets to the mute orphan boy who picks pockets until he witnesses the events unfolding on the beach.  There are even passages narrated by a swordfish and a spider.

9781481440875_custom-83c869fee28f9137f21e4e8c5eae3529468e813a-s300-c85I admit that the action in the first half of the book developed a little more slowly than I would have liked, and there are a TON of characters’ viewpoints, some of which aren’t explored very much and seem a little extraneous.  But these are tiny quibbles.  I liked Lagoon.  It was weird and intense and a heck of a lot of fun.  I am hungry for more from Nnedi Okorafor.

(Book 6 of 10 for my #10BooksofSummer, from Cathy’s #20BooksofSummer challenge.)

Every Day Is For The Thief by Teju Cole

An utterly compelling read, Teju Cole’s Every Day is For the Thief is hard to categorize.  I guess that’s the point, as Cole seems like an author who wants to test the limitations of traditional fiction.  A 162-page novella that reads more like a series of travel narratives/essays, the book highlights the frustrating and fascinating characteristics of modern day Lagos and Nigeria in general.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it left me wanting more.

IMG_3483We see Nigeria through the eyes of an unnamed narrator, who’s come home after 15 years in America.  He’s staying with his aunt and uncle, as his father has passed away and his mother lives in America and has been largely absent from his life for years.  He reconnects with old friends and relatives, visits an internet cafe where he spies men composing their advance fee fraud letters, and searches for signs of creative life in the few local book and music stores.  He observes the constant flow of corruption that greases almost every transaction in Lagos.  He must get used to the nightly interruption of electric service, where those with means can fire up their generators for an hour or two, but then it’s darkness.

There is a lovely scene where our narrator observes a woman on a bus reading a book by the Sri Lankan/Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, a favorite author of his.  Cole writes,

Mysterious woman.  The condition of the book, from the brief glimpse I have of it, suggests that it is new.  Where could she have bought it?  Only in two or three of the few bookshops I know in the city.  And if she bought it in Lagos, how much would it have cost her?  More than any normal rider of the Lagos public transportation would consider reasonable, that much is certain.  Why, then, is she on the bus?  Because it is what she could afford, or is it because she, too, is an eccentric?  The questions come to my mind one after the other, and I cannot untangle them.  I hunger for conversation with my secret sharer, about whom, because I know this one thing, I know many things.

In contrast, there is also a heartbreaking, terrifying vignette about an eleven year-old market thief, who was violently killed for stealing a bag six weeks before our narrator visits the market.  The narrator imagines the boy’s terror and the violence of the crowd who is punishing him, beating him, lighting him on fire.  It is a difficult passage to read, but it is also part of the fabric of Lagos that our narrator must weave into the total picture.

I devoured this slim, elegantly written book.  Maybe it’s partly because I haven’t read much about Nigeria beyond Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant Americanah, which I adored.  I am eager to learn more about this fascinating but seemingly maddening part of the world.  I plan on reading Cole’s second novel, Open City (some have said the narrators in both books are the same) later this summer.  I also plan on reading the rest of Adichie’s novels.  I would love some other recommendations, both fiction and nonfiction, about Nigeria or by authors of Nigerian descent, so please let me know of your favorites in the comments.