BROWN GIRL IN THE RING (1998)

download (1)I had some doubts about Brown Girl in the Ring for the first 150 pages or so of reading it. My main concern was that the entire novel would be predictable – tropes were introduced that had the potential to unfold in a boringly predictable way. But as the conflicts took shape and began to reach resolution, Hopkinson blew me away with her creativity and particularly with her powerful feminism. There’s a lot of reviews that complain about Brown Girl in The Ring having an identity crisis. Is it sci-fi? Fantasy? Neither? Is it Jamaican or is it Canadian? The other recurring complaint I saw was about the protagonist being annoyingly immature. My response to these complaints are, respectively, I don’t care! and you’re wrong. Allow me to explain further.

I’m not sure how I’d categorize Brown Girl in the Ring in terms of genre, but frankly, I don’t care. If pressed, I’d describe it as a blend of science fiction dystopia and magical realism. Whatever it is, it worked for me. I could maybe understand the complaint that Hopkinson’s exploration into the science fiction themes just barely scratch the surface, except that this isn’t what the book is primarily about (more on this later). The setting is Toronto and the majority of characters are Jamaican immigrants or children of immigrants. This is drawn from Hopkinson’s own experience as a Jamaican immigrant who lived most of her adult life in Canada. I found the merging of cultures in Brown Girl in the Ring to be unique and interesting and not at all cluttered. As for the immaturity of the protagonist, I have a lot to say in response.

The protagonist, Ti-Jeanne, is immature in many ways at the start of the novel. She has a child that she isn’t prepared to care for and has very little interest in caring for. She blames her grandmother for all of her frustrations, and she can’t control her attraction to her good-looking, sweet-talking, ex-boyfriend: Tony. But even at Ti-Jeanne’s most immature, you can see her potential for growth. One of my favorite feminist moments in the novel happens early on when Ti-Jeanne still thinks she’s in love with Tony. Tony asks why Ti-Jeanne left him (it was because of the baby), and just as Ti-Jeanne is about to open up to him and tell him “all her worries about whether Tony would have been able to help her provide for the child,” he interrupts her and says, “I would have let you keep the baby, no matter whose it is. I love you Ti-Jeanne” (73). Moments earlier Ti-Jeanne was swooning over Tony, but as soon as he says this, her response is shock. She thinks, “He would have ‘let’ her keep the baby? The moment had passed. She gave Tony the glare that always threw him off balance.” This scene introduces feminism as a central element to Brown Girl in the Ring, and I quickly saw the novel as, above anything else, a feminist one. The central characters to the plot are Ti-Jeanne, her mother, and her grandmother, and the way these three generations of women navigate conflicts with each other, surpass obstacles, grow together, and support themselves in an unforgiving place is remarkable. It’s a powerfully feminist novel, and that, above all else, is what Brown Girl in the Ring is about. So to those who critique it for not being science-y enough, or not exploring the nuances of the dystopian setting enough, or whatever else, I think they’re missing the point of the novel entirely.

Links: Nalo Hopkinson .com | Goodreads | Amazon

MR. NORRIS CHANGES TRAINS (1935)

download (1)Christopher Isherwood, the author of this novel, is decidedly white and male. This is the thought I had before beginning to read Mr. Norris Changes Trains, a novel I’ve wanted to read for some time now and couldn’t put off any longer. I worried for a second about breaking my 2017 oath when I remembered, he’s gay! Of course! And so, I excitedly include Christopher Isherwood in this blog. He’s not an author I’d read specifically for the purposes of this blog – he’s dead for one thing, his work published from the 1930s-70s, and, again, a white man. However, he was an early openly gay author, an innovator of gay literature, and later (after moving to the states) became one of the first openly gay members of Hollywood society, and a lifelong advocate for gay rights, specifically, gay pride.  The real reason I picked up Mr. Norris Changes Trains, however, is because I fell in love with his prose about two years ago reading his much later autobiographical novel, Christopher and his Kind, and I’ve been dying to get to another book of his ever since.

From the first page, I was reminded of why I love Isherwood’s writing so much. He has an unsettling knack for describing experiences that, not only are you completely unable to describe, but have been unable to fully identify or consciously realize you’re experiencing. Isherwood has a remarkable ability of seeing through people and human interactions and committing them to paper, both eloquently and exceptionally clearly. An example:

“The tiny flame of the lighter flickered between us, as perishable as the atmosphere which our exaggerated politeness had created” (4).

Mr. Norris Changes Trains feels a little like a character study. The character of Arthur Norris begins as a mystery, and as the novel progresses, the reader comes to understand his nuances, mannerisms, and general disposition as the narrator does. The narrator is a loose representation of Isherwood himself, but in Isherwood’s earlier novels (like this one), Isherwood is mostly an observer and, while an active participant in the events of the story, does not analyze himself as a character the way he does in his later (and better) autobiographical books about his years in Berlin.

The setting of Berlin in the early 1930s begins as a minor character itself, and increasingly comes to the center of the story as political tensions become more intense and the Nazi party gains more and more power. The setting is definitely the background, however, and not what the book is about. The book is about characters and the characters happen to be living in and greatly influenced by Berlin. The result is a really interesting look into how Berliners viewed the Nazi party (most hated it) and the politics of the time in general.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Norris Changes Trains, I don’t think I would have been able to without having read Christopher and his Kind first, and that is the novel I would recommend if you have any interest in reading Christopher Isherwood. With that said, you can expect remarkable prose and fascinating subjects out of any Isherwood novel you choose.

Links: Isherwood Foundation .org Goodreads | Amazon

LANDFALLS (2015)

downloadLandfalls, by Naomi J. Williams, is one of those strange novels that creep up on you without you realizing. I’ve experienced this before, but with Landfalls, it was particularly striking. I was more than three quarters of the way through before it suddenly hit me that I was reading something remarkable. It’s not that the first half of the book isn’t remarkable, it’s more that Landfalls’ effectiveness is extremely subtle and takes some time to recognize.

Each chapter of Landfalls is told from the point of view of a different character and each chapter could probably pass as a self-sufficient short story. This unique structure worked well for Landfalls because it highlights character development, which to me was the heart of the novel. Williams’ exploration of different characters’ world views, beliefs, and motivations (particularly those of the two captains), and how they evolve and are changed by the course of the voyage, is spectacular. What makes Landfalls so successful is Williams’ ability to portray characters living at the end of the 18th century authentically while still making room for modern thought. Writing historically accurate characters that are both sympathetic and relatable in a time period when racism was the norm and slavery widely accepted, is a real challenge. Often historical fiction can suffer from feeling either too influenced by modern thought or too stuck in the past. Williams gets the balance just right, and this allows for fascinating (and believable!) character development.

Because Landfalls is essentially a series of related short stories, you will likely have a favorite standout chapter, as I did. My personal favorite chapter was “Dispatches,” in which the Russian-speaking crew member of the voyage is dropped off on the eastern coast of Siberia and entrusted with a box of documents detailing the findings of the voyage so far should the crew not successfully return to France (which, of course, they did not). In “Dispatches,” Williams develops a fascinating and loyal relationship between men relying on each other for survival. This chapter highlights one of the my favorite themes in the novel, which is exploring how relationships functioned in a time before immediate long-distance communication was possible. Today it seems so strange – the inability to speak to someone who isn’t directly in front of you – but for almost all of history that is simply the way it was. At the end of “Dispatches,” two friends who had travelled across Siberia and survived against the odds part ways knowing they’ll never meet again. Landfalls is full of these powerful moments that explore humanity and human relationships.

Landfalls has a way of sneaking up on you, and reminding you of the things that become so easy to forget in the 21st century: the power of nature and its indifference toward the people living in it, how big the world is, and how small our little piece of it, how brief human life is, but how powerful an impact one individual can have on those around them. I’ll end this review with a short and simple but thought-provoking quote that I feel exemplifies Landfalls: 

“The Vanikorans [a small Polynesian island people] understood their island to be one of many that made up the world.” (256)

Links: Naomi J Williams .com | Goodreads | Amazon

HALF OF A YELLOW SUN (2006)

Half of adownload Yellow Sun is so breathtaking that I feel uncomfortable reviewing it. I’d never even heard of Biafra before picking up this novel, and I could be wrong, but I don’t think I’m in the minority for people my age. And yet, Biafra was, briefly in the late ’60s, a nation and a place that saw human suffering to an extent and on a scale comparable to the holocaust. Imagine never having heard of the holocaust. Well I’d never heard of Biafra. If that isn’t concrete proof of the extent to which eurocentrism influences what we know about the world, I don’t know what is.

There is no “best part” to this novel because every element of the story is as incredible as every other. The characters, the plot, the writing style, the pacing, and the structure all work together perfectly to form this masterpiece. One of the great achievements of Half of a Yellow Sun is its ability to depict extreme suffering without alienating the reader. Think about the times when you’ve watched a documentary or read a book or even seen a starving children in Africa ad where what’s happening seems so detached from your own life that its impossible to conceive of the suffering as happening to real human beings. Half of a Yellow Sun avoids this entirely. First, it’s enjoyable to read! It doesn’t feel masochistic in the way it sometimes does to read about human suffering. It’s relatable and understandable. It’s engaging and page-turning. All of the characters are living full and complex lives. There’s a huge depth of characters and places and plots unfolding. And so, when you realize that these same characters, characters who have careers they worked hard for, who have families, who attend university, who write poetry, who have music collections, who have access to modern day luxuries, are living as refugees, faced with starvation, and consumed with war, the shock you feel is real and intimate as opposed to a detached sadness for a suffering so far removed from your own life that its reality is inconceivable.

And one of the most striking elements of Half of a Yellow Sun is how subtly the characters suffering increases. It seems to happen both slowly and then all-at-once. You’ll think you’re seeing suffering and then realize the true suffering hasn’t even begun and then realize that over and over and over again. You’ll look back at a scene 100-pages previous and be shocked with how much the characters situations have changed and with how much suffering you’ve become accustomed to as the reader. And then you’ll look back 100-pages later with the same shock all over again. For awhile you’ll convince yourself that there’s a certain type of joy that can be found in a people suffering together, and then you’ll come to realize that some human suffering reaches an extent so extreme that there’s room for nothing else.

Half of a Yellow Sun had a real impact on me and reminded me how and why literature can be so powerful. It’s a book I’ll never forget and one I’m sure I’ll be reminded of and return to frequently. I would tell anyone and everyone that it’s an absolute must-read. If you haven’t had a chance to read this novel yet, no matter how long your reading list is, put Half of a Yellow Sun at the very top.

Links: Chimamanda .com | Goodreads | Amazon