I have not been reading much fiction lately as I’ve been distracted by ALL THE POLITICS, but two novels I recently read did provide some insight into race and immigration, which seems highly relevant to current events.
The first was Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a hugely ambitious, sprawling novel about the experiences of African immigrants, “none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty”. The author’s observations on race felt true-to-life and were often quite funny, and it was particularly interesting to read her thoughts on the vast differences between ‘African-Americans’ (that is, the descendants of the African slaves sent to America many years ago) and ‘American-Africans’ (people from Nigeria and other African countries who have recently migrated to the United States). I also loved the sections set in Nigeria, which were beautifully described.
However, I had two problems with this novel. Firstly, it was not really a novel. Structurally, it was a mess – although perhaps this was meant to reflect the chaos of modern-day Nigerian life? It is supposedly the story of two lovers, Ifemelu and Obinze, who are cruelly torn apart by circumstances, except the narrative quickly wanders off in a variety of competing directions and so I lost all interest in the love story (which is abruptly and implausibly resolved in the final chapters). There is a cast of hundreds of characters, most of whom are introduced and then quickly disappear, never to be seen again. There are long sections in which nothing much happens. There are a lot of blog posts, written by Ifemelu, which say the same things the characters have already said. The whole book is unashamedly didactic, which makes me think it might have worked better as a memoir or a collection of essays.
A greater problem for me, though, was Ifemelu, who narrates most of the book. Ifemelu is the biggest Mary Sue I’ve encountered since Bella in Twilight. Ifemelu – or, as I came to think of her, ★ IFEMELU ★ – is perfect. She is beautiful (but naturally beautiful, not like those vain girls who straighten their hair and fuss over their clothes to attract men). She is smarter and wiser and has better taste than anyone else. She wins scholarships and fellowships and everything she attempts is a great success. She starts a blog about race and not only does it quickly become famous, she makes so much money from it that she’s able to buy a condo. Everyone adores her, especially rich men and small children, even though she never seems to do anything to help anyone else. Her rich boyfriends fall over themselves to shower her with whatever she desires – jobs, money, expensive clothes, overseas holidays. Not that she asks for those things, not like those other girls do, which again shows how much integrity she has! (In fact, she gets bored when her boyfriends are too nice to her, so she cheats on them or dumps them without a word of explanation, no doubt to teach them a valuable life lesson.) ★ IFEMELU ★ is also the best at pointing out other people’s flaws. She despises well-meaning white liberal Americans for being ignorant, African-Americans for not understanding how privileged their lives are compared to Africans, and Nigerians for being lazy and corrupt. All of this would be bearable if Ifemelu ever showed any self-awareness or made any attempt to change, but that never happens. The author has said that Ifemelu is autobiographical and suggests her flaws are meant to be endearing. I was not endeared and would much rather have spent more time with some of the other characters – Obinze, for example, who becomes an ‘undocumented’ immigrant in Britain, or Aunty Uju, who has much less luck than Ifemelu when it comes to choosing male partners, or Dike, the depressed teenager caught between two cultures in America. Despite these reservations, I did find the book interesting and it would be a great choice for a book club because there’s just so much to discuss.
After that I read something very different, but also about cultural clashes – Breakfast with the Nikolides by Rumer Godden. This is a small, perfectly formed novel about the conflict between British colonials and Indians working and studying at an agricultural college in Bengal. The author drew strongly on her own life experiences and her view of Indian society is both compassionate and clear-eyed. The descriptions of places and people are wonderful. She’s particularly good at portraying sensitive, awkward, plain girls on the verge of adolescence – in this novel, it’s twelve-year-old Emily, whose feuding parents have been forced to re-unite due to the war in Europe. When Emily’s little dog appears to contract rabies, it sets off a chain of disasters that ends up involving the whole town. The plotting is very skillfully done and the conclusion is deeply satisfying. And considering this was written by a white British woman in the 1940s, it’s commendable for its lack of racism. What did make me wince was the depiction of domestic violence and marital rape. At one stage, the most sympathetic character is indignant that anyone should judge him harshly for smashing up his house and assaulting his wife – after all, both were his property to do what he liked with and anyway, she provoked him by being annoying. Of course, this is what most people believed at the time (and unfortunately, how some people still think), so it’s entirely plausible – just unpleasant to read. However, on the whole, this is a beautiful piece of writing and highly recommended for Rumer Godden fans. A good companion read would be Anne Chisholm’s excellent biography of Rumer Godden, so that you can see the parts of the novel that were inspired by real events in the author’s life.