March 2023: superlatives for the rest of it

As I’ve been trying to read a lot from my TBR of recent acquisitions, only a fraction of my March reads have been covered by my Love Your Library, American Classics Reading Project, and Great Reread posts (plus one or two other themed review posts this month). Here’s the rest—including one that’ll probably be on my Books of the Year list.

most interesting God book: I’ve inherited a small collection of theology books from my grandparents, and I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s three lectures from Yale Divinity School, collected as When God Is Silent (1998), this month. The thrust of her argument is that, despite the apparent human desire to hear directly from God, communicating with the divine is a physically and emotionally gruelling experience, and maybe when we don’t seem to hear God speaking, that in itself is a form of communication. Lots of interesting ideas, especially about the prevalence of words and speech in our highly-connected era, although as this was written in the late ‘90s, some of her anecdata (and some of her alarm for the fabric of society being threatened by technology like… Walkmans) feels quaint.

most frustrating: I already mentioned reading Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop (1946) and being unpleasantly surprised by his sleuth Gervase Fen’s condescension towards women, and the narrative voice’s apparent endorsement of that attitude. Crispin is a smart and funny mystery writer, and The Moving Toyshop had one of those premises I love that appear to demand only a supernatural explanation, but actually do have a perfectly rational one (in this case, a woman’s body is found above a shop that seems to have disappeared entirely—indeed, to have never existed—when the police call the next day). Unfortunately the sexism seems to be a hallmark of Crispin’s work, which mars the clever puzzle-solving for me. I read a second book by him, just to check, and it confirmed my original thoughts. Oh well—can’t win ’em all.

best start to a new fantasy series: New to me, anyway. Spurred by Jo Walton’s enthusiastic praise on, I ordered the omnibus of the first two novels in Daniel Abraham’s Long Price quartet, A Shadow in Summer (2006) and A Betrayal in Winter (2007). They’re excellent; each novel in the quartet is set fifteen years apart, allowing the repercussions of magical events and political decisions to really work themselves through, in a way that makes the world feel big and self-supporting. There are great female characters, not just conventionally strong or badass but intelligent, interesting, allowed to have different ideas and experiences from each other. (The first book features Amat, a bookkeeper in her fifties with a bad hip, a little touch that I loved.) The magic system is simultaneously low-key (most individuals have no access to it and don’t want to; there’s no casual conjuring, for instance) and crucial (it is the reason for the political clout enjoyed by several, but not all, major city-states), and plays with metaphysics in a really fascinating way. Having read Abraham’s subsequent series, the five-book The Dagger and the Coin, it’s obvious that his publishers pushed him to write something action-y after The Long Price, and that’s a shame—here, in his earlier work, where the repercussions of money and trade balances are allowed to play out in something closer to real time, is where he’s really original. I’m going to read the third and fourth books soon.

my favourite book this month: Martin MacInnes’s astonishing and gorgeous third novel, In Ascension (2023). I’m really struggling to write about it because it simply blew my mind. There’s a strong flavour of Jeff VanderMeer’s bureaucratic bio-weird, crossed with the megalithic creepiness of 2001: a Space Odyssey, but it doesn’t feel derivative; instead, MacInnes seems to understand sci fi tropes so well that he can turn them to his own ends. In a way it’s about a Dutch marine biologist, Leigh, trying to come to terms with the physical abuse that marked her childhood and her complicated feelings regarding her sister (spared the worst violence) and her mother (who never intervened). In another way it’s about voyaging into the unknown—the deepest parts of the ocean, the farthest reaches of the solar system—for a myriad of reasons: because it’s there or because we want to find something or because we want to lose something. In a third way it’s about the origins of terrestrial life, literally, and the origins of an individual life, narratively-metaphorically. There are giant space objects emitting mysterious signals, and possibly time travel, and inexplicable geological phenomena, but also budgets and training and research supervisors and ageing parents. I absolutely loved it. The ending is amazing. If you read the whole thing while listening to Spotify’s Not Quite Classical playlist, it will only enhance your experience. I want it to win the Clarke Award or a Kitschie or the fucking Booker—something, anything, to acknowledge its beauty and greatness. 

most surprising emotional response: Actually, this emotional response is perhaps surprising only to me, but reading Victoria Bennett’s lovely, lyrical memoir of care, motherhood, and gardening, All My Wild Mothers (2023), hit me way harder than I was expecting. The reason for this is because Bennett’s son was diagnosed with Type I diabetes at the age of two and a half. I was diagnosed at age three, so we were very similar ages when our worlds, and our parents’ worlds, changed. Reading Bennett’s account of trying to keep her son alive, the horrible feeling of betrayal when you have to hold your child down and stick them with needles while they scream, the constant negotiation between the outside world (pizza parties at school, cake with tea, well-intentioned neighbours offering bags of sweets) and the inner (that’ll spike blood sugar, better give insulin, better try to run around and work it off, no not today thank you, but I want one)… it actually hurt, my chest hurt as I read it. I remember it all. I still live it, although treatment has improved over the decades and being old enough to self-administer medication makes a huge difference. I wonder about my parents’ memories. The book is beautifully written, obviously, and you may find other parts—the account of her sister’s death in a canoeing accident, or her mother’s from mesothelioma—are more emotive for you. Bennett writes with such grace and open-heartedness, particularly about her love for her son and their fierce determination to create a garden of vegetables, wildflowers, and trees, to make something beautiful out of waste ground. This resonates really strongly with Josie George’s A Still Life, and would be great to see on the Barbellion Prize list next year.

most joyful: This year really is shaping up to be my year of Italo Calvino, and this superlative must go to his slim collection of linked vignettes, Marcovaldo (1963; transl. William Weaver 1983). Subtitled “Seasons in the City”, it’s neither a true novella nor a short story collection, really, but a series of twenty snapshots—one per season covering five years—of the life of the titular Marcovaldo, a former peasant turned manual labourer in a northern Italian industrial city. The sneaky recurrence of nature in urban areas, and the battle between modern commerce and an older way of living, is a constant theme: in one vignette, he and his family pick mushrooms that spring up along the verge of the highway (and promptly suffer mild poisoning); in another his children manage to break a giant neon sign on the roof of the building next door, allowing the moon to shine undisturbed. I also loved the changes of scale and the persistent sense of disorientation, as when Marcovaldo follows stray cats through a shadow version of the city, or when the whole town empties out in August for the holidays and he is the only person left, or when fog descends and he gets so lost walking home after work that he ends up on a plane to Bombay! A lovely, anarchic, merry little book that I kept imagining illustrations for, or even as a graphic novel. (The Folio Society should definitely have a go at this.)

What have you enjoyed reading this month?


Love Your Library, March 2023

Hosted, as always, by Rebecca of Bookish Beck, posting on the last Monday of each month. I’ve been trying to plow through some TBR titles this month, so there haven’t been that many library books, but here’s what I have checked out!


Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi (2020): I borrowed this as an ebook as backup for our return flight from San Francisco, but ended up reading it in the days after our return. In short: wonderful. I already knew how much love this story of Ghanaian-American addiction researcher Gifty, her dead brother Nana, and their clinically depressed mother had received, but it was a whole other thing to read it for myself. Gyasi’s first novel, Homegoing, was impressive but in retrospect felt a bit worthy; Transcendent Kingdom, by contrast, is full of strange corners, moments where the love of God, the love of family, and the love of science mix and meld and crash into each other. Gifty feels like a real person: driven, defensive, and trying her best. This ought to have won at least one prize the year it came out. (It was up against Hamnet and Shuggie Bain for the two big ones. I think it’s more interesting than, and just as technically accomplished as, the former; haven’t read the latter.)

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013): Read for The Great Reread project, and also as a buddy read with my mum, whose book club is discussing it this month. A fantastic revisit to a book I remembered loving but whose details had faded with time; reading it in 2023 feels like hopping into a time machine, in a really moving and effective way. I wrote a lot more about it here.

The Case of the Gilded Fly, by Edmund Crispin (1944): A Golden Age-ish murder mystery which I read after an initial foray into Crispin’s work with The Moving Toyshop. TMT was interesting enough but left me frustrated by its pervasive attitude of condescension towards women, and I wanted to see if this was a hallmark of Crispin’s writing more broadly. In short: unfortunately, yes. (Actually, TCotGF is worse in some ways, demonstrating not just condescension but outright misogyny in its treatment of a murder victim whose universal obnoxiousness seems to be based on her identity as a sexually aggressive, socially catty woman.) Although both mysteries were tantalising puzzles, I don’t think I shall be returning to Crispin in future.

She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan (2021): Absolutely loved this, a queer retelling of the rise of Zhu Yuanzhang, first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. What a way to get the taste of Edmund Crispin’s gender politics out of my brain. In Parker-Chan’s version, Zhu is a girl who takes her brother’s identity when her family dies in a famine, and rises from novice monk to commander of the Red Turbans, an army of indigenous Chinese who challenged the ruling (and invading) Mongols. Very well written, with a lot to say about power, fate, the value of the unexpected. A sequel is releasing this year and I will definitely be reading it. I wrote more about it here.


The Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber and David Wengrow (2021): This was an alternate history of, well, everything, that I was very keen to read until I came across some criticism of Graeber’s methodologies that accused him of cherry-picking and misrepresentation. That shook my confidence somewhat, and then the introductory chapter didn’t grab me enough to make me want to keep reading all 700 pages of the thing (especially as this was an ebook, a format I read almost exclusively on my phone).


In Ascension, by Martin MacInnes (2023): It’s possible this is my first 2023-published read of the year! How times have changed. Anyway, loving it, hopefully more when I’ve finished.

3 SFF Novels by Women of Colour

Without precisely meaning to, I notice I’ve read quite a few novels that are fantasy or speculative fiction recently, and quite a few novels by women of colour, and at least three where the categories overlap. One of these is a hangover from February that I never got around to writing about; the other two are March reads. I’m hesitant to draw any sweeping thematic links between them, a) because they’re all quite different, and b) because that seems reductive, but something they do all seem to offer is a vision of alterity, whether that’s in terms of foregrounding non-European-inflected societies, women and non-binary people creating or exploiting unexpected societal niches for themselves, the promotion of radical community, or the casual, at-face-value inclusion of supernatural occurrences in otherwise apparently realist worlds.

Actually, the more I think about this, the more I think there’s also something in here about the power of absolute conviction in your own greatness combined with very hard work. It’s certainly there in the Butler (with Lauren’s quietly growing certainty in the rightness of Earthseed and what she must do to nurture its growth), and the Parker-Chan (which is very fresh in my memory: Zhu’s entire life is a result of her intense effort to reach a destiny she wholeheartedly believes in), and the Roanhorse too has a character who becomes a kind of Chosen One partly because he’s so unshakeably sure that he’s meant to be one.

Anyway, here they are.

Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse (2020): A fantasy based on pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures and mythologies, this begins with a banger of a prologue in which a woman ties her pre-adolescent son to a chair, sews his eyelids shut, then jumps off a cliff. I’ve rarely read something that so instantly had my attention. Her reasons for doing this are revealed as the book goes on; Serapio, the boy, has a destiny to fulfill. Two other primary point-of-view characters—pansexual, hard-drinking, highly skilled sea captain and part-mermaid Xiala, and slum-girl-made-Sun-Priest Naranpa—aid and oppose that destiny, though neither’s story is made subservient to Serapio’s. Roanhorse is good on pre-colonial gender and sexuality, from the Western-assumption-destabilising men’s fashions (skirts, leggings) to the range of non-binary gender identities. Lots of drama, lots of political intrigue, just enough snark: this was hugely enjoyable, and I’m frustrated that the sequel, Fevered Star, isn’t in my local library system in any medium.

Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler (1993): I had read the sequel to this, the almost painfully apt Parable of the Talents, in mid-2020. You don’t have to have read Sower to enjoy it, but having read Sower, Talents felt deeper and richer to me in retrospect. Talents is about a self-sufficient commune called Acorn in northern California during a period of intense social unrest in a speculative version of the early twenty-first century, after a nakedly authoritarian President is elected and instates a form of theocracy. Parable of the Sower shows us how the Acorn community is founded: by an eighteen-year-old woman named Lauren Olamina, whose loss of Christian faith has been replaced by a slow discovery of the truths of what she calls Earthseed, and whose entire family is killed when their walled neighbourhood—which has been providing intra-community support as the world has gotten worse—is attacked. Most important among the Earthseed tenets is “God is Change”, and the belief that humans can shape God, as well as vice versa.

Sower is the kind of book I couldn’t have read a year ago, because it would have played straight into my then-pathological expectation of civilisational collapse via incremental worsening of climate crisis and income inequality. The early chapters of Lauren’s narration show with sickening clarity just how such a thing could come about. It’s great, but it’s tough: there’s a lot of violence, though it’s not terribly graphic. Butler was also interested in transgressive sex throughout her oeuvre, and Sower is no exception: Lauren takes fifty-seven-year-old Bankole as a lover, and later a husband. This development manages not to be creepy, mostly because Lauren is so unshakeably self-assured in her desires. It’s entirely her driving force that brings together the band of refugees that becomes the first Acorn, and she drives it because she wants a place from which to propagate her new religion. She is as sure of her rightness as any prophet has ever been. It’s fascinating and slightly terrifying stuff. I do love Butler.

She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan (2021): This is definitely strongest in my memory, since I finished it this morning (and only started it the morning before!) It’s a queer retelling of the rise of Zhu Yuanzhang, the first Ming Emperor. In Parker-Chan’s retelling, Zhu is a girl who takes her dead brother’s identity after her whole family starves in a famine. A fortune-teller has predicted “greatness” for her brother’s future, and “nothing” for hers, so in taking his identity, she also decides to take his fate. How she survives in the local monastery, and rises after the monastery’s destruction—by General Ouyang, a eunuch who fights for the Mongol emperor despite being ethnically Han Chinese (yes, there’s a big backstory there)—makes up the meat of the book. I absolutely loved this, I should say right now. Zhu is a fantastic character: something that often ruins historically-set novels for me is the authorial desire to make their characters somehow removed from the cultural values and priorities of their society, and Parker-Chan never does that with Zhu. She believes in the necessity of tricking Heaven—that there is another world and her deceit might be noticed by it, but also that it might not. The fantasy element helps here. Zhu can see ghosts, as can all of those who have the Mandate of Heaven (the right to rule). There’s never any doubt that the coloured fire springing from the hands of the Prince of Radiance (a child said to be the reincarnation of a Manichaean divinity, based on Han Lin’er) is real; the same is true of the pure brilliance that Zhu develops the ability to emanate. It’s a really satisfying, convincing way to write historically-set fiction, I think. Of course it’s true; it was true for them.

There are other great characters: the profoundly empathetic Ma Xiuying, who becomes Zhu’s wife (and will become Empress); General Ouyang, whose family’s destruction fuels his quest for revenge at the same time as it destroys him from within; Esen, the kind but entitled Mongol prince whom Ouyang serves and betrays; Wang Baoxiang, Esen’s adopted brother, whose administrative talents keep the army and the region afloat but who is dismissed as a non-warrior by everyone around him. So much to think about in terms of power, violence, and fate! There’s a sequel coming out this year and I will definitely read it.

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton (1920)

Technically, I suppose, this is a reread: I first read it before I started keeping records in July 2007, so I was younger than fifteen. (My guess is eleven or twelve.) Of it, I remembered precisely nothing except the three main characters’ names, the fact that the opening scene takes place at the opera, and a vague but persistent recollection of having been bored and slightly baffled by it. This happened to me occasionally as a young reader: I was capable of technically comprehending the plots of works that were, emotionally speaking, far beyond my experience, and so there are a number of books that I read when a pre-teen or adolescent that would probably benefit from being read again now, with almost-fresh eyes and a considerably more developed sense of human behaviour and feeling. Pleasingly, The Age of Innocence, which depends strongly on the unspoken and on evoking an oppressively conformist social atmosphere, has proved a success in this regard: I enjoyed and was impressed by it in equal measure, and in some places found it extremely difficult to put down.

The plot is pretty well known: as the book opens, Newland Archer, a young, wealthy New Yorker of an old family, has been courting May Welland, the young, wealthy daughter of another old New York family, for an appropriate length of time. His proposal of marriage to her coincides with the reintroduction of her cousin Ellen to New York society. Ellen is now the Countess Olenska; her marriage to a Polish nobleman has broken down and she has returned from Europe to seek safety with her family. Her family, however—the extended Mingott, Welland and Archer clan, all closely interlinked through marriage—has its position to consider. American high society is very unlike the more cosmopolitan European world to which Ellen is accustomed: divorce is a genuine scandal, “bad form” is indistinctly defined but the committing of a faux pas is instantly identifiable, the sexual double standard for men and women is an absolute given, and no one ever discusses “unpleasant” things openly. (This leads to some devastating throwaway lines; Ellen has obviously been abused, probably both physically and sexually, by her husband, but when she tries to talk about it with her otherwise loving aunt and uncle, they both recoil and beg her to “spare them” the ordeal of having to hear details of Count Olenska’s behaviour.) Newland and Ellen—entirely unsurprisingly to the reader, but to Newland’s great bewilderment—are passionately drawn to one another, but he has already proposed to May, and the marriage is unavoidable. Indeed, it takes place precisely halfway through the book. The stakes of The Age of Innocence, then, are this: what kind of life is bearable? How courageous is it possible for someone who is basically comfortable to be? What is the nature of the silence that defines these old-fashioned lives? And is there hope for any of their generation, or must they place their hope in the happiness of their children?

Wharton’s writing is remarkably frank and clear: writing in 1920, although her action is set mostly in the 1870s, she does not hide a sentence’s meaning behind great Victorian coils of prose. (In this way, although the content and thematic preoccupations of The Age of Innocence reminded me a lot of Trollope’s Palliser novels, particularly Can You Forgive Her?, its style and execution make significantly smaller demands on the reader’s patience.) What Wharton does have to represent, however, is her characters’ inclination to avoid direct statement, and here she manages to have her cake and eat it too, by both giving her characters the oblique dialogue that makes sense in their mouths, and glossing it. One of the most famous examples is May’s response to Newland when he tells her he has to visit Washington for work, although he’s actually going in the hopes of seeing Ellen:

“The change will do you good”, she said simply, when he had finished; “and you must be sure to go and see Ellen,” she added, looking him straight in the eyes with her cloudless smile… It was the only word that passed between them on the subject; but in the code in which they had both been trained it meant: “Of course you understand that I know all that people have been saying about Ellen… I also know that… it is owing to your encouragement that Ellen defies us all… Hints have indeed not been wanting; but since you appear unwilling to take them from others, I offer you this one myself, in the only form in which well-bred people of our kind can communicate unpleasant things to each other…” Her hand was still on the key of the lamp when the last word of this mute message reached him.

p. 228-229

There is also the question of cultural confusion. Ellen was raised abroad by an eccentric aunt (who, it is implied, has done her no favours with this upbringing), came back to New York as a ten-year-old, made her society debut and married almost immediately afterwards, then went to Europe and has lived there for about ten years, putting her in her late twenties. This has given her a broader horizon for art, culture, philosophy, and behaviour, but her frame of reference for social acceptability in America is fatally skew-whiff. At one point, when she has declared her intention of seeking a divorce from her husband, she is surprised by the strong negative reaction of her relations: isn’t it more American to seek one’s freedom? But no; elite Europe, apparently, is much less bothered by divorces than elite New York.

Wharton makes a strong case for the provinciality and self-satisfaction of American high society, but also makes it clear how quickly the world is changing and how little that provinciality will be able to withstand. Within a generation, Newland Archer’s son Dallas is capable of speaking candidly to his father about his (Newland’s) experiences of first love. The final chapter takes place in 1905 in Paris, and the novel ends with Newland rejecting the possibility of meeting Ellen again, preferring instead to live on with his nostalgic ideal of her untouched by reality. In less than a decade, though, reality will come for Newland, for Dallas, and for their entire social world in the form of the First World War. The Age of Innocence was published two years after that war’s ending. Meanwhile, Newland as a young man ought to have childhood memories from the time of the American Civil War (1861-1865), although that conflict is not once alluded to throughout the novel.

Social change through violent conflict is an intriguing thread to consider, especially as Wharton makes it clear, through Dallas’s behaviour in the final chapter, that the world has begun to change before a shot is fired. Perhaps it was ever thus. After all, old Mrs. Manson Mingott—the magnificently fat and iconoclastic matriarch of the extended Mingott/Welland/Archer family—was known for making decisions that shocked society in her youth. But this is also testament to Wharton’s emotional skill: you can never quite tell, in this novel, whether a person’s apparent openness and agreeability—their apparent innocence, if you will—is the result of consideration and choice, or whether it masks a lack, a limitation, an inability to think beyond a horizon. Newland wonders, “What if [May’s] ‘niceness’ carried to that supreme degree were only a negation, the curtain dropped before an emptiness?” It suggests a kind of cosmic horror lying behind this world of opera boxes and tennis matches: an interesting lens through which to read the Gilded Age.

This is the third book in my American Classics reading project, and has whetted my appetite for more Whartonwhat should I try next?

The Great Reread, #4: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013). First read: July 2014.

What I thought the first time: I remember buying this because I picked it up in a bookshop, read the first few pages, and felt instant, total trust in Adichie’s writing. It was, at that point, a feeling I hadn’t had for some time, that sense that here was an author whose writing would look after itself and whose story I could consequently sink into unencumbered. It was a year after my university graduation and my relationship with reading had taken months to bounce back from the experience of revising for Finals, a process which at Oxford as a literature student is all-consuming (your entire degree rests on your performance in six or seven exams over one week of your life). I read Americanah all in a rush and wrote on Goodreads when I finished it, “This book is incredible, perfectly written, funny and tragic and sly and sexy and other adjectives that I’m not going to bother bombarding you with. Read it and be, even if only briefly, only temporarily, a better person.”

What I thought this time: Americanah is now a historical document, and it should be read with attention to the political environment in America and the UK at the time of its publication, as well as the times in which it is set. It was published in 2013, just after Barack Obama was elected to a second term as President of the United States. Part of it occurs at the time of his first election, in 2008. Obama is a unifying force for protagonist Ifemelu and her then-partner Blaine, whose slightly sanctimonious personality the reader can see, although Ifemelu is simply struck by what she calls his “goodness”. Through Obama’s candidacy and electoral victory, Adichie shows us the immensity of the political significance of a Black man becoming President, not just for Black people born in the US but the global community of people with dark skin (American and Non-American Blacks, as Ifemelu calls them on her blog). Reading Americanah in 2023 is at times an almost painful experience. It could not be written now; it would be a completely different book if it were written now. It would be forced to deal with the legacy of Donald Trump’s electoral victory, the murder of George Floyd, and the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol. There is almost no way that a book so explicitly interested in engaging with race and politics in the US and UK could do otherwise. That means that reading Americanah now can spark intense feelings. Ifemelu and other Nigerian expats often cite what they see as a victim mentality on the part of African-Americans; in one of her college classes, another African woman defends the use of the n-word in a text. Is that a possibility that a novel could contemplate holding out, now that the violent, lethal targeting of Black people by law enforcement and other institutional powers has been so thoroughly, so publicly documented and disseminated? I don’t know.

The writing is still excellent, clear and unobtrusive. Adichie is adept at picking up on language itself: turns of phrase, buzzwords, idiom. Her skewering of self-satisfied Ivy League liberal circles is wincingly spot-on; none of these people are bad people, clearly, but all are liable to partiality and smugness. Ifemelu, meanwhile, finds friendship in unlikely places: her white employer Kimberley, whose children she nannies, is described as obi ocha—having a good heart—despite having what might outwardly appear to be all the trappings of Karen-ism. I wanted more of her first love Obinze’s experiences in London, particularly as he is there at about the same time as the “hostile environment” is taking hold. (He is also there at about the same time as Rose Tremain’s illegal-immigration novel, The Road Home, was published; Tremain’s book partakes cringily of smugness and flattening of individuality, and I’d have liked to see more of Adichie’s writerly perspective on the same period and similar material.)

Most of all, though, Americanah brought home to me that the experience of third-culture people—those of us who belong to two or more countries, and thus in some ways feel fully at home in neither—crosses racial boundaries. I have never experienced racism, and I possess white privilege, as a woman whose visual presentation is unambiguously white, about as fully as anyone can. But the sense of disorientation, the way your perceptions change almost invisibly as you spend more time in a different country, the absolute intangibility of the things that can suddenly stab you with homesickness: those are things I’ve felt. I talked about this book with my mother (who grew up in Britain but moved to America in 1984, when she married my dad) and she reported identical feelings. Ifemelu, like my mum, can’t understand why Americans are always “really excited” about things—new restaurants, a favourite drink—or why they say “I’m good” instead of “I am well”, “hi” instead of “good morning” or “good afternoon”. Yet Ifemelu also realises when she returns to Nigeria that America has changed her aesthetic tastes: she finds the huge mansions of the Lagos wealthy crass and vulgar, while her friend Ranyinudo, who never left, thinks they’re beautiful. It reminded me so forcefully of re-learning how to tell jokes when I came to Britain (in a nutshell: you don’t tell jokes here, things with a punchline; instead, you simply are funny. I had to become funny, a process which took some time but which I think I have now managed. It is impossible to explain.) Likewise, it’s almost impossible for me now to attend choral music gigs, or to sing chorally, in America; the quality of the music-making in Britain is so high that it has spoiled me, and I end up thinking dissatisfied, mean-spirited things, which I don’t actually enjoy.

Overall, then, I’m very glad I reread this. It’s the mark of a good novel to throw up more questions than it answers, and Adichie throws up a lot of questions in Americanah. Historical document it may be, but it says a lot about the distance, the direction, and the speed with which we’ve traveled in a decade.

Russians redux

Two more Russians from the TBR!

On the Eve, by Ivan Turgenev, transl. Michael Pursglove (1860 [2017]). Evidently one of Turgenev’s least successful novels, and I can sort of see why. Based on a story given to him by a young soldier of his acquaintance who thought he was about to die in the Crimea, it reminded me structurally of Tolstoy’s Resurrection: the bit of the plot that ought to be the most interesting occurs right at the end and gets virtually no development. Insarov, a Bulgarian fighting for the liberation of his homeland from the Ottoman Turks, captures the heart of young and idealistic Yelena; she leaves home, family, and two suitors (the irrepressible sculptor Shubin and the studious Berzyenev) to secretly marry Insarov. They travel to western Europe and try to return to Bulgaria when full-scale war breaks out, but Insarov dies of complications from pneumonia in Venice. Yelena vows to carry on his life’s work, becomes a nurse with the Sisters of Mercy, writes a farewell letter to her family, and disappears. Those last two sentences take about three chapters to wrap up and form something of an epilogue to the main action of the book, which is much more fully involved in the development of Yelena’s and Insarov’s love for each other, often focalised through the eyes of the sympathetic and devoted Berzyenev. Why?! The romance-of-manners is an infinitely less interesting, potential-filled story than that of Yelena’s independent choice, flight, and life after widowhood. If the novel had started with their arrival in Venice, or just before, it could have been something genuinely extraordinary. It’s hard not to shake the suspicion that Turgenev doesn’t do that because he can’t conceive of a woman as the avowed hero of a story (despite the fact that most critics, at the time of its publication, recognised Yelena as more interesting by far than Insarov). The first disappointment I’ve had with Turgenev’s work, which in itself says a lot about the usual quality of his writing.

Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, by Anton Chekhov, transl. Ronald Hingley (OWC edition 1998). My first Chekhov collection, but it won’t be my last. The translation by Ronald Hingley is brilliant: spirited, vivid, idiomatic, it makes all of the characters feel immediate. (His introduction is a bit weird; a lot of the page count is spent defending Chekhov against charges of political apathy, which feels a bit like academic bee-bonnet-having.) Of course, Chekhov’s writing is largely responsible for that immediacy, too: he’s so efficient, without ever giving the impression of thinness or underdevelopment. “The Butterfly” and “Ariadne” both have a faintly misogynistic flavour to them, about shallow women who desire only admiration and who ruin good men, but other tales—”A Dreary Story”, “An Anonymous Story”, and “Neighbours” in particular—show women in a more complex and human light. Men, particularly educated men, in these stories come off poorly: the doctor-narrator of a “A Dreary Story”, who is dying, cannot connect with his emotions enough to show his foster-daughter Katya the love he really feels; the would-be revolutionary assassin in “An Anonymous Story” bottles his task (though more out of an excess of humanity than out of any character failing, I think); the protagonist of “Neighbours” is stymied by his sister’s calm determination to live with a married man. “Ward No. 6”, which gives the collection its title, is a fantastically effective story of another doctor, Ragin, whose philosophical indifference to life gives way almost immediately when he experiences genuine trouble and suffering, and the so-called madman, Ivan Gromov, who both diagnoses Ragin’s spiritual failing and outlives him. “Doctor Startsev” ends the collection on a rather sad note of provinciality and wasted opportunity, in which a local doctor’s proposal of marriage is rejected by a woman ambitious to become a professional musician; several years later, she has changed her mind, but by then it’s too late for both of them. These characters and their voices felt the most real, in their strangeness, of almost any Russian writers’ that I’ve read so far. The world doesn’t need me to tell it that Chekhov’s reputation is well deserved, but, for what it’s worth, it totally is.