Fast-paced and competitive as our modern world is, experiencing a novel like this one, constructed by the assured master Lahiri, is a gift that everyFast-paced and competitive as our modern world is, experiencing a novel like this one, constructed by the assured master Lahiri, is a gift that every adult should cherish. Realistic family-based stories abound in the market of fiction, bringing readers escape and reflection. But it takes a Lahiri, with her surgical precision, to recreate us in the way that only the best literature can.
Were I to categorize the drama in this sort of realistic fiction genre, I would start by posing that some revolve around secrets that are not revealed until later in the book -- we use words like "spoiler" to talk about the power these plots hold -- and others tell the secret early on and make us readers co-conspirators in withholding it from characters. This novel uses the second formula brilliantly: when will Bela discover the story of her birth? How? Will she at all? More importantly, that mystery is not even the most important thing about the novel, which glides and builds and wrenches even as we and Subhash and Gauri know the secret and the other characters do not.
This most adult of adult fiction -- it put me in mind of books like Never Let Me Go and Kaaterskill Falls -- manages time with ache-inducing artistry. Scenes uncoil with painstaking stippling, then shed time like a snake's skin, in huge swathes. Nothing seems overdramatic or otherwise out of proportion. Pain and pity rise and recede, as the several narratorial voices mingle. Scenes to which we had not been privy appear later, but we were not waiting for them, because we had been well-fed on the dishes in front of us; these insertions are instantly essential even as their omission never seemed to have been a burden on the story.
I was unsure whether to place this on my Goodreads "Historical fiction" shelf. Initially, no; maybe I'll change my mind later. One thing for sure is that Lahiri uses the strands of the World-historical and the Individual to the enhancement of both. The Naxalbari/Naxalite story and the general post-partition history of India develop in ways that are easy to understand. Similarly, science and history and even agriculture are active participants; this novel is hard to pigeonhole, to its credit, and expansive despite its individual focus, to its even greater credit.
But the greatest achievement here is psychological, in the way of the best novels. In straightforward, unadorned, loose-constructed sentences like Allegra Goodman's (but more beautiful), Lahiri has given life not only to several realistic, human, imperfect characters, but to life itself in all its interpersonal and intrapersonal messiness. "In a world of diminishing mystery," she writes, "the unknown persists" (307). It is testament to the novel's greatness that this profound truth about the Modern age can be brought to life so vividly....more
This intelligent, sure-handed author understands the universal human even as she picks apart the various human "tribes'" differences with unusual insiThis intelligent, sure-handed author understands the universal human even as she picks apart the various human "tribes'" differences with unusual insight. This novel doesn't have to delve into hyperbolic drama to keep its reader engaged -- better to master the quotidian, especially the often-overlooked quotidian, which Adichie does with the motif of women's hair that starts the novel and weaves itself inextricably through it. The alienness, the distance, the seeking, the change, the morality and immorality: Adichie creates a huge cast that includes many eyes who at first seem superfluous, but are in fact present to "not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness." These people, whom Adichie works assiduously to separate us innocent readers from, "would not understand why people like [one of the central characters], who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happeend in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty" (278).
So goes this unpretentious but literary novel, which melds imperfect people with idealized yearnings and comes through with great empathy. The Nigeria, the America, and the England that the novel develops are far from utopias. Each illuminates a process, not a destination, which is how Adichie can be so successful designing loops instead of arrows. Along the way, race and power and gender and morality and sex and success and identity go under the microscope, none of them being the target but all being mixed into the essential process of error and error and trial and error. As the novel notes more than once, it is context that we must not lose sight of.
Finally, though, the title is not a red herring: this is about Americanah, both the sort of haughty returnee suggested by that Nigerian phrase and the general sense of someone who has caught some Americanness. There is a certain kind of hoping and striving that is not unique to Americans but that the American myth brings into focus. Adichie knows her myths, and maneuvers them with great subtlety...and sometimes bluntness too.
This reminds me of a few novels I have read or re-read recently, but as literature I think it excels them both. One is Kite Runner, with its Afghan who has to return from the U.S. to his homeland, and the other is the much more recent Ghana Must Go. Like the latter novel, this one plays with time and narration, but does it more deftly; like the former novel, this one has a lot to say about growing up and growing into one's identity. Somehow, the Hosseini novel -- which I quite liked -- became something that young teenagers read, despite its desperately serious worldly subject matter...or maybe because of it. The other two are more definitely novels for adults, but all three deserve consideration by adult readers. It is the story of people "speckled stubbornly with hope" and those few among them who "spun [themselves] into being" (475). The Dream, greater than the mythologized American Dream but less glossy, still wields immense power.
Americanah has already far exceeded Ghana Must Go in its reach; it is unfortunate that it probably won't catch up to the juggernaut Kite Runner in the cultural/literary consciousness. The new novel is certainly the most masterful and profound of the three....more
When one is at a wedding, one sees the photographer and notices him or her. A good photographer gradually dissolves, leaving only the pictures. An irrWhen one is at a wedding, one sees the photographer and notices him or her. A good photographer gradually dissolves, leaving only the pictures. An irritating one, who may have talent, is always in view.
So it is with writers. Taiye Selasi has a poetic style, snapping an artful picture quite often, leaving the story-construction to us readers. The gaps are noticeable at first, between the short stanzas of 3 or 5 lines, and then they blur away, and pages pass in clumps.
Ghana Must Go is clearly a novel for adults -- philosophical but not tedious, knowing but not pedantic, cultured but not haughty. It is secure in its gait. It takes shape through stippling, like a photo album, thanks to the reader's knowledge of the world, which Selasi judges with admirable skill almost all the time. "Impressionistic" is the word that lurched to the front of my mind as I made my way through this very stylized, very stylish novel. Even among that subset of novels that aggressively use multiple perspectives, the multiplicity of perspectives here is daunting, which only deepens the stippling effect of Selasi's writing. It's poetic, which is often very good, especially in the first section of this three-part novel. Chapter 9 (p.61) of the first section is a good example.
Overall, unfortunately, it's not as great as it seemed destined to be from its vibrant start. Selasi, the artist/photographer, interferes too much. Structure seems to be an end in itself, and not integrated in a meaningful way; many components, from the family tree to the punnish "Gone", "Going", and "Go" section titles to the withheld-but-hinted-at monstrosity end up seeming manipulative more than organic. I think it would be fair to say that Selasi is a better writer than she is a novelist. (To be fair: few aren't.)
Two crucial plot points -- neither of which I should reveal here -- end up seeming somewhat cartoonish (cartoonishly unfortunate, that is: they are "cartoonish" not in subject matter but in extremity), out of keeping with the best parts of the book, which are elegantly subtle. Throughout the novel arise dozens of lovely passages and insightful observations. Like a gawky colt, the book is beautiful despite it being obvious how hard it is trying.
This novel remains a pleasant reading experience despite the imperfections. Unlike many novels in which the structure and/or plot seem contrived, this one never drags, and Selasi deserves great credit for that. Paradoxically, the novel may have ended up more richly complex had she not tried so hard. ...more
I may never be able to read another novel about modern India without comparing it to Mistry's masterful A Fine Balance. This one approximates that oneI may never be able to read another novel about modern India without comparing it to Mistry's masterful A Fine Balance. This one approximates that one the best, especially in its perhaps comparable assessment of corruption's inextricable role, as seen through the compelling character of the narratorial "man of tomorrow." Jeez, I wish tomorrow were not so. As much as I consider AFB to be without peer, this entertainingly modern and unrelenting book comes the closest to its achievement.
Like AFB, this novel features an innovatively postmodern narrative device and a series of deftly manipulated motifs. It isn't broad, like that better book, but it does share the depth and richness. The political punch is at least as powerful, which is saying something.
Not for the squeamish, TWT somehow still maintains a weird core of innocence in it's well-constructed narrator. It succeeds in every way, entering a pantheon of excellent recent fictions about India that peaks with AFB but also includes important entries by Lahiri, Mukherjee, Desai, and Divakaruni. A worthy entry in that company, especially notable for its innovation and timeliness....more
Pleased to say that this ambitious novel recovered from a belabored opening quarter, ending up as a very enjoyable read...even if it fails in its effoPleased to say that this ambitious novel recovered from a belabored opening quarter, ending up as a very enjoyable read...even if it fails in its effort to attain literary heights.
The author -- who wrote My Own Country, an all-time favorite of mine -- recognized how much exposition is necessary for a Western audience. He is respectful and thorough, both with regard to his readership and subject. Many segments early on, however, lapse into inappropriately dilatory stylings that sap the continuity from the story. Interesting digressions are interesting but can be overdone...and they are.
Overwritten, overdone, contrived. I couldn't help but count the number of times an observance is elaborated upon with an "as if" statement (pages 126-7: "unburdened...as if that had been her sole earthly purpose"...and then "as if to seal"...and then again "as if her minimalist gestures..."). He doesn't trust his writing to carry the ideas. He sets them up, sometimes clumsily, then emphasizes them, which can be useful, and then, too often, spells them out for us. He's thinking aloud, not writing a literary novel; to be fair, I blame the editor as much as the author. There's simply too much of everything in here, including ill-advised nibbles on magical realism.
The writing/lack-of-editing is a distraction, but the problem wanes after 150 pages or so of the 600+ page novel. What Verghese does really well is describe place and medicine. It may be Marion Stone who causes much of the trouble; the novel really started cooking for me in the segment with third-person narration, and even the later return to Stone didn't bother me as much.
Stick it out past the first quarter, and an enjoyable, engaging novel is revealed. But it's not a great one. The surgeon Thomas Stone is lauded by Verghese for his "quiet hands" (278). As much as the vigor effectively takes over later in this novel, Verghese's deficit is in "quiet."...more
The earnestness of this book does not jive with the satirical, postmodern world, which makes it all the more enjoyable when I finally (it took a whileThe earnestness of this book does not jive with the satirical, postmodern world, which makes it all the more enjoyable when I finally (it took a while) settled in to appreciate it for what it was. Breathing and bells and compassion, okay, but some of his commentary was penetratingly profound, without ever losing its innocent sincerity. This book -- Zen Buddhism in general, but mindfulness and connectedness in particular -- are great antidotes to the 21st century, in many ways....more
Gets slow in the middle, but a worthy member of the growing squadron of emotionally intense novels about the Cultural Revolution. My favorite remainsGets slow in the middle, but a worthy member of the growing squadron of emotionally intense novels about the Cultural Revolution. My favorite remains the non-fiction Son of the Revolution, but this is a good fiction in the subgenre....more
I enjoyed this novel, but it almost works better as an essay than a fiction. The story of the "genius" who left the village casts globalization and coI enjoyed this novel, but it almost works better as an essay than a fiction. The story of the "genius" who left the village casts globalization and colonialism in as stark a light as anything I have ever read. Short and quick, and worth the time....more
Is it possible to have a book so intricately, so beautifully written that it defies its reader? If so, then this is my nominee. I did read it, and appIs it possible to have a book so intricately, so beautifully written that it defies its reader? If so, then this is my nominee. I did read it, and appreciated it, but enjoyed mainly the language, feeling separated from the story. I love disjointed narratives in most cases, but this one defied me...which I acknowledge is more my problem than Kingstons!...more
Perhaps not the award-winning work of genius the cover makes it out to be, but a fine novel about a part of the world the West rarely hears about. ThePerhaps not the award-winning work of genius the cover makes it out to be, but a fine novel about a part of the world the West rarely hears about. The interpolation of Dickens into the novel pays dividends, and the violence is effectively unpretentious (and sudden). Somehow it seems incompletely realized, with an ending that doesn't work completely. I dunno -- I'll think about it, and maybe I'll revise my opinion....more
Dig the Dalai Lama. His disquisitions on Buddhism are cool enough, but the memoir-y passages on his own adventures in learning and science far exceedDig the Dalai Lama. His disquisitions on Buddhism are cool enough, but the memoir-y passages on his own adventures in learning and science far exceed them. This was one of my inspirations when we all were developing the Senior Seminar "Intellectual History/History of Progress" course....more
I believe her husband Tony Horwitz's book, Baghdad Without a Map, came out of the same trip, as he accompanied her as she did research in the Middle EI believe her husband Tony Horwitz's book, Baghdad Without a Map, came out of the same trip, as he accompanied her as she did research in the Middle East. Both his book and hers are absolutely essential -- two of my favorite non-fictions of all-time. I'm very glad Brooks took that trip (and that he went with her).
Favorite part: visit to the home and family of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. I had never envisioned him as anything but a villain, but Brooks observes a humanity that I know (in my heart) that exists in even the most malign historical figures. I found this book compelling from the first page to the last....more
Fantastic. The Iraq stuff is a little dated now (it's pre-Gulf War) but the entire book is more than worth the effort. His writing definitely rises toFantastic. The Iraq stuff is a little dated now (it's pre-Gulf War) but the entire book is more than worth the effort. His writing definitely rises to the occasion of capturing his compelling experiences....more
Devastating, but the tragedy of one character has continued to challenge me to think that the others (in spite of their own terrible losses) may haveDevastating, but the tragedy of one character has continued to challenge me to think that the others (in spite of their own terrible losses) may have a redeeming -- not a sad -- message. I have found this novel paradoxically numbing and provocative, and have enjoyed and appreciated it more each of the six times I read it....more
Extremely powerful novel. The U.S. segments are only good, which is kind of a let-down after the extraordinary Afghanistan opening -- I admit that thiExtremely powerful novel. The U.S. segments are only good, which is kind of a let-down after the extraordinary Afghanistan opening -- I admit that this may be elevated by the fact that I have never read an Afghani's novel before, and was reveling in the timeliness of it -- and the latter part of the novel drags at times, but I loved the whole unit. ...more