(2016) The Year in Books – Things Fall Apart


Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart centres around Umuofia – an Igbo village in Nigeria, towards the end of the 19th century, as they deal with the European colonisers newly arrived to the region. Split into sections, it first acclimatises readers to the culture and customs of Umuofia before introducing the European settlers, and exploring the gradually building threat they pose to this now-familiar way of life.

Many critics have already pointed out the obvious parallels in Things Fall Apart to Joseph Conrad’s classic (and terrible (I don’t care what any of you have to say – it’s rubbish)) Heart of Darkness. There Conrad presents Africa as a different word, and black Africans as not only inferior beings, but thoroughly alien ones. And in Things Fall Apart we see similar first encounters from the other side, with very similar reactions: the characters in Things Fall Apart struggle to interpret the lives and humanity of these alien invaders so different from themselves. From the perspective of Umuofia, and especially the novel’s protagonist Okonkwo (a village leader and all around I’m A Big Man Do You Want To Fight Me personality) the Europeans are presented, at least for a time, as unpredictable, wholly unknowable creatures – more akin to alien visitors or a spread of potentially-benign fungus than anything wholly human.

But Things Fall Apart isn’t just a story of conflict between the Igbo people and the European colonisers. It’s also deeply interested in exploring historical Igbo culture, and presenting it in a complex, sympathetic light. Which isn’t to say an unquestioningly positive light – we see the harsh, apparently uncaring nature of many of its rules of law, its abandonment of infants suffering from deformities, and the deeply patriarchal framework that allows Okonkwo to violently beat his wives without consequence for himself (side note: obviously European culture has had to struggle with literally none of these problems, especially not in the late 19th century).

These distatesful aspects of historical Igbo culture aren’t explicitly condemned. Nor is Okonkwo’s constant violence and general awfulness towards various members of his family and the village. There’s a sense of detachment that serves the novel well – instead of simplisticallyjudging these aspects of Igbo culture as immoral, Achebe explores the mindset, the hundreds of years of context that led to these aspects of the culture – the sort of benefit-of-the-doubt exploration of context that white European culture readily grants itself, but often unthinkingly fails to extend to others.

As a result the reader is presented with complexity, both historical and ethical, and not prodded towards a conclusion or neat summing-up. Never is this more true than with its treatment of Okonkwo – instead of crowning him a hero or decrying him as a monster, Achebe invites the reader to explore his character and see how fraught and complicated it is. We see his anger and his self-aggrandizing violence, but at the same time we see his childhood, his deeply-set insecurities, and moments of self-reflection that are at times heartbreaking, despite, and in part because of their sharp brevity: “He remembered his wife’s twin children, whom he has thrown away. What crime have they committed? The earth has decreed that they were an offence on the land and must be destroyed.” [note: upon re-reading I noticed I misremembered, and that this quote is about another, ancillary character. So everything I said about this book is wrong and a lie.]

In other words, Things Fall Apart is not just an antidote to a hundred years of racist, colonial writing that erases the humanity – and the complexity – of the black African cultures. It’s also a deep, empathetic, and often very fraught exploration of both culture and individual character.

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(2016) The Year in Books – Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

[This is Part One of my review of my favourite books I read in 2016 and it’s been another year and oh my god I haven’t written anything on this blog in all of 2016 what an absolute joke. As always seems to be the case, none of these books were actually published in 2016, but they’re all well worth reading if you’re into mid-20th century Britain, nuclear disaster, the march of colonialism, growing up in post-war Naples, the various lives of Afghan families, 1910’s Japanese obsession with mental illness, vegetarianism-oh-wait-it’s-actually-also-about-severe-mental-illness, the various lives of Indian emigrants, art theft, or islands in the middle of nowhere. 

This post will be looking at the first of my nine runner-up books of the year: Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich.]


Svetlana Alexievich – Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

I’ve always been fascinated by Chernobyl, combining as it does my interests in crumbling Soviet infrastructure, desolate landscapes, and the dull sense that mankind is hurtling towards its own destruction. It’s hard for pessimistic weirdos like me not to invest the place with a kind of strange, impossible-to-describe romance, especially after falling in love with (Chernobyl-predating) films like Stalker, and novels like Roadside Picnic, both of which have been eagerly adopted by the Chernobyl-obsessed fanboys of the world.

Svetlana Alexievich’s book Voices of Chernobyl is the best antidote I’ve found for this weird romanticism. Her series of extended interviews cut through the images of haunting beauty we see so often now – Pripyat abandoned, reclaimed by nature; abandoned schoolbooks and rows of decommissioned jeeps and the branches of trees straining through crumbling ceilings – to what what we should really think of when we think of Chernobyl: a series of preventable bureaucratic failures that led to decades of suffering almost too widespread and myriad to comprehend.

Presented as extended monologues on the part of her interviewees, rather than the traditional question-and-answer format, Voices of Chernobyl feels incredibly intimate, and this approach lets the real individuality of the victims of the disaster and its 30-year-and-counting aftermath show through. Residents forced to evacuate in the middle of the night, taking next to nothing on the understanding that they would be returning any day; Soviet administrators scrambling to deal with the fallout (radioactive and otherwise) while maintaining the standing of the regime they serve; people who illegally returned to live in the exclusion zone, unable or unwilling to countenance a danger all around them they can neither see nor feel; soldiers ordered to contain the deadly meltdown, shovelling radioactive debris within spitting distance of the reactor, wearing no protective clothing whatsoever; wives of these men decades later as their bodies begin to literally fall apart.

Each story is unique; its own angle on the disaster and its consequences, and if Voices of Chernobyl succeeds at one thing (and it succeeds at many) it’s at transforming history from the general to the individual – the statistic into a million individual tragedies that call out with urgency, indignation, and, at times, an overwhelmed, stultifying sense of apathy. Rarely have I encountered a work of history that felt so human.

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(2015) The Year in Books – Part Three

[In Part Three of my review of my favourite books of 2015 I finish up the list with Helen MacDonald’s ‘H is for Hawk’, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s ‘I Do Not Come to You by Chance’, Tove Jansson’s ‘The Summer Book’, Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’, and Ogawa Yoko’s ‘Revenge’.]


Helen MacDonald – H is for Hawk

After the death of her father, Helen MacDonald buys and starts training a young goshawk. Lauded by many as a memoir beautifully dealing with grief, and the process of coming to terms with tragedy, I think it’s something kind of different. To me H is for Hawk is a memoir beautifully dealing with the avoidance of grief, and the process of ignoring tragedy in favour of something else.

In taking in the young, unsteady goshawk, MacDonald’s world begins to revolve around it. She spends countless hours attempting to deal with the aggressive, temperamental, at first frightened, bird. Gradually she’s pulled from her regular life into a headspace where the only thing that seems like it matters is the goshawk, and every up and down takes on some colossal, primal importance.

This memoir begins to interweave with a biography of T.H. White, author of the Arthurian novel The Once and Future King, as well as The Goshawk – an account of his own time struggling, and ultimately failing to train a young goshawk. At first seemingly only related by their choice of Goshawks as subject matter, these two narratives begin to mirror each other in far rawer ways. White’s attempts to deal with his unruly goshawk are often misguided and even cruel, but like MacDonald, betray someone trying desperately not to come to terms with something.

They both have their share of grief, and things they need to address, but in large part they don’t do that. They focus everything on the goshawk, and in doing so their struggle with the bird takes on a new importance. A small success in training becomes a revelatory experience, and a failure or setback becomes reason for deep, personal hurt. Spending hours whistling for your bird in the rain as it steadfastly ignores you is no longer just about the bird. The feelings of grief latch onto this new obsession, and it becomes a kind of proxy – a way of dealing with and overcoming grief by ignoring it completely.

Carried on by MacDonald’s beautiful prose – at times raw and emotionally cutting, at times stony-eyed and obfuscating – H is for Hawk explores a side of grief that is far more complex and untidy than we might like to think.


Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani – I Do Not Come to You by Chance

A recent graduate, Kingsley is trying to find a decent job as an engineer to support his family and win over the love of his life. But competition is intense, and the job market in Nigeria right now is no great shakes anyway. His family problems start to mount, and money starts slipping away, and very suddenly he’s being groomed for a job with his uncle – the ludicrously successful email scam magnate known to as Cash Daddy.

What follows is Kingsley’s descent/ascent into the lucrative, morally dark-dark-grey-black world of scamming wealthy westerners out ludicrous amounts of money. I Do Not Come to You by Chance is a funny, honest exploration of this kind of life, and the modern face of Nigerian politics and economics. Kingsley changes a great deal throughout the novel – away from his naive, hard-working, and honest origins and towards a cunning, persuasive, self-justifying scammer. But sometimes his self-justifications are convincing, and he is providing for a lot of people who otherwise might have nothing.

Throughout, it’s morally complex, and manages to avoid the tiresome hubris-and-nemesis that these kinds of stories just cannot get away from. It’s not a morally-instructive tale, where Kingsley learns the error of his ways and gives up his fortune, or else dies in a hail of gunfire. There are just actions and consequences – some good, some bad, some not quite either – but all believable and none feeling like simply a narrative conceit designed to make a grand point. It doesn’t condemn Kingsley’s actions, and it doesn’t revel in them either. It presents a person’s actions, their consequences, and the context – both personal, economic, socio-political, etc. – that led them there. That it does so in such a personal, witty way is icing on the cake.


Tove Jansson – The Summer Book

From the author of The Moomins and the Great Flood, Comet in Moominland, Moominsummer Madness, The Exploits of Moominpappa,  Tales from Moominvalley, Moominpappa at Sea, and loads of other books about Moomins, comes a book 100% not about Moomins, but instead about a young girl Sophia, her father, and her grandmother living on a remote island in the gulf of Finland for the summer.

The Summer Book is lovely and charming. Sophia is alternately naive, childish, curious, stroppy, playful, and stubborn, but unlike 95% of all children in fiction is neither (a) incredibly cloying, nor (b) wise beyond their years (and incredibly cloying). Her grandmother is world-weary, childish, curious, stroppy, playful, and stubborn, and their relationship with one another is the backbone of the novel.

Placed very firmly in the Cannery Row genre of ‘Nothing really happens but it’s just really nice’, The Summer Book follows such compelling narrative beats as ‘Sophia is bored’, ‘Her grandmother wants to have a nap’, and ‘Her grandmother is annoyed that some rich guy moved onto a nearby island and he’s probably some kind of dick’. There’s an almost storybook, Oliver Postgate-esque BBC children’s cartoon approach to the proceedings, which I guess makes sense considering, you know, Moomins. But while it’s light-hearted and charming throughout, there’s a string of sadness and real weight traced throughout, dealing with transience, and endings, and death.

The Summer Book feels like a vaguely-remembered childhood summer holiday in the countryside – you explore the surrounding trees and scrublands, eat ice cream and get it down your hands, jump into the swimming pool over and over again, then go to bed and do it again the next day. But one night you can’t get to sleep and you lay there looking up at the bunkbed above you feeling a kind of strange muted sadness you can’t yet and never will be able to put into words. Then you wake up the next day and run down to the beach and have fun again.


Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose

Italy in 1327. An apparent suicide occurs at a monastery, and the recently arrived William of Baskerville is called upon to investigate the circumstances of the death. Soon after, another death occurs, and then another, all under mysterious circumstances. William starts searching for a murderer, and is drawn again and again to the abbey’s library – famous for its voluminous collection, but also the source of strange rumours, and strictly off-limits to all but the librarian.

So, in a sense a murder mystery, but not really. There are murders, and clues, and a motive that are searched for and eventually discovered, but The Name of the Rose is a book deeply in love with its setting, moreso than anything else. It explores the lives of the monks in great, loving detail – their schedules, their reading habits, their arguments about their reading habits, and the theological and political machinations occurring throughout Europe that seep into their day-to-day lives. And while at times there are bursts of action, and everything moves very fast, for the most part it moves at the ponderous, unhurried speed of life in this abbey in northern Italy in the early 14th century.

It’s a novel that takes a lot of patience, and probably a laptop open to Wikipedia if you don’t happen to remember all the 14th century political and theological studies you no doubt learnt at school. But if you can ease yourself into the slow, endlessly intricate and dense world of the abbey, you’re rewarded with something so special it’s impossible to describe. Umberto Eco’s beautiful prose brings to life a world so ornate and numinous, yet warm and human that I read 500 pages and never wanted to leave. For all the murder and long discussions concerning the suffering of Jesus, reading The Name of the Rose feels like slipping into a warm bath. I read this book nearly eight months ago now and I still think about it regularly. It’s difficult and weighty, and it expects you to keep up with a lot, but every bit of effort you put in will be returned to you ten times over.


Ogawa Yoko – Revenge

Last year I fell in love with Ogawa’s collection of three novellas The Diving Pool, Pregnancy Diary, and Dormitory. I couldn’t put my view of her writing better than the Hilary Mantel quote on my copy of the book (see the picture above). She has a way of drilling down into tiny moments, observations, spasms of unstructured feeling, that is incredibly beautiful and disquieting, and at times downright nauseating.

This year I read most of the rest of her English-translated work in the form of her novel Hotel Iris (Ogawa’s cold, eerie look at the world turns to sexual matters, with a result that’s unsurprisingly disquieting, but also surprisingly touching and (to use the least erotic word ever) erotic. I loved Hotel Iris, but I loved Revenge even more.)

A collection of eleven short stories, Revenge continues with Ogawa’s unique, approach and applies it to a series of disconnected scenes – some mundane, some teetering on the edge of otherworldly (but never quite falling over the edge). A young woman stumbles upon a museum dedicated to torture, on a quite backstreet. A writer forms a polite friendship with their slightly peculiar, slightly troubling neighbour. A woman is born with her heart on the outside, and enlists a bag-maker to sew her something to keep it safe. The stories are dark; occasionally outright violent, or teetering on the edge of sadistic (again, never quite falling), and there’s a fantastic, subtle conceit you might only notice after the first few stories (that I won’t talk about for fear of spoiling the moment of discovery).

Ogawa’s writing definitely isn’t for everyone, but you really should give her a go – her writing is all short and easy to get through, and you’ll probably know after the first dozen or so pages if it’s something you’ll get on with. She’s quickly become one of my favourite writers anyhow, and I’m hoping more of her work gets translated soon because I’ve only got one left (The Housekeeper and the Professor) to go.

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