(2016) The Year in Books – My Brilliant Friend

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The first of Ferrante’s four-part Neapolitan Novels series, My Brilliant Friend is a perceptive, emotionally honest depiction of childhood and adolescence, as well as the closeness and fraught distance of long-term friendship. More specifically, the childhood and adolescence and long-term friendship of its joint-protagonists – narrator Elena, and her close friend Lila – in a tight-knit, poor neighbourhood in post-war Naples. It also wins this year’s award for ‘Best Book With The Absolute Worst Front Cover Honestly What Were They Thinking’.

I say joint-protagonists because while we’re glued to Elena’s perspective throughout – with stretches in the book where Lila doesn’t appear at all – it’s as much a story about Lila as it is about Elena. And while My Brilliant Friend does a wonderful job of depicting the various lives of its dozens of characters, surrounded as they are by the pressures of family, economics, class, and gender divides, the friendship between Elena and Lila is the heart of the novel.

While both Elena and Lila are fiercely intelligent, even as young girls, there’s something different about Lila that marks her as separate – something people recognise the moment they meet her, but can’t quite put into words. Elena is smart and does well academically – so well in fact that, unlike almost everyone else in her neighbourhood she’s given the opportunity of pursuing education beyond primary school (remember: a poor neighbourhood in post-war Naples). But she manages this by strict self-discipline and endless hours of study. Lila, on the other hand – a strange and rough girl; capable of insight and self-confidence Elena finds herself in awe of – effortlessly reads and effortlessly learns and effortlessly shows mastery over any subject she puts her mind to, despite being denied the chance to study.

Or at least everything she does seems effortless to Elena. One of the central focuses of My Brilliant Friend (and its sequel The Story of a New Name) is Elena’s near-deification of Lila as intellectually peerless; effortlessly eloquent and thoughtful. Though she is clearly exceptional in many ways, she’s raised up on a pedestal, and much of Elena’s way of looking at herself and the course of her own life is tangled up with Lila.

She feels guilt over having the opportunity to continue her education while Lila is forced out, but then feels intense jealousy that Lila continues to read and show academic prowess, arguably superior to her own, despite being denied that education. She works hard to succeed and constantly gets the very top grades in her classes, but then feels like an impostor; buoyed up only by hard work, devoid of even a spark of original thinking, whereas it all comes naturally to Lila. And she wants to strike out on her own path – become her own person without constantly thinking how she compares to Lila, but then seems to want nothing more than to best Lila in every aspect of her life.

It’s a friendship formed of long history and genuine affection, of course, but it’s also a source of deep anxiety for Elena. Because Lila is always there in her mind – exceptional and effortless and slightly more than human.

And as the novel progresses (and continues into The Story of a New Name), this image of Lila, devoid of the context of her interiority, increasingly struggles against the reality of her actions and her decisions. Elena expects so much more of Lila than anyone else, and yet Lila isn’t a perfect being born fully formed into limitless possibility, but a human shaped by the confines of her life: her strict family that refuses to let her study, her economic position that trammels her ambitions, her dependence on men in a a rough, male-dominated society, her own stubbornness and anxieties and emotional problems that are only hinted at, rarely explored, but are so important for understanding her.

Amongst many other impressive things (including their exploration of the draining, overbearing role of patriarchy in the lives of the two girls , which I could write a whole post about, and just might (but probably won’t, lets face it)), these are books about trying to understand someone, but being unable to do so. Partly because we can never get access to another person’s interior mind, of course. But also because the baggage of one’s own investment in that person can blind us to how they are a living, breathing person that exists independent of how they make us feel.

Elena’s image of Lila was born of that rough, arrogant, unknowable young girl, with a wide-open future and the ability to do anything. And it barely changes even as Lila’s future narrows and narrows in the face of the reality, and as her actions chafe against Elena’s expectations.

And as well as this, they’re books about how our investment and interpretation of someone close to us can reveal as much, if not more, about ourselves than it ever does about them. We get to know Elena as much by how she thinks about Lila, as by how she thinks about herself. Her expectations out of life and her struggle against the overbearing, depressing presence of her mother, reflected in her distaste at Lila’s settling for her role as woman in a working family. Her anxiety and sense of herself as perpetual imposter – Feeling she lacks genuine worth; always second-best to the coruscating wit and insight of Lila, regardless of how well she does. Twisting and contorting in order to condemn herself, to the point where hard work doesn’t count for anything so long as she’s the one doing it. Where she’s wholly lacking of intelligence and insight despite continually impressing those around her, only it doesn’t count.

My Brilliant Friend is wholly relatable in the best way – not in reflecting a life we directly recognise as similar to our own, but in reflecting an emotional truth we recognise in a life we don’t.

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(2016) The Year in Books – Things Fall Apart

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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.]

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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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