Review 1888: The Fishermen

The family life of ten-year-old Ben begins to disintegrate when his father, a bank employee, is transferred to a town in a dangerous area of Western Nigeria. Ben and his three older brothers begin fishing in a forbidden river. About the time they get into trouble for that, Abulu, a madman who makes prophecies known to become true, makes one about Ikenna, Ben’s oldest brother. It is that Ikenna will be killed by a fisherman.

Ikenna becomes convinced that his brother Boja is going to kill him, even though the two have always been close. His attitude toward his family changes. He becomes angry, disrespectful toward his parents, and solitary. He locks himself into the room that he shares with Boja, only letting him in when he is out of it. Eventually, there is a shocking crisis.

I know a lot of people have liked this book, which I read for my Booker Prize project, but it didn’t do much for me. Most interesting about it was the background of Nigerian home life and customs, but these are not ours, and what, for example, might be called strictness in Nigeria is for us child abuse. Let me just say that for a novel about four brothers not set in wartime, this novel is extremely violent, graphic, and even at times amoral.

Then there is Obioma’s writing, which I found immature. A lot has been made of his unusual metaphors, but many of them don’t work very well or are just plain awkward. Occasionally, he uses the wrong word, like “haul” instead of “throw,” unless perhaps that is some kind of idiom I’m unaware of. He also loves to use polysyllabic words instead of simple ones, giving an overblown effect to his writing.

I didn’t notice some of these faults in his subsequent novel, but instead in that one I noticed lots of misogyny. I’m not proving to be an Obioma fan.

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Review 1714: Girl

Best of Ten!

Maryam is a young girl attending a girl’s school in Nigeria when Boko Haram attacks the school and drags off the girls. At the Jihadist camp, the girls are gang-raped and otherwise brutalized while they are forced to work as slaves. Eventually, Maryam is forcibly married to a young jihadist.

But that’s only the beginning of this deeply involving novel, for after a harrowing escape and a restoration to her family, Maryam finds herself treated almost as badly at home.

This novel is a break away from O’Brien’s usual Irish novels although not from her fluid prose. It is short—I read it in a few hours—and riveting. I read it for my James Tait Black project.

Little Bee

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And the Mountains Echoed

Review 1693: An Orchestra of Minorities

An Orchestra of Minorities has an unusual narrator. It’s the chi, a guardian spirit, of Chinonso, a young Nigerian poultry farmer. The chi has come before a sort of heavenly court to plead for leniency for his host, who has harmed a pregnant woman.

The chi’s story begins when Chinonso prevents a young woman, Ndali, from throwing herself off a bridge. Later, they meet again and become lovers. However, Ndali’s family is wealthy, and they don’t consider Chinonso a suitable partner for their daughter. Ndali is ready to split with them, but Chinonso decides to go back to school and earn his degree so he can get a good job.

His friend, Jamike, is attending a college in Cyprus, so Chinonso sells his farm and gives Jamike the money to pay for tuition and board and open a savings account in Cyprus, all without discussing this with Ndali. When he reaches Cyprus, he finds he has been scammed, that Jamike only paid for one semester in college but not for board, and there is no savings account.

Some people in Cyprus try to help him, but the hapless Chinonso falls into one misfortune after another. It takes him four years to get home.

I really struggled with this novel for so many reasons. It incorporates Igbo mythology and culture, which can be interesting, but every chapter and most of the smaller divisions of the novel begin with a story or a series of sayings or other digressions that slow down the narrative.

Then there is the character of Chinonso. He has low self-esteem and is weak, he is unbelievably naïve, he falls into traps that we can see coming pages ahead, he makes poor choices, his reactions to meeting Ndali’s parents seem cowardly. This might be a cultural thing. I have no idea what wealthy displeased Nigerians might be able to do to poor ones.

Then there’s his relationship with Ndali. For all we know of her, she might be a cipher. She is pretty much just something he wants. He calls her Mommy, for god’s sake. This is not a cultural thing, because she asks him why, and his answer creeped me out. I won’t say what happens to her, but it’s not good.

The only way I can justify not personally detesting this novel is if I look at it as a character study of what happens when a weak person is pushed beyond endurance. I strongly feel, though, that this novel shows an underlying hatred of women. What do women do in this novel? One dies at his birth. One leaves him without explanation. One is a prostitute. One makes a false claim of rape. One is steadfast and suffers a horrible fate. None have a personality. Detestably, at least for me, this novel is described as one about a man who will do anything for the woman he loves. Right.

And let’s not even mention the mistreated gosling that we hear way too much about. I read this novel for my Booker project.

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Little Bee

Day 1225: Literary Wives! Stay With Me

Cover for Stay With MeToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

We are happy to announce that Emily will be rejoining our discussions. However, Kate and TJ have resigned the club. We will miss them!

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

List for 2018-2019

We have just finished the selection process for our next group of books! Literary Wives will be reading the following books in the coming months.

August 2018: First Love by Gwendolyn Riley
October 2018: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
December 2018: The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve
February 2019: They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple
April 2019: Wait for Me, Jack by Addison Jones
June 2019:  A Separation by Katie Kitamura
August 2019: Ties by Domenic Starnone
October 2019: Happenstance by Carol Shields
December 2019: The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
February 2020: War of the Wives by Tamar Cohen

My Review

Yejide and Akin have been married for four years, she believes happily. But one day, Yejide’s malicious stepmothers show up with Funmi and introduce her as Akin’s second wife. Because the couple is childless, Akin’s family has talked him into marrying again. He did this without Yejide’s knowledge even though they had both agreed they didn’t believe in polygamy.

Yejide now becomes obsessed with having a child. Soon, she is suffering from a false pregnancy. Funmi, even though she has her own apartment, has started moving her things into Yejide’s and Akin’s house. The situation is made worse for Yejide, because her father’s other wives mistreated her as a child and continue to do so. She understands very well the pitfalls of this custom.

Akin is obviously a weak man unable to withstand pressure from his family. It turns out things are worse than that, however, and Yejide’s marriage will soon be in crisis.

Taking place in mid-1980’s Nigeria, this novel is set against the backdrop of political and social chaos. During one period, ordinary people have robbers breaking into their houses and stealing things while they are home. Yejide is an appealing and sympathetic character, and her people’s customs are interesting although sometimes appalling. The members of both families seem aggressive and rude at times. Overall, this is a fascinating novel.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

I try to avoid spoilers even for this club, but for this topic that may be difficult. This novel depicts a culture that places almost all the emphasis in marriage on having children and men’s virility. Yejide finds that Akin has never been honest with her, even since the beginning of their marriage. To avoid having a discussion with his naive wife and his family, he begins a deception that is ultimately too damaging for their marriage.

Literary Wives logoLater, Akin says that he made arrangements for his most dishonest actions because he was worried about her, but it is clearly to avoid admitting his part in their fertility problems, an admission that would have solved most of their other problems.

Although both partners continue to believe they love each other, at no point do they frankly and honestly discuss their problems with each other. This omission is largely because of the weight of cultural conventions, but that does not excuse it. Their marriage is built on lies and omissions and continues into more lies, with tragic results.

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Day 954: Americanah

Cover for AmericanahIfemelu has decided to return to Nigeria after living in the United States for 13 years. She has just finished a fellowship at Princeton and broken up with her American boyfriend, Blaine. In preparation for leaving, she also winds down her popular blog about race in America. While she is getting her hair braided, she thinks about her journey to this point.

Ifemelu grows up in a Nigeria where, for the young, the only hope seems to be to leave the country. Her father has been out of work for years because he was too proud to call his boss “Mam.” A few fat cats, like the general supporting Ifemelu’s Aunty Uju, are unbelievably rich, but there is no opportunity ahead of them for the young middle class. Most of them dream about leaving the country.

In high school Ifemelu falls in love with Obinze, who dreams of going to the States. The two enroll in a college in Nigeria where Obinze’s mother is a professor. But the dorm’s lavatories aren’t working and the professors haven’t been paid in months. Eventually, they go on strike, and Ifemelu must return home to Lagos. When she hears Ifemelu is at loose ends, Aunty Uju, who is now living in New Jersey, suggests that Ifemelu move there to go to school and help her care for her son.

In New Jersey Ifemelu begins struggling to find work, for her scholarship only pays 75% of her expenses. It is in this time period that she does something that separates her from Obinze. She stops taking his calls or responding to him.

Obinze has his own problems. His lack of opportunity in Nigeria eventually brings him to England as an illegal immigrant. There he struggles along with menial jobs, giving kick-backs to work under other men’s names. He is about to marry a woman for citizenship when he is deported.

Much of the novel is about the difficult immigrant experiences of the two main characters (although we spend much more time with Ifemelu) and Ifemelu’s experiences of race problems in the United States. Ifemelu’s observations on her blog provide an interesting, sort of third-party, perspective. With all of the recent police shootings of unarmed black men that have happened lately, this is a  topic that is on everyone’s minds.

I went back and forth on how much I liked this novel. In Ifemelu, Adiche creates a good, strong voice and a believable, likable character. I was not so enamored of the love affair at the center of the novel. The coming of age section at the beginning of the book I found trite and a little tedious, but that is only about 60 pages long. However, the moral decisions at the end are more troubling, or in fact, that there is absolutely no thought about them, that’s what troubles me. I found very interesting, though, Ifemelu’s reaction to the changed Nigeria when she comes home.

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Little Bee

Day 574: Little Bee

Cover for Little BeeLittle Bee begins her story from a detention center in England, where she has been held for two years. During this time, she has been learning British English in the hopes she will be allowed to stay. After another girl seduces a guard, Little Bee is released with her and two other girls, with no papers or money, into the depths of the English countryside. Bee calls the only person she knows in England, Andrew O’Rourke, a man she met on a beach in Nigeria two years before.

Sarah O’Rourke is getting ready to attend her husband’s funeral. He had been depressed ever since that day on the beach. Then, suddenly, he committed suicide. When someone arrives at the door, Sarah is surprised to find Little Bee.

Eventually, we find out what happened that day on the beach—how Little Bee lost her sister and Sarah her finger. Sarah is posed with a problem. What can she do about Little Bee to help her stay protected in England? To the British government, Nigeria is a safe country from which Little Bee does not need refuge. The government does not know or is unwilling to learn that the oil companies are murdering entire villages to get rights to the oil beneath them.

I found Little Bee to be affecting all right, and it informed me of a situation I did not know existed. With all the bad news about various countries in Africa lately, I had not heard mention of Nigeria (at least not in this respect).

A few people have written reviews complaining about the ending. Perhaps they like their endings nicely wrapped up. I don’t mind ambiguity, but I did feel sometimes as if I was being manipulated. In addition, Little Bee’s voice, although enchanting and original, is not consistent enough. At times she is amazingly naive, sometimes convincingly so, others not so much. It is some of her more sophisticated knowledge that occasionally doesn’t ring true with the character Cleave has created and can’t be explained by two years of reading classics.

In any case, it is Sarah’s stunning naivety that is more unbelievable, both on the beach that day and when she decides to interview people in Nigeria instead of immediately contacting a lawyer or her embassy in an attempt to save Bee.

With all these caveats, I enjoyed the book, though, and give it a qualified recommendation.

Day 524: Things Fall Apart

Cover for Things Fall ApartThis book is another one for my Classics Club list. It is the late 19th century, and at the beginning of Things Fall Apart the Nigerian villagers have only heard of white men. They lead their agrarian life, counting wealth in yams and cowrie shells, and occasionally go to war.

The main character of the novel is Okonkwo. He is a proud man, once a great wrestler, who is intent on accumulating wealth and honor. His father preferred playing his flute to cultivating yams. Okonkwo did not respect him and has a secret fear of ending like him. To compensate, he is occasionally brutal and rigidly observant of the village customs, especially the “macho” ones.

After a woman from their village is murdered while visiting another village, the elders go to negotiate a settlement. They return with a hostage, a boy named Ikemefuna. He is handed over to Okonkwo and becomes part of his household. Okonkwo grows to care for him like a son and thinks Ikemefuna is a good role model for his own son Nwoye, in whom he fears weakness. After three years, though, the elders decide to kill Ikemefuna. An old man advises Okonkwo not to take part, but he does not want to look weak.

After Ikemefuna’s death, things begin to go wrong for Okonkwo. First, he is banished from his village for seven years for accidentally killing a man. Although he fares well in his mother’s village, he just wants to return home. While he is gone, though, missionaries arrive in his home village and a colonial government is set up. Nwoye and others convert to Christianity. Tragic cultural misunderstandings ensue between the Europeans and the villagers.

I was sympathetic to Okonkwo at times, but I did not like him. He is not fleshed out as a character, because he is more of a symbol for his culture. His tragedy stands in for the clash of cultures between the whites and the villagers. Certainly, the colonial government is arrogant and more interested in enforcing European concepts of law and morality than in trying to understand the local customs.

Things Fall Apart is a sparely written novel that is one of the most widely studied in African literature. Although I recognize its merits, I sometimes had difficulty staying with it.