Following yet another tradition and on the request of Rita, I have put down the five best reads of 2015. Technically, that’s seven best reads rather than the usual five that Rita asked. However, I am throwing in two more because I have always had a problem sticking to rules. Here they are in the order I have read them but in no particular order of preference.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (fiction)
When reading Americanah I quickly got into the ‘good book zone’ mostly because it was a love story but such a political one. The long forays into African hair obviously was quite political by itself. I didn’t like central female character Ifemelu as much as I loved Obinze. Seriously, it’s like Adichie put all the ideal qualities into Obinze because I am sure no one like him exists in fiction. The one place he falters is when he marries the ‘well-fed houseplant’ (Adichie’s words, not mine) of a wife for no reason than the fact that he was dazed by his new wealth. Through the story of the two lovers (Ifemelu and Obinze), Adichie explores the vastly different post-colonial experiences in the UK and America. Finally though the houseplant and sapling are gently let go and the lovers come together to start their long awaited and much deserved life together in Nigeria.
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (fiction)
I read Half of a Yellow Sun after Americanah. Does it matter that it was not chronological? There was a certain levity in Americanah that there was no space for in Half of a Yellow Sun. First of all, Half of a Yellow Sun is a historical novel set in Nigeria of the 60s at a time when the Biafran War was on. The Nigerian intellectuals wanted to create Biafra (pronounced Bee-ahfrah) and secede from Nigeria. This led to a civil war and unrest which claimed casualties on both sides. Many countries recognised Biafra but it couldn’t stand up to the military might of Nigeria.
Adichie mined the war part of the story from her own personal family history. The narrator is an outsider, a servant called Ugwu who tells the story of Olanna and Odenigbo. Both are intellectuals and are excited by the creation of this new country. Olanna’s twin sister Kainene and her boyfriend, Richard, chart another kind of journey before, during and after the war. In using twins to tell the story, perhaps Adichie is trying to say that Nigeria and Biafra are twin sisters who might not like each other but are still family. So they must tolerate each other and maybe over time even come to some sort of peace with the other.
To be honest, this book was quite adamant till around page 250 after which it started to yield its secrets and exploded. Half of a Yellow Sun is both a human story as a historical document. A must read if you want to understand politics through literature.
How To Be Both by Ali Smith (fiction)
This is the first novel that left me breathless in 2015. What a brave and audacious write is Ali Smith! The story spans two different centuries and countries – 15th Century Italy and 21st Century England. The concerns are quite contemporary about the fluidity of gender, art and life. The story is narrated by two narrators: in 15th Century Italy, it is Francescho and in 21st Century George who seem to pass through both male and female identities quite easily. The most riveting part of the book is the arrangement. Half the number of copies printed by the publisher Hamish Hamilton has George’s story first and the other half has Francescho’s story first. So it’s a lottery whose story you get to read first. It’s fascinating what this means. Your perception of the novel is going to be driven by what you read first. I read George’s story first. So many levels of duality are explored through this novel. The book made me think so much that I didn’t finally write about it as I would have liked. (The same thing happened to me with Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller the year before last.)
Out of It by Selma Dabbagh (fiction)
Out of It has the distinction of getting me interested in the Palestine issue. I have struggled with understanding such an old and all pervasive issue but it has helped me a lot. You already know what I think of this novel. I am now constantly looking out for more Palestinian writers. I have started reading Raja Shehadeh’s Language of War, Language of Peace (non fiction) and Suhair Hammad’s Born Palestinian Born Black (poetry) thanks to this book.
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (fiction)
I have already discussed this in a lot of detail in a separate post. Suffice it to say that it made a deep impression on me. I look forward to more books from this writer.
The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith (fiction series)
What can I have to say more than what I have already put down here? I have continued to read McCall Smith after writing that post and I stand by what I wrote. I do dread what would happen if I run out of this series but since I am some distance away from such an emergency, I don’t have to worry about it right now. This series is by far the ‘lightest’ set of books I have read the past year. Light in tone that is but not light in seriousness.
Technically these books are classified as ‘crime fiction’ but that is a bit misleading. Yes, there are crimes in the book but it’s the mundane everyday kind: Think stolen office supplies rather than bank robberies. It’s more about human goodness, kindness and generosity and a certain way of life in a country in the middle of Africa.
One could argue of course that the mysteries of the human spirit does need a detective for them to be discovered. And that detective is Mma Ramotswe.
Burn My Heart by Beverly Naidoo (YA fiction)
I have been hearing about Beverly Naidoo about the same time as I was reading Philip Pullman and J.K Rowling. So that’s quite a while back. However, getting my hands on her books did not happen. Where would I find South African YA lit so many years back? Luckily, after so many years I found a book of hers at the British Council library.
The time is 1951 to 53. Mathew and Mugo, two kids on either side of the colonial divide, forge a tenuous friendship by being thrown by circumstances to spend time together. It’s a difficult time. Not just because of complexities of race and colonialism, it’s also because this is the time of the Mau Mau revolution, the violent uprising before Keyan independence which left so many Kikuyus dead, whether innocent and not.
This is the story of an accident that involves Mathew or bwana kidogo (little master in Swahili) and Mugo the son of Kamau, the man who worked at Mathew’s Dad Grayson’s farm and stables. A small incident burns through the lives of both the boys affecting them in different ways and tearing them up within and apart from each other.
The book made a huge impression on me. I cried at the injustice of Mugo’s life. I cried for most of the second part of the book. How much injustice is there in this world! I am enraged and outraged that so many Mugos and Kamaus have had to endure the wrath of the greedy White Man. Colonialism has so much to answer for. No amount of reparations – if ever considered – can ever amend the lives scattered, lost and warped because of it.
This is my first Beverly Naidoo and she is a formidable writer. This is how YA lit should be – no easy answers, no happy ever afters, just the raw story.