19 July 2013

Americanah

A slightly edited version of this review first appeared in Mint Lounge.

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel and fourth book, has an abiding feel to it in the way of a sheathed dagger: elegant, menacing, heavy, and somehow tender, as though it quickens the pulse to soften the heart. Its protagonist, Ifemelu, is brilliant, beautiful, and successful. She has just completed a writing fellowship at Princeton University, runs a successful blog on race in America, is regularly invited to speak at conferences, owns a condominium, and is in a not-unhappy relationship. But Ifemelu finds unarticulated longing simmering within the tepid embrace of contentment, and decides, without ever deciding to decide, to move back home to Nigeria. Ifemelu’s first love, Obinze, meanwhile, has endured a brutal time in England as an undocumented immigrant living a dangerous, lacerated life on the periphery of the law.

In Adichie’s first two books, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, Nigeria is sculpted with the loving, smouldering wisdom of writing from home and country. In Yellow Sun, especially, the interloper experience is mocked with exquisite grace. Yet, in Americanah, that is just what Adichie explores. But how masterfully she does it! With Ifemelu in the USA and Obinze in England, Adichie unmasks the polite, well-formed niceties of the post-racial world and the sometimes simplistic politics of dislocation. If the truths are uncomfortable, they are meant to be. In Ifemelu’s time in America, especially, Adichie sets ablaze the dramatic distinctions between being a non-American black and a black American with observations that are at once comical and forlorn.

Within the main narrative, the unblunted incisiveness of the outsider perspective is entirely free of malice despite its withering insights. In describing a white liberal employer, she writes: “[...] for Kimberly, the poor were blameless. Poverty was a gleaming thing; she could not conceive of poor people being vicious or nasty, because their poverty had canonized them, and the greatest saints were the foreign poor.” In the passages often and freely quoted from Ifemelu’s blog, though, there is an endearing tartness that is chatty and fierce at the same time: “Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t ‘black’ in your country? You’re in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the Society of Former Negroes.”

At the heart of it is a remarkable story: a love story with depth and heart and sweetness. In the final bend of the book, thirteen years since they last saw each other, Ifemelu and Obinze are both back in Lagos, watching their histories, separate and shared, arch out into an uncertain and looming future that they’ve barely begun to negotiate. Their years apart have armoured their defenses, but Lagos, with its messy abundance of people and opportunity, tethers them, somehow, to each other with devastating vulnerability.

Adichie captures, with a sort of wry, delicate ease, the ordinary decisions of our lives – the sudden ones that come upon us in quick, breathless whimsy, the desperate ones which push us with serrated edges into the lives we had never imagined for ourselves, and the lingering ones that we find ourselves slipping into almost accidentally. With sharp, melancholy haste, Ifemelu decides to cut off contact altogether with the man she deeply loves; with quiet mortification, Obinze finds himself breaking laws only to live a desolate and hopeless existence; and everyone in the book finds their worlds made cheerlessly and noisily of relationships fostered from familiarity, evenings driven into a social abyss of forced laughter and camaraderie, and careers forged half-heartedly from languor.

The book’s most sublime strength is how laughingly it slices the sundry tragedies of getting by. Ifemelu’s isn’t the privileged ennui of allowing life to happen to her; no, it is more piercing, less thoughtless than that. It is the vivid, anguished charm of being swirled slickly into success and movement and loss and love that brings defiant, intelligent, and independent people to sometimes look back at a life of changes and to wonder, with balmy surprise, how they got here.

Here, then, is a prose stylist with heart: with so much heart that Americanah, which is a simple tale, really, that could just as well have been quietly alive and fervent and real and still have been a fine book indeed, adds up to so much more: it is fluttering and palpitating and bounteous and, through it all, endlessly, staggeringly beautiful.

04 July 2013

Not Only the Things that Have Happened

This review first appeared in Biblio: A Review of Books. To read it, though, one must sign in to the website (which is free).

It is a Sliding Doors sort of question: if there are two ways in which a life could have transpired, can a person remember the life she would have had if she had taken the road that she never took? Can she dream for herself a different life from the one she now straddles, and through that dream can she live that life? The enduring kindness of memory is its very forgetfulness, its ambiguity, its power to re-imagine salt as gold. Cognitive psychology has taught us about the powers of misinformation and the effect of retroactive interference on actual and recovered memory. But if we are continuously weaving our own narrative histories and allowing each action of ours to impose the butterfly effect on every detail of our future lives, are we also not constantly carving out fresh past realities for ourselves with the knowledge we gain from every step of lived experience? If life is lived through conjecture, then conjecture must influence experience. Or, to put it more succinctly, how many lives have we lived?

Mridula Koshy’s debut novel, Not Only the Things that Have Happened, is about the histories and futures that her characters invent for themselves when truth and information are not sufficient to fill the gaps of their personal narratives. Annakutty Verghese gives up her illegitimate four-year-old son, Madhu, to a passing German tourist in Madras, whose husband then abandons the child in a railway station in New Delhi. When the boy, whose name is now Chuk-Chuk, is seven, he is adopted by a family of American evangelists and taken to California, where his name becomes Asa Gardner. From here, Asa’s life is a series of performances until he stumbles into awkward adulthood. Meanwhile, Annakutty regrets her decision and searches for her Lost Boy every day of her life. From Madras, she returns to Kerala with Thambi, the one-legged man she has fallen in love with, and rebuilds a life with Thambi and with Nina, the daughter of her half-sister Tessiebaby. But these are all histories that converge in the form of memories over the course of thirty-six hours in May 2004, when Annakutty has died without finding her son and Asa’s six-year-old daughter, Noel, who is not biologically his, asks for a piece of his history.

This is a bleak, bleak book. There is no respite at all from its blistering sadness. It is a world without hope or joy or any sort of laughter. The periodic rumblings of poetry in Koshy’s language, though, lend it a lugubrious sort of beauty. When Annakutty and Thambi first chance upon each other on a bus from Thambaram to Pondicherry, Koshy writes: “Annakutty is somewhere mid-bounce when she knows it: someone is watching me. She doesn’t think it, feels it in the sudden mid-bounce lightening of her self. Warmth spreading over her face. It is there in the feeling of his gaze, so steady, she has been caught unaware in it, till mid-bounce the gaze jumps, skitters, attempts to regain its hold, is intrusive. She comes down hard on hear seat. A man, she thinks scornfully.”

Koshy’s writing is dense and layered in the way of an onion: peeling involves tears and eating involves pungency, but the stinging rawness of the process is ultimately rewarding, if disquieting. The book yokes together the entirely disconnected lives of Annakutty and Asa in a Mrs. Dalloway style stream of consciousness, patched together through murky non-linear interior monologues that hide almost as much as they reveal. The constant intermingling of timelines is expertly handled by the author with precision and subtlety. The obliqueness of the many layers can be difficult to navigate, but in all its piercing poignancy the book has an edge of empathy that is perhaps the most endearing quality of Koshy’s writing.

There are some tiresome banalities in her writing, though, and these invariably emerge when parent pines for child in one of the book’s many parent-child combinations. Annakutty says, for example, “Madhu, I gave you up. But I never gave up loving you.” These are weaknesses that could be easier forgiven if Koshy’s writing were not otherwise so consummate.

Annakutty’s teenage years form the finest section of the book. When her stepmother Saramma hides her clothes as punishment for sexual transgressions, Annakutty walks out of the house, completely naked, refusing to be defined by anything but personal autonomy. It is a scene that is visually powerful more because of the way her actions affect the people around her than by their own merit. At the same time, Annakutty’s resilience does not drown out her tenderness in any way. She is drawn to the men who are drawn to her and gives her love with an almost effortless sort of grace. Later, as her relationships evolve, whether with Tessiebaby, Thambi, Nina, or even the shy Bihari girl she rooms with in Madras or Valli, the woman she befriends when she returns to Kerala, Annakutty preserves a sense of self that withers in the face of no one. As the book moves on to Asa’s tormented life in its second half, the narrative begins to whimper from the loss of its very strongest character.

If Annakutty’s life is characterised by a sense of fellowship, Asa’s story is a study in alienation. Vaulted from almost every home he has ever known, Asa almost has no idea what he’s searching for. His only happy memories seem to be the three destitute years he spent wandering the New Delhi railway station with a Dickensian band of boys. Now, somewhere in the American Midwest, he is estranged from his wife and has a tenuous connection with his daughter. His ties with the family that adopted him are shaky after several years of separation and hostility. It is a simulated life, lived chameleon-like, without trust or certainty. 

Asa’s dissembling tactics are the exact opposite of Annakutty’s artless forthrightness. The dichotomy of their broken lives underscores the fact that this, like any tale, is a story that is only half-told. Nina says: “Before she died, my Peramma said it’s important to remember not only the things that have happened. She said it is important to remember what will happen. I am worried about remembering just the things that have happened. How am I to remember what has not happened yet? She said if you remember it, it will happen. That it is a way of dreaming.” And so it is that Nina dreams a future for Annakutty and Asa dreams a past for the mother he cannot remember. If the two were to intersect, it is a life that Annakutty could have lived.

Not Only the Things That Have Happened deals with parenthood so abundantly that its contentious issues cannot be ignored. The book consistently wonders if a child isn’t best left with her biological parents. In Saramma’s home, Annakutty often starves while watching her stepmother serve what little food they have to Tessiebaby. Later, Annakutty cares for Tessiebaby when Saramma must go away and for Nina when Tessiebaby must go away. The German woman, Gretchen Oster, is driven towards adoption because of an abortion from her youth, while the American woman, Marge, loses a biological daughter even as she gains an adopted son. Asa too struggles to connect with Noel, who is the biological daughter of another man. In every case, the love feels like it is less than what could have been. The fretful sense the book leaves behind is disillusionment with the entire adoption industry. If that is in fact the statement that the book is making, it is a dangerous one, and it could prove to be most damaging to the adoption process. The notions that filial relationships that are not wrought by blood are unstable or that human beings are more invested in their own gene pools are among the primary obstacles to adoption, and these are notions that the book almost endorses.

This is not to say that Koshy’s book completely discounts the relationships that can be fostered without biological impetus. The unquestioning conviction with which Asa takes up his custodianship of Noel and the love that clearly exists between Annakutty and Nina and even between Thambi and Nina are validations of these. But these are not the focal points of the book. Rather, as Annakutty languishes endlessly for her Lost Boy and as Asa’s adoptive parents struggle with him, what is most troubling is this insistence on maintaining progeny that denies real love to little girls and boys who have no idea how unwanted they are or, indeed, how desperately they are wanted elsewhere.