A GOOD READ: From Africa, with love
Of late, I have been reading books that contain African characters or settings. I am gently telling myself to go to Africa and am escaping between the covers until I do. If you would like some armchair travel as well or just want to read some good books, try some of these.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is set around the Biafra secession from Nigeria in the late 1960s. This engaging novel is a painless way to learn about the history of Biafra, something I had known nothing about before reading. The story is told through the lives of a handful of Igbo — the name for the people who seceded — centring around two sisters. The war resonated through the citizens’ lives and no class was spared. The title hints at both victory and defeat, and the novel won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007.
Along the same lines, but leaner and in some ways deeper, is Aminatta Forna’s Memory of Love. This beautiful but painful novel is set in Sierra Leone during an ugly time in its history. Adrian Lockheart, a young British psychiatrist travels to Freetown in hopes of helping people to heal in the aftermath of its bloody civil war around the turn of the 20th century. He becomes friends with local surgeon Kai Mansaray and with a young woman. One of Lockheart’s patients is Elias Cole, whose salad days were in the 1960s and whose unscrupulous actions have lasting effects on the lives of others. This novel of interconnected love triangles won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize this year.
Cutting for Stone tells the story of twin boys Marion and Shiva Stone, children of an Indian nun who dies soon after their birth and a swaggering Brit who runs out on them. Written by Abraham Verghese, a surgeon who grew up in Ethiopia, this novel tells a powerful story about the lives of the twins. As they come of age, Ethiopia is nearing a revolution. They go on to become surgeons in Addis Ababa at the hospital in which they were born. There is both love and politics in this well-received first novel, which was named one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2009.
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman is set in a gritty housing development in inner London. Its narrator is Harrison Opoku, an endearing 11-year-old immigrant from Ghana. He and a friend set out to solve the mystery of a boy’s death likely due to gang violence. This novel is both funny and sad. Harri is one of my favourite narrators, enthusiastic despite his grim surroundings. It reads aloud nicely and comes with a glossary to aid with the local slang. It was one of the Man Booker Prize nominees this year.
The Sheltering Sky, written in 1949 by Paul Bowles, is one of my very favourite books. It is simply written but goes very deep. It tells the story of Port and Kit Moresby, an unhappily married couple who are travelling in hopes of rekindling their marriage. Misfortune strikes in northern Africa and adventures ensue in the Sahara. There is no formula to this book — you will not be able to guess where it goes as you read it. If you were to read only one book from this column, this is the one I would recommend the most highly. There are autobiographical elements to it — Paul Bowles knew Africa well as he and his wife Jane Bowles spent much time there — and it is among Time Magazine’s 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
If you are looking for more suggestions of what to read, check out the Coquitlam Library blog, I Was Told There’d be Cake, at iwastoldtheredbecake.wordpress.com.
A Good Read is a column by Tri-City librarians that is published every Wednesday. Jay Peters is an information services librarian at Coquitlam Public Library.