After Nigerian war planes finish raining down bombs all around her, Olanna, the heroine of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun, climbs out of the bunker in her backyard in eastern Nigeria, brooding over her near-death. “If she had died…the bunker would still smell like a freshly tilled farm and the sun would still rise and the crickets would still hop around,” she thinks, and is filled with a “frothy rage.” This moment, like so many others in Adichie’s engrossing novel, incisively explores the disjunction between history as it is experienced personally and its result: that the world will continue to trundle on its way in spite of history’s injustices.
Set during the turbulent first decade of Nigeria’s independence in the 1960s, which saw the country torn apart by the Biafran Civil War of 1967-70, pitting the Igbo-dominated eastern region in a bid for secession against the rest of the country, the novel vividly brings to life the political and cultural crises that beset post-independence Nigeria. Moving back and forth in time between the euphoric optimism of independence in the early ’60s and the nightmarish descent into civil war in the late ’60s, Adichie probes the impact of politics and war on the psyche of ordinary people as she follows the lives of Olanna; her husband, Odenigbo, a professor impassioned about the Biafran cause; Ugwu, their houseboy; and Olanna’s former lover, Richard, a British writer in eastern Nigeria who is now enamored of her twin sister, Kainene.
Although Adichie’s characters are ultimately powerless to control the course of events that unravel their lives, the novel is not entirely pessimistic. It is only after Kainene is exposed to the violence of the war that she chooses to forgive Olanna for the affair that she had years earlier with Richard. “There are some things that are so unforgivable,” she tells Olanna, referring to the mindless death and destruction of the war, “that they make other things easily forgivable.” The only consolation for the trials of history, the novel seems to say, are the human bonds that individuals forge with one another.
In its deeply insightful portrayal of one of Nigeria’s most traumatic epochs, Adichie’s novel affirms a different kind of historical “truth”–not the facile truth of facts, figures and dates, but the deeper truth of throbbing, lived experience.
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Karen Russell’s stories can have a disorienting effect. In this, her first collection, child protagonists wrestle alligators, get trapped inside giant conch shells and go snorkeling for ghosts; one boy bonds with his father, who just happens to be a Minotaur. Russell loves to revel in strangeness–not only the fantastic quality of the Florida Everglades, her chosen setting, but also the weirdness of being a child in a world of bullies, parents and girl-wolves who simply refuse to act human. Readers may wish that so many of the stories (two of which originally appeared in The New Yorker) weren’t left hanging at a point of crisis, but in a world where the voices of choirboys are expected to bring on an avalanche–every year–resolution may be one of the few impossibilities left. Russell’s prose is absolutely lovely: “I rub my naked eyes and try to stargaze,” a Junior Astronomer-turned-“comical-ironical-criminal” narrates. “The moon shines down its eerie calligraphy from deep space.” St. Lucy’s Home is at once preternaturally wise and guileless, its stories letters from a parallel universe, where even the gravest of circumstances have no weight.
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Rebecca Lee’s beautiful first novel is a story of pasts that won’t stay past. The City Is a Rising Tide opens with its narrator, Justine, in unrequited love with her boss, Peter, whom she has known since she was a child living in Beijing with her expat parents and he was a young man working for Richard Nixon. Their New York nonprofit, Aquinas, is dedicated to Peter’s dream of building a retreat on the banks of the Yangtze River. Peter is a fellow sufferer of inconsolable longing, but the object of his affection is even farther out of reach–Su Chen, Justine’s childhood nanny, who died during the Cultural Revolution. When Justine reconnects with an old boyfriend, she quietly begins siphoning money from Aquinas to help him finish a film. Lee is an elegant storyteller who gracefully interweaves her many threads and minor characters–nonprofit vultures, missionaries and assorted friends. Her themes (“Asia’s in the heart!”) are earnest but never sentimental. In Lee’s hands, Justine’s story is a poetic exploration of lives suspended between then and now, drawing strength from the very images of the past that threaten to pull them under.