The three best books this month
A new manifesto for feminist living, a comedy about the afterlife, and a migrant love story for our times: your guide to the books everyone's talking about
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
When a famous writer has their off-the-cuff writing published as a sixty-page hardback, RRP £10, it’s natural enough to suspect the worst – they’ve become a brand, and soon they’ll be selling their shopping lists and anthologizing their Tweets.
But Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a MacArthur Grant-awarded genius whose prose bristles with erudition and research, so although this single essay is as short as its predecessor We Should All Be Feminists, it’s also tempting to quote in its entirety – these are wise sentences, to read multiple times and to pass on to multiple people.
"I recently came to the realisation that I am angrier about sexism than I am about racism"
Sexism, for Adichie, is more pervasive and insidious than racism, and Dear Ijeawele feels like an rallying of strength in the wake of Hilary Clinton’s election defeat. ‘Here is a sad truth,’ Adichie writes: ‘Our world is full of men and women who do not like powerful women.’
Adichie’s solution is to educate young women in the ways that language shapes their reality, and to teach the to question the old formulations, such as how ‘mother’ is more of a verb than ‘father’, and how women talk of being ‘allowed’ to do what they want.
It makes sense that novelist Adichie is clever on subtle semantic distinctions, such as the difference between ‘sexy’ (which women are expected to be) and ‘sexual’ (which they are not).
Written as a letter to a childhood friend with a new-born daughter, Dear Ijeawele feels personal and immediate, and Adichie’s voice is ripe with humour and conviction. Parents: keep a copy with you at all times, for reference.
Nadia and Saeed have a very modern relationship. They’re matter-of-fact about sex and drugs; their relationship is smartphone-mediated; they navigate the disapproval of older generations; and they spend much of their lives online, away from reality.
Reality, however, is starting to buckle and warp. The couple’s homeland (Middle Eastern, never named) is on the brink of war, and everyone is trying to carry on as usual. There are always a thousand reasons to stay, but when the bombs are falling and the neighbours are having their throats cut, you know it’s time to leave.
This, you feel, it how it would happen to you – you, with your after-work cocktails, your yoga-classes and lattes. Hamid’s novel dispels any unconscious suspicion that refugees are somehow at fault for their displacement, or that countries only fall to war if their inhabitants are primitive or fundamentalist.
"When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind"
It helps that the characters in Exit West are believable. They’re not vivid, certainly, but Hamid’s detail-light prose is capable of bringing them into focus with a telling fact, and their muted aliveness allows Hamid to quietly introduce an element of magic to Exit West without cancelling the realism that he’s carefully constructed.
War isn’t the only way that reality has skewed: black doors have started appearing everywhere, leading to random rooms around the world. These portals facilitate a sort of parallel-universe migrant crisis that propels Nadia and Saeed into an uncertain future.
It’s a risky conceit, but it’s handled with skill and serves a purpose: as well as evoking the surreality of expatriation, it bypasses the distancing, sensationalist imagery of mass-migration (the sinking dinghies, the crammed lorries, the freezing cargo holds) and allows Hamid to consider parts of the refugee experience that don’t make it to the front page of the news.
Politically engaged and mysterious, Exit West is a strange sweet daydream about global catastrophe and what might come after.
Lincoln in the Bardo
How does a short story writer successfully transition to novelist?
George Saunders has responded the challenge with inventiveness: Lincoln in the Bardo consists entirely of quotations. It’s as if Saunders started selecting a few epigrams for the opening pages and decided to write the whole novel that way.
It sounds rather dry, but the follow-up to prize-winning collection Tenth of December never allows formal innovation to get in the way of readability. Although some chapters are a patchwork of excerpts from letters, memoirs, and history books, many more are the testimonies of ghosts – actual sheet-over-the-head ghosts – that speak with humour and melancholy.
‘How could I have done otherwise? With time flowing in only one direction and myself made just as I was?’
It’s 1862, and Abraham Lincoln’s son has died. Eleven-year-old Willie caught typhoid fever while playing outside; only a few days later he’s interred in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington D.C. The president struggles to come to terms with the nature of his loss. Lincoln Sr. is sending thousands of young men to die in the Civil War: does grieving make him hypocritical, or too sensitive to secure victory through battle?
It transpires that his grieving does matter. Willie Lincoln’s soul has ended up in the ‘bardo’, a dingy purgatory for the reluctant dead. Although the president doesn’t know it, only parental mourning can prevent his son from remaining in this charnel-house swamp, a bizarre necropolitan Wonderland where it occasionally rains hats.
There has always been something accommodating about Saunders’ fiction, and although Lincoln in the Bardo recalls Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Samuel Beckett, it's nowhere near as daunting. A better comparison would be Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth, with its lurid gothic fantasy underpinned by deep poignancy. Despite its Halloween cartoonishness, Sanders’ debut novel is real enough when it comes to expressing the realities of loss.
ALSO OUT THIS MONTH:
Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy, a memoir by our favourite New Yorker journalist, details the emotional turbulence of her pregnancy and the sad result that forced to reconsider her expectations of life and contemporary womanhood. As an account of wisdom earned through profound sadness, Rules Do Not Apply is as unforgettable as Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.
The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrère is technically a book about the origins of Christianity, but please note that French writer Carrère couldn’t write a cheque without making it confessional. As with previous non-fiction novels, Carrère delves both into his ostensible subject and his own psychology, happily candid about sex and depression and the impulse to write.
Blob by David Walliams is another example of why claims this author is the ‘new Roald Dahl’ aren’t just empty kids-lit hype. Walliams has Dahl’s knack for invention, and doesn't underestimate childrens' appetite for hilarious and beguiling stories completely free of niceties.