The Nigerian-Biafran War (or the Nigerian Civil War, as it is also known) is seen through the intertwining lives of four different people. The daughter of a wealthy Igbo couple, Kainene, with a fierce business sense. Her fraternal twin sister, who is also the beautiful one, Olanna, an academic in love with a revolutionary-minded man named Odenigbo. Kainene’s boyfriend then fiancee, the white English writer Richard. And Ugwu. Olanna’s houseboy who came to them from a rural village. Their lives are irreparably impacted, and in some cases destroyed, by the war for a cause they all believe in, but that the world largely ignores.
I originally intended this Nigerian book to be my final read for the Africa Reading Challenge 2012, but even though I started it in November, the audiobook took over three months to get through, so it ultimately missed counting for the challenge. I thought it was much longer than my usual audiobook fare, but a quick check of the listen length shows that it is 18 hours and 56 minutes long, which is only about 7 hours longer than my norm. So why did it take me so long to finish? Well, I just didn’t enjoy it that much.
I believe I was expecting something else from Adichie, since I had previously read her book Purple Hibiscus (review), which is far more character driven than this novel. In this novel I would say the main character is actually the war, and that is something that simply does not work for my reading style. Perhaps also playing into this general feeling I got was the ensemble cast. Instead of getting to know just Olanna, for instance, and seeing her life before, during, and after the Nigerian-Biafran War, truly feeling as if I was her and living it through her, the reader is constantly jostled around among four different people. It left me unable to truly connect to any one of them, which left me feeling like they were just there as a device to let Adichie talk about the War. And it was truly an awful, horrible war precipitated by a genocide of the Igbo people, and it absolutely deserves to be talked about. It’s just for me this type of ensemble piece with the War as really the main character isn’t the best method for me to learn about a War or an atrocity. I prefer to get to know someone and see it through their eyes. Given what I had read of Adichie’s work before, I was expecting that level of connection, just with multiple characters, but that is just not what happens in this book. Perhaps it was too large, too sweeping, too much for one book. I’m not sure. But I was left without an emotional connection beyond the horror at the war atrocities, and that simply is not what I am looking for when reading a fictional piece set during a war.
As far as the plot goes, it was interesting but it was a bit confusing. Part of my confusion could have been because I listened to it, but from my understanding when I was listening, first there was an affair, then we jumped back to before the affair, then we jumped forward, then we jumped back to a different affair that came before the first affair. It was profoundly confusing. Particularly with a child referred to only as Baby (with no explanation about this for quite some time) who also randomly shows up and disappears. There was already so much going on with four different main characters and the war that this non-linear plot felt unnecessarily extraneous and confusing. However, it is possible that this plot is more clear when reading the print version, as opposed to the audio version.
The language of the writing itself is pretty, and I found periodic astute insights that I’ve come to expect and enjoy from Adichie. For instance,
Why do I love him? I don’t think love has a reason. I think love comes first, and the reasons come later.
Passages like these are what helped me enjoy the book to the extent that I did.
There is one plot point in the book that truly distressed me, so I feel I must discuss it. It is a spoiler though, so consider yourself spoiler warned for this paragraph. Throughout the book, the narration style is third person limited, which means that it is told in third person, but the reader knows what is going on in the main character’s head and is generally limited to that character’s perspective. The point of view is switched around among the four main characters, one of whom is Ugwu, the houseboy. We thus get to know him as the houseboy, he gradually grows up, and then later he is conscripted into the Biafran army. At this point, he participates in a gang rape on a waitress in a bar. I read a lot of gritty things. I routinely read books offering up the point of view of sociopaths or serial killers. I’m not averse to seeing the world through a bad person’s eyes, or through the eyes of a person who does bad things. But it has to be handled in the appropriate manner. I felt that there was entirely too much empathy toward Ugwu in the case of the gang rape. Adichie sets it up so that he walks in on his fellow soldiers gang raping this woman, and he says he doesn’t want to participate, they question his manhood, he admits in his head that he is turned on by the view of her pinned to the ground crying with her legs held apart having just been raped by a different soldier, and he participates. I think what disturbed me the most about this passage was how the narration makes it seem so ordinary. Like it’s something any man would do in that situation. Like it’s only natural he’d be turned on and get a hard-on from seeing a woman forcibly pinned to the ground so she can be gang raped by a bunch of men including himself. I think it’s awful to treat men like that. To act like they clearly are incapable of standing up for what’s right or that they’ll get a hard-on any time they see an orifice they can physically bang. Men are human beings and are entirely capable of thinking with more than their penis. Now, obviously there are men who rape, but there has got to be more going on there then I have a hard on and there’s a woman who I can stick it into. To treat rape that simply is a disservice to men and women’s humanity alike. Part of the reason why this reads this way is that we don’t know Ugwu well but we know him well enough to think that he’s an at least moderately decent young man. We don’t see a gradual downfall. No one holds a gun to his head or even implicitly threatens him with death if he doesn’t participate. It makes it seem like war makes men, even moderately good men, rape, as opposed to war simply providing more opportunities for rapists to rape. That is a perspective that I do not endorse, that I do not enjoy having sprung upon me in my literature, and that I found triggering as well. I was shocked to see it in a book by Adichie. Shocked and disappointed. It left me wishing I could scrub my brain of the book. Wishing for those hours of my life that I spent listening to it back.
Now, let me take a moment to speak about the narrator, Robin Miles. Miles is an astounding narrator. Her audiobook narration is truly voice acting. She is capable of a broad spectrum of accents, including Nigerian, British, and American, and slips in and out of them seamlessly. She easily creates a different voice for many different characters. I absolutely adored listening to her, in spite of not enjoying the book itself. Her performance of this book is easily a 5 star one.
Overall, though, the high quality narration simply could not make up for a story that failed to hit the mark with me on so many levels. It covers an important time period in Nigeria, and the highly important human rights issue of the genocide of the Igbo, but the style in which it does simply misses the mark for me. If this was all, I would still recommend the book to others who are more fond of a more impersonal, sweeping narration style. However, I also found the treatment of rape in the book to be simultaneously offensive and triggering. For this reason, I cannot recommend this book, although I do recommend the audiobook narrator, Robin Miles.
2 out of 5 stars
A lesbian retelling of Rapunzel. Gray, a witch’s daughter, visits Zelda every day. The witch switched Gray’s fate into Zelda, so now Zelda is the one entwined with the spirit of the tree that the people worship. She must live on the platform and every day lower her hair for people to tie ribbons and prayers into. Gray feels horrible guilt over their switched fates, but she’s also falling in love with Zelda.
I’m a sucker for fairy tale retellings, although I can be fairly picky about whether or not I like them. But Rapunzel is a tale that is not redone often enough, in my opinion, and the fact that it was a lesbian version made me jump at this novella.
It’s nice that the retelling doesn’t just change the genders of the main romantic pairing and leave it at that. In the original version, a married couple steal from a witch’s garden and in payment they must give her their unborn child who she then locks up into a tower. She would let her long hair down for her witch/mother to use as a ladder to get into the tower. A prince years later hears her singing in the tower and helps her escape. In this retelling, the people worship a tree. When the tree starts to die they tie its spirit into a person. That person lives on a platform in the tree and the people pray to him/her. When the person dies, the fate to be tied to the tree randomly chooses a baby by putting a tree pattern on their chest. This fate is supposed to be Gray’s, but her mother somehow acquires another baby, Zelda, and with magic cuts the fate out and ties it to her instead. Gray knows this and at first visits Zelda out of guilt but eventually falls in love with her. This version, surprisingly, is actually a lot more fantastical and magical. There is even a quest within an alternate dimension/dream world. I enjoyed the increase in the otherworldly feel, and I liked that it lent the twist of a parent trying to protect her child rather than a mother smothering her child.
The writing has an earthy, magical quality to it. It’s definitely language that is looking to be pretty, and it mostly succeeds. The romance between Zelda and Gray is sweet and very YA. Their passion revolves entirely around kissing and holding. I like that it gives a soul and connection to the romance without ignoring the physical aspect. It’s the perfect balance for this type of story.
While I enjoyed reading the story, I must admit it wasn’t my ideal retelling of Rapunzel. I didn’t like the religious aspect that was drawn into it, and I did feel that Zelda falling for Gray was a bit fast, particularly given the fate switching aspect of the story. I was also disappointed to see that in spite of all the other changes in the story, the Rapunzel character is still blonde. I’m not sure why no one ever seems to change this when retelling Rapunzel.
Overall, this is a fun retelling of Rapunzel, particularly if you’re looking for a non-heteronormative slant or enjoy a more magical feel. Note that this is part of a series entitled Sappho’s Fables, which consists of lesbian retellings of fairy tales. The novellas may be mixed and matched. Recommended to GLBTQ YA fans who enjoy a fairy tale.
4 out of 5 stars
In near future Michigan, a geneticist is murdered by his pet caline–a new pet created by gene splicing to have all the best characteristics of dogs and cats combined and guaranteed to be docile. His widow doesn’t believe that their beloved pet could possibly have done the killing so she hires private investigator Aidra Scott to prove her innocence. But as Aidra digs deeper into the mystery she finds far more intrigue than the possibility of a framed pet. This intrigue could rock a nation already debating geneticism.
I was intrigued primarily by the idea of calines. As an animal lover I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the idea of a caline. While the calines are pulled off well, they are not the focus of the book. This is definitely a near future scifi mystery, and it’s well-done.
The plot is a typical murder mystery with a twist. The pet is possibly framed, and the pet was created in a lab by geneticists. While I had my suspicions about whodunit early on, I must admit I wasn’t entirely right, plus there was an added twist at the end that I didn’t see coming. The plot will definitely keep you reading, even if you’ve read a lot of mysteries.
That said, there was at least one dead-end in the plot that I found frustrating. Aidra goes to visit the fringe group that protests genetic manipulation and gets tossed out on her ass, but we never really find out why the group was so hostile or much else about that angle into the whole thing really. Between that and the twist at the end, I was left wondering if a follow-up novel is intended, although all signs indicate the authors don’t intend to write one. If they don’t, I must say I found that the plot left me hanging a bit.
The main character is a single mother of a young teenage boy. This is different from what we see in a lot of mystery, and I enjoyed the new perspective. The cast was also quite diverse, which is appropriate for the setting. The characters were fairly well-rounded for a mystery novel. One thing that did bug me is that some Britishisms slipped into the American text. Long-time readers know that this is an issue that really bugs this particular reviewer. The authors (M. H. Mead is a pen-name for a pair of writers) try to explain this away by mentioning that Aidra is originally from the UK. While that explains some of her own Britishisms, it doesn’t explain why they sneak into the narration.
Overall, this is a fun scifi mystery. It consists of an interesting germ of an idea with a few plot twists to keep the reader guessing. It could use a few more tweaks, but fans of the mystery genre will enjoy it.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy provided by authors in exchange for my honest review.