"Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe

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Chinua Achebe weaves a tale of change in his native Nigeria in his classic Things Fall Apart (1958). He steeps the reader in the Ibo culture of seasons, society, and gods, as we follow the life of the important villager Okonkwo and his family. Change from this incumbent culture comes in the form of British missionaries who ride bicycles, and who bring a message that will disrupt and eventually destroy a way of life and belief. Aside from its ground-breaking setting, this novel’s brilliance lies in its unerring depiction of human nature, and the havoc wreaked on lives when cultures clash.

Achebe harkens us back to the Ibo of the late 19th century. We witness tribal politics, folklore, economics, and religion as we follow a couple of generations Okonkwo’s family. Okonkwo grows up resenting his shiftless father, and as he matures he shows the grit and determination to rise above. He becomes a fierce warrior, an aggressive and acquisitive businessman, and an autocratic paterfamilias. This stands him in good stead in the village, but also demonstrates Achebe’s mastery. Okonkwo is a nuanced, believable protagonist. He treats his family roughly, bemoans his sons, whom he feels lack promise, speaks roughly to his wives and daughters, and casts a jaundiced eye on any display by villagers that lacks manliness.

Okonkwo is not the only character benefiting from Achebe’s deft touch. Okonkwo’s circle of friends, strangers from neighboring villages, his wife’s family, even the British missionaries, all come to life and display real human action and motivation. On this solid base rests the inevitable conflict and disruption brought about with the arrival of exotic white foreigners, with a suspect foreign doctrine.

I found Things Fall Apart a rewarding read. It displays felicitous, energetic language to depict humans acting like humans, and in the larger context, the pain and anger and suspicion when one people would strangle an indigenous culture to “improve and purify” it. If you haven’t taken this novel up, do so by all means, and see why it is honored and its author lionized.

"The Atomic Weight of Love" by Elizabeth J. Church

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Still in her early 20s, Meridian Wallace, a Western Pennsylvania girl about to make a name for herself at the University of Chicago, becomes enthralled with Alden, a professor of physics, and twenty years her senior. She marries him just as he is dispatched to an unheard-of hamlet in New Mexico, to lend his expertise to the development of a revolutionary and terrifying new weapon. In spite of her acceptance to Cornell grad school, he moves her summarily to Los Alamos and crushes her scientific potential and hopes.

And such is Meridian’s treatment at her husband’s hands. This treatment, and Meridian’s sporadic rebellious impulses against it, power this narrative. It’s a treatment that is alive and flourishing to this day, unfortunately, but I hope it isn’t still the expected thing in American marriages that it was in the middle of the last century.  The assumptions made by American society in the 1940s were shared by young people getting married. In the novel, The Atomic Weight of Love, these assumptions are portrayed accurately.

In fact, accuracy is one great virtue of this book. Meridian, whom Alden calls Meri, allows her husband to make unilateral decisions for her, decisions regarding the taking of her virginity, and where she will and will not study, where they will live as he works, he even makes judgments about her friends. Throughout, he exercises his autocracy with a snob’s dismissive ease, assured in the superiority of his perspective. From time to time Meri chafes under his rule, and carves out a life for herself, following her passion for ornithology to make a talented amateur’s study of a population of crows.

Then along comes Viet Nam and upheaval in American society. Meri’s love for Clay, a beautiful young man, engenders her much-needed awakening; her rebirth reminds Meri of her own worth and capacity for love. This leads to her final triumph of self-respect, as it were, as we observe her good works over the years.

Author Elizabeth J. Church provides a vivid character and puts her to a number of good uses. First, she illustrates a culture in America which subjugated wives and women in general to the will of husbands and men. Second, she brings to life a turbulent time in the height of the Viet Nam war, refracted through the prism of her heroine’s life. She uses this highly apt backdrop to portray an intelligent, sympathetic protagonist’s growth and adaptation. All this is done so honestly and deeply: Alden’s moments of oafishness are balanced against his well-meaning moments; Clay’s impatience shows a youthfulness yet to be tempered by much experience; even the secondary characters are fully nuanced. This is a sensitive, affecting story, easy to believe and appreciate. I was very happy to make Meridian’s acquaintance. 

"Everything Under" by Daisy Johnson

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The murky forces in Everything Under confuse and intimidate us, the wide-eyed readers, just as they confuse and intimidate the characters. A boy who decides to grow up a woman has prescient gifts, which she uses until she forgets to. Another character wills a new gender for himself after a trauma, and a monster lives below the surface of the river, but can walk upright on dry land, and may want to kill. Many believe it is also intent on stealing. 

Be prepared for a novel that will make you alert by jumping between thread and thread; it will also keep you waiting … and doubting … and craving answers right up to the end and beyond. This is an arresting novel, in the best sense of the word. You will stop, and sit up, and wonder how its debut author, Daisy Johnson, produced such a stunning and unconventional work right out of the box. It’s a dark delight.

Gretel grew up with her mother Sarah on a boat moored in a river. She is not educated in public schools until her mother abandons her when she’s a schoolgirl of 16. Gretel spends years trying to hunt her mother down, but when she finally finds her, after perhaps a further 16 years, her mother’s mind has deteriorated. Fiona, born a boy, witnesses several bulls being castrated, and chooses the female gender for herself. Eventually Fiona finds Margot (born Marcus) living with her adoptive parents. Loss, and quests to repair losses, dominate the plot here, but the plot holds a secondary place to the images and the fraught emotions. Instead, author Daisy Johnson looses tidal forces of terror, psychic ability, crypto-language, and accidental death to power her narrative along.

Adult Gretel recalls episodes from her early teens, in which she imagines she’s keeping her younger self company, observing her mother through a roof portal on the boat. At these times, she imagines the bogeyman, the (physical?) distillation of all of her and her mother’s fears. This creature, legend has it, can breathe underwater and walk on land; is pale white and nearly hairless, is longer than a man is tall, has short, stubby legs, and steals things. Including children.

As the book proceeds, we catch apparent glimpses of this monster from time to time, coming and going in its not-quite-visible way, in the time it takes to gasp. Characters, particularly Sarah, refer to it and warn other characters to beware. At last, however, the monster of the rivers apparently shows itself clearly enough for Sarah and Gretel to give honest, physical chase.

The novel exhibits a strong sensual undertone. Genders are bent and malleated rather often as we go. Sarah discovers the truth about Marcus/Margot’s body in a flash of image and sexual activity that finishes abruptly in a gloss, like the wake of a moving boat. In fact, much of the narrative has an ethereal, out-of-focus quality, exactly appropriate to the subject. 

The narrative fits into a present-day framework in which mother Sarah and daughter Gretel (whom Sarah sometimes refers playfully calls Hansel) are reunited in a tense, unloving standoff. And once the monster is tracked and dealt with, Sarah’s reason for living expires.

Gloomy and atmospheric, with its hauntingly raw emotional palette, Everything Under is a stunning debut which takes the reader outside herself, and deposits her squarely in the middle of its minefield. A challenging, haunting read, a raker-up of our darker moods, and yet a rewarding read nonetheless. Definitely a piece of provoke one’s mind and heart, and compliments to fiction rarely come higher than that.