I read four new books in May along with a re-reading of The Goon Squad and bits of The Odyssey which I write about here. This number confirms my average book reading achievement; which is basically one a week at the moment. I used to be one every two weeks. The advantages of retirement! I tend to read in burst; so will read continually for a couple of days and then have a hiatus. I like to think about them for a bit before writing anything. I’m a bit random in what I decide to read and when. I mull a lot! But it all seems to come together. Three of these four had something to do with the immigrant experience. Not chosen for that reason, it’s just how it came about.
I really loved Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. I chose this because I really liked her Little Fires Everywhere which I talk about here. This novel is better. I found it very moving. About a family. Father is an academic, the child of Chinese immigrants to America. Mother is an all American girl but with dreams of being a doctor, not a domestic goddess. There’s a line early on that says how everything that happens to these children, but also every child, goes back to the parents; reminding me of the line from Philip Larkin They fuck you up your Mum and Dad.
The story starts with a death and then goes back to explain what has caused it. The father, growing up looking Chinese, with parents working in menial jobs, never quite fitting in, despite his high marks, excluded from what should have been rightfully his, a position at Harvard. How his remembered insecurities affect his relationships with his children; especially his son. The constant pressure he unknowingly applies for them to be popular, to be part of the gang. How the thwarted ambitions of the mother are transferred to her daughter; study hard, do well, become that rare thing, a female doctor. It’s all very beautifully done.
You’re immersed in these family dynamics and want to weep at the miscommunication between people who love each other. Hence the title. It’s so very sad! And so relatable. I really liked the conclusion, which, despite what has gone before, is a hopeful one. The only small criticism, and its a common one regarding novels that explore families and their internal relationships, is that this family seems so isolated. Few friendly work colleagues or neighbours to whom they can turn. They’re on their own.
Which is not the case for the widower in Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone. She’s a German author and her novel won the English PEN Award (2017 I think). Richard has a circle of close friends with whom he talks about his growing involvement with a group of African refugees. He first encounters them via news reports of their occupation of a Berlin park and subsequent negotiations with the Government. He visits the hostel to which they are taken and slowly learns about their histories. It’s very nicely done. The author expresses her gratitude to thirteen people at the back of the book for conversations which no doubt have enhanced you respond to in this novel.
Richard muses on his retirement (reluctant on his part), on his now deceased wife and on his life in East Berlin prior to the removal of the Wall. He is a very sympathetic character and his naive interactions with refugee bureaucracy take the reader seamlessly into the horror of the refugee experience. As he hears of the back stories of the people he meets, he, being an academic, reads up about the histories of their countries of origin. The novel makes what we hear about on the nightly news, the plight of refugees, very accessible. Numbers are made human.
Written before the Syrian crisis overtook Germany, the novel quietly reinforces the moral rightness of Angela Merkel’s policies of acceptance of the later group, though without glossing over the difficulties. I wasn’t sure that the ending, which seeks to join up Richard’s personal life with the circumstances facing the refugees, really works. But it doesn’t detract from a moving exploration of our responsibilities to each other.
Another novel with immigration as it’s backdrop was Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala, recommended to me by Eleanor. Beautiful writing. A young boy, Niru, and a girl, Meredith, in their last days at school, on the cusp of adulthood and the rest of their lives. We see things through the eyes of Niru. And it takes a while to unfold, but he’s separate from his classmates: he ‘s brown and confused about his sexuality.
We’re in Washington. Amongst the well heeled. An interesting milieu for immigrants. His father, to all appearances, successful, living the American dream. But there are hints that he knows how careful he has to be to stay there; concerned to look the part, be well groomed, stay out of trouble. To show off the accoutrements of success, Bill Gates style. His mother is also a professional, independent woman; a doctor, but not so powerfully drawn in the novel. I wanted to hear more about her.
The focus is on Niru’s coming out as gay to his parents (inadvertently) and he is carted off to Nigeria to be healed. It’s here that the father’s journey from poverty stricken Nigerian village to success in America is sketched. The pull of the old world ever present. Its very affecting. But not great for Niru. Hence the title of the novel. It is at its most powerful in describing the mindset of someone acknowledging to themselves their sexuality and then dealing with that in a hostile environment. The Catholic Church in both Nigeria and America come out, as expected, badly. Not for the faint hearted.
Nor, in the end, is it great for Meredith. She’s depicted as a bit of something of latch key kid to neglectful, middle class, political liberals in the last bit of the book, which is less successful than the earlier parts. I think it tries to deal with a whole lot of different ideas in a very small space. Her parents, like Niru’s mother, are inadequately sketched. Still I enjoyed this novel a lot.
I’m not sure about The Girls by Emma Cline, which is described, as you can see here, as a worldwide bestseller. It describes a Manson type cult and a Manson type cult leader. I wasn’t keen on that although it is all described well. I liked better the contemporary setting of the person peripherally involved in that cult and her observations of the current generation. All of which rang true. The cult itself, and the boring, mundane middle America, from which it sprang, and about which it was a scarifying protest, was also well drawn. But confronting to read. The hopelessness, the chaos, the children!! While it described the cult leader as a messianic figure, it didn’t really, to my mind, capture why that would be the case. So a little underwhelming.