Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Dark Side of Monkey Business: Kaitlyn Greenidge's We Love You, Charlie Freeman

I really had no idea what I was getting into when I saw that Greenidge's debut novel was a Kobo Daily Deal. I am trying to read as many of the Tournament of Book finalists this year, and Greenidge's work made the final 16 so I snatched it up. Although I had heard it pitched by Liberty Hardy on Book Riot's  All The Books Podcast, I had little idea of what the content actually was...and wow that is not what I expected.


We Love You, Charlie Freeman is the story of the Freeman family, a Bostonian African American family whose matriarch is a trained sign language instructor hired by a prestigious institute committed to studying human-chimpanzee communication. The entire family, each of whom is fluent in sign, moves into the institute and live with an emotionally broken and vulnerable chimp named Charlie, whom the family embraces as one of their own.

Told through the eyes of each family member, with an additional flash-back narrator (Nymphadora) who worked with a doctor from the institute in its early years, Greenidge offers a close inspection of how this odd family dynamic slowly tears apart the tight-knit group. Mostly told through the gaze of the oldest daughter (Charlotte), we slowly learn that the institute had engaged in Tuskegee-like experiments in the 1920s, where racist scientists sought to compare African American and Chimpanzee bodily forms and communication abilities. Charlotte, disgusted by this past and by her mother's growing inappropriate intimacy with Charlie, tries to destabilize the circumstances she is trapped in, which results in the climactic blow-up and exposure of the dark past and present practices of the institute.

As a debut novel, Greenidge has offered us a really meaty treatment of a very odd plot. Heavy questions of racial prejudice in scientific research and institutional defenses for their past behaviours is confronted head on. Add to that the complex issues of family breakdown that results from a spouse's career ambition, we are left with a complex social and family drama that demands further discussion. This will be a great book for the Tournament of Books and I hope it makes it forward at least a round or two so we can be exposed to more intelligent discussion on the matter.

That said, there are issues that made this a less than perfect book (I ended up only giving it three stars on Goodreads). Significant plot developments involving the mother's growing emotional and physical attachment to Charlie or the youngest daughter's obsession with obtaining Charlie's acceptance seem to come to fruition without preparing the reader for them. It felt like Greenidge was asked to cut portions of the novel that would have filled in these gaps and efforts to close the gaps left the reader wondering "what the hell just happened." I am being purely speculative here, but first-time authors are probably under enormous pressure to accept the recommendation of their editors and editors are too quick to cut down the length of their books, even if the final product suffers as a result.

We Love You, Charlie Freeman, was an original and well told story and I those following the TOB should definitely pick it up as I believe it will lead to some of the best discussion. That said, I feel somewhat unsatisfied feeling that Greenidge did not quite achieve the potential this book could have offered.


Friday, January 27, 2017

The Indomitable Zadie Smith: Swing Time

Since publishing her debut novel, White Teeth, at 24 years of age, Zadie Smith has been a stalwart of
literature in the English Language. Delving into issues of race and multiculturalism (with all its tensions), Smith has continued to write engrossing and political literature that has built up legions of fans eager to read her next book.

With little surprise, when word got out that a new Zadie Smith novel was set to hit the bookstands in late 2016 it garnered a lot of buzz. Swing Time was published to much fanfare and has received significant critical acclaim, having been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction (losing to Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad), and making the finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award (set to be given out in early March).

In Swing Time, Smith breaks from her previous convention, narrating the story from a very intimate first person perspective, an unnamed protagonist who embraces her love of dancing at a young age only to be overshadowed by her more talented friend, Tracey, the only other girl of colour in her dance class. Jumping back and forth in time and space, Smith's narrator journey goes from abandoned dreams of dancing stardom to the inner circle of a pop diva, from the state-funded public housing in North London to the small villages of West Africa. Although both the narrator and her friend Tracey have a modicum of success at points in their life, the weight of unmet expectations and succumbing to mediocrity loom large, as both come to terms that the hopeful dreams of their youth have not been achieved.

The scope of time and themes Smith tackles is impressive. She manages to fill her pages with a nostalgic appreciation of 1980s pop and dance, while still rooting the reader in the present. Even with a protagonist that consciously rejects the radicalism of her mother, Smith still manages to pepper the plot with the politic of race and class that no one can run away from, even those desperate to escape and with the innate talents to attempt to do so.

Although Swing Time has much going for, it isn't quite at the bar set by Smith's Orange Prize winning and Booker shortlisted On Beauty. Zadie Smith is a pro and her writing is always good and provocative, but this book is a slow burn, not something the reader is going to get engrossed in and power through. That may be good, though, sometimes good writing needs to be consumed by grazing rather than devoured. However, in this case, I felt myself appreciating the reading experience rather than enjoying it, an important distinction and one that influences how highly I will recommend a book.

Nonetheless, it is worth picking up, although if you have not read Zadie Smith before I'd suggest starting with On Beauty before dipping into the world of Swing Time.


Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Ever Present Tension of Modern India: Aravind Adiga's Selection Day

Aravind Adiga skyrocketed to literary prominence with his debut novel, White Tiger, a hilarious and biting satire about modern India, won the Man Booker Prize in 2008. Departing from previous Indian fiction that gained popularity in the West, which focused on the aftermath of independence,  Adiga focused on the modern economic and cultural tensions of contemporary India.

In his newest novel, Selection Day, Adiga delves into new terrain, exploring the pressure of economically marginalized families as they try to gain uplift through the athletic prowess of their children. At the heart of the story is Manju, the younger of two brothers whose father has assiduously trained to become cricket stars. Although Manju's older brother, Radha, is seen as the true prodigy, it quickly becomes apparent that the younger/less attractive/sexually confused sibling is the talent, while Radha's star quickly burns out prior to Selection Day, where professional teams draft teenage players.

While gifted as a batsman, Manju's true dream is to pursue a college degree in sciences. His feelings about the game he excels at are ambiguous at best but he feels burdened to pursue an athletic career by a father who has thrown his entire self into assuring one of his children succeed. Manju is forced to confront these pressures, as well as his own sexual identity and attractions that would certainly marginalize him and undermine any chance of success.

Adiga is certainly ambitious in his writing. He challenges difficult issues facing Indian society, intertwining how children respond to familial pressures for social and economic uplift with the difficulties of young gay men trying to come to terms with their sexuality when doing so could undermine the dreams of aspirations of all around them.

That said, while Adiga is ambitious topically I didn't find his writing to be quite as biting as it was in White Tiger. The latter was hilariously tragic and satiric and while Adiga tries to match this tone in Selection Day the writing does not quite match what you get from White Tiger.

I still recommend this to those who enjoyed White Tiger, but don't expect it to match the award winning novel.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Haunting Dreams of The Vegetarian

Hang Kang's The Vegetarian has received significant attention from Western readers for a translated book. Kang won the Man Booker International Prize, was one of the New York Times Best Books of 2016, and made the long list for this year's Tournament of Books. I took a while to finally pick up this short book, and after a three day entrancement with Kang's beautiful prose I can say that the praise is all deserved.

Kang's novel follows Yeong-hye, a recently wed wife to a business man, who after a disturbing dream decides to abandon the eating of meat, emptying the fridge of all animal products, driven by disgust of the thought of eating another bite. All those around her, husband, sister, parents, are outraged by her rejection of meat, questioning her sanity, abusively scolding her and insisting that she abandon her vegetarianism. Violently rejecting her choice, a huge family fight results in her father force feeding a morsel of meat to her, with Yeong-hye responding by slitting her wrists.

Told in three parts, from the perspective of her husband, brother-in-law, and sister, Kang beautifully shows us how Yeong-hye's choice of vegetarianism is met with violence that provokes her to spin into mental decline.

As a reader I was captivated by every word. Kang's prose is simple yet lyrical, allowing the reader's eyes to swiftly drift from page to page, caught up in Yeong-hye's tumultuous and tragic journey. So much is being said through Kang's quiet style, about the plight of women in South Korean society, about the reactions society has toward unconventional behaviour, about how we are quick the clinically diagnose the abnormal.

A wonderful and accessible book that will leave the reader feeling satisfied but distraught.