The coronavirus has been ravaging mankind for some time now, leaving our streets, schools, markets and places of worship empty, and our hospitals filled to thrice their capacity. As we remain at home in order to curb the spread of the virus, trusting our scientists to come up with a vaccine at some point, anxiety continues to go through the roof. It doesn’t help that the news cycle is almost singularly saturated with reports about the coronavirus and its aftereffects, and so many people find themselves turning to fiction books to read during the lockdown.
One of the undying appeals of a good novel is its natural ability to transport our minds to a parallel universe and hold us firmly spellbound. Admitted into this fictional universe, we begin to acquire the quiet drive to turn the page and know what happens next, and then we find ourselves empathizing with lives made tangible on the page, with the aptitude for an understanding that sometimes transcends and takes us completely by surprise. Be it a collection of short stories, a memoir or a novel, whether newly published or otherwise, the books below are gripping and entertaining.
1. Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Petina Gappah
Petina Gappah’s fourth novel, Out of Darkness, Shining Light, hums with interesting characters, chief among them being the pompous Jacob Wainwright, the enigmatic Chirango and the talkative cook Halima, who narrated the first half of the novel with a mordancy that is synonymous to Gappah’s storytelling. Much has been written about the life of the 19th century explorer David Livingstone, and it may have been for this reason that Gappah chose to instead focus on his death, and the treacherous journey of his attendants who carried his bones all the way from Chief Chitambo’s village, in what is now Zambia, to Zanzibar to ensure his return to England. What Gappah achieves is a book that is marinated in research (20 years worth, by her own admission), and by turns playful, tragic, and funny.
2. Girl, Woman, Other By Bernardine Evaristo
Winning the 2019 Booker Prize, and then currently sitting on the shortlist for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, Girl, Woman, Other has been all the rage since its publication—and rightly so. Evaristo weaves together the stories of twelve characters, most of whom are black women, written in a prose whose exquisiteness draws from its form, absence of punctuation and capitalization, lending the novel a fluid poetic texture. These characters come from different backgrounds, but their stories manage to neatly overlap within the length of the novel. The range of the storytelling is unbelievable, the dialogue so vibrant, and absolutely impressive is the fact that Evaristo manages to not relegate her characters to mere mouthpieces for contemporary social debate. This is one of those rare offerings you read in small delicious helpings, not at all in any haste to see the end of it, like a blessing.
3. Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson
Furiously Happy is a book of nonfiction in which Jenny Lawson examines her own experiences living with severe mental illness and other conditions. The chapters follow no particular order, and at the beginning Lawson warns the reader about this—she calls it “a collection of bizarre essays and confused thoughts”—but this takes little away from the writing. If this warning sounds flippant, that’s because it is, and this flippancy, dialed to an irreverent degree, is what you get throughout the book. The descriptions are clear-eyed, and the result is a reader juddering in uncontrollable laughter. It takes incredible skill, and indeed a stubborn determination, to turn one’s mental illness into something people can see themselves in and laugh at. “I am broken,” Lawson announces at some point, and you’re reminded that this is somebody’s life after all.
4. Search Sweet Country By Kojo Laing
Plotless, confusing and frustrating at times, Search Sweet Country is a book that defies categorization. Is it magic realism or satire? Set in 1975 Ghana, the book follows many main characters (yes, you read that right)—the mad man Beni Baidoo, the scheming Dr. Boadi, the ill-tempered professor Sackey, the wanderer Kofi Loww, etc—jump in and out of the book like boisterous children, offering their stories in no particular order, and due to the beauty and power of Laing’s prose, the reader has little choice but to keep up with them until the last page. It is as though everything in this book—buildings, forests, even Accra itself—are cast as human characters at some point. And against this backdrop, thinly veiled in ribald humour, Laing produces philosophical musings on the subject of history, national identity, and justice. To enjoy this book, here’s an advice: relieve your mind of the expectation of a narrative arc; just settle in and enjoy the eternal gift that is language.
5. A General Theory of Oblivion By Jose Eduardo Agualusa
Based on a true story, A General Theory of Oblivion follows an agoraphobic Portuguese woman who walled herself into her apartment on the eve of Angola’s independence. Ludovica survives for the next thirty years by luring pigeons into traps using diamonds, growing vegetables on her terrace, and burning books for fire. Agualusa gives his readers a sense that they’re eavesdropping through Ludovica, who sees and hears life outside through her walls and windows, until she is later pulled outside by the cares of an orphan boy. Much of the story takes place inside the apartment—sometimes we are transported beyond the walls to follow various other fates—but Agualusa brings his trademark playfulness, humour, lyricism and, more important, a narrative control that converges nicely into an entertaining scene where they meet towards the end.
6. When the Plums Are Ripe By Patrice Nganang
Rich, complex, soaring, and lyrical, When the Plums Are Ripe is the second installment in a trilogy, which exposes the evils of colonisation on Cameroon during World War II. Cameroon falls under Nazi control in 1940 after the occupation of France by the Germans. And throughout the book Nganang paints vivid pictures of the ramifications of this control on Cameroon and its people. Serious as the subject maybe, Nganang still found ways to tamper it with bursts of humor, with his confident and ironical style of storytelling. When the Plums Are Ripe doesn’t do much by way of plot, but a reader who loves to see history illuminated through fiction will deeply appreciate this novel. Almost every page thrums with eye-opening history, and it is clear to the reader that Nganang has adequate mastery of Cameroon’s political and historical landscape. Students of African studies can throw themselves a feast with this one.
7. Friday Black By Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Friday Black is Adjei-Brenyah’s debut, a biting collection of 12 short stories, published in 2018 by Mariner Books. Bold and daring are two adjectives easily thrown about these days, but this guy earned them with this collection. His voice is unique and poetic, the stories sharp and innovative, and their themes powerful and political. The stories in Friday Black tackle some of the raging ills of society: violence, racism, hate, consumerism, classism, and capitalism. What makes this book special is that the author speculates but is careful not to unduly stray from the world as we know it, and his use of hyperbole is as crafty as his infusion of fantastical elements. You’d quickly find that you have little choice but to stan his disregard for narrative convention.
8. Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Structured into book one to six, Kintu spans across generations, set in Buganda kingdom in what is today Uganda. The book opens with a quiet authority, and we see Kintu Kidda, the Ppookino of the Buddu Province, readying to take his men on a journey to swear loyalty to the new kabaka of the entire Buganda kingdom in 1750. Kintu accidentally kills his adopted son Kalema in the course of this journey, sparking a curse that befalls the next generations to come. After the first book, Makumbi explores how the repercussions of this curse—mental illness, sudden death, and suicide—bears down on different strands of Kintu’s clan across history, bringing them all together in a climactic conclusion in the end. Testament to Makumbi’s remarkable storytelling is how she creates an illusion that leaves the reader feeling like the book is longer than it really is (in a good way). The story is complex and yet compelling, but you may have to work to keep track of the family line as the novel progresses.
9. Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty By Alain Mabanckou
In Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty, Mabanckou captures the innocence with which children see the world, the unguarded honesty in the way they interpret it, and the mischievousness with which they navigate it, with stunning simplicity and poise. Through the eyes of the 10 year-old narrator Michael, the world is re-calibrated so that as we read this book, each and everyone of us is invited to become Congolese for the time being. There’s something memoir-esque about this book that makes it feel like Mabanckou is recreating his own childhood (and parts of ours, too, for that matter), while drawing from the devices of fiction and the liberty it provides. Michael is a delightful, consistent, charming, observant and witty narrator. “Perhaps if you’re rich in this life, you always want to be richer, and you stop noticing that the people around you have nothing,” he concludes of his rapacious Uncle René.
10. Small Country By Gaël Faye
Gaby is a mixed race boy living in Burundi, who does typical 10 year-old stuff: He likes to gallivant through the neighborhood with his friends, steal mangoes, watch movies, swim in the river, and go cycling. Then in came the loss of his innocence, of life as Gaby knows it. Faye captures the brutality of genocide in Burundi and Rwanda, the political upheavals, and the futility of trying to stay neutral in the face of war. Gaby’s mother returns from Rwanda where she went to look for her family, and young Gabi, shocked by how much the war has transformed her, thinks: “Genocide is an oil slick: those who don’t drown in it are polluted for life.” These are two lines that will stay with you long after finishing the novel. Small Country is written in emotionally charged, razor-sharp prose, and the sharp contrast between the first and second part of the book only serves to stoke the flames.
Finally, Small Country grips quite differently, and you might want to stay away from this book if you’re averse to shedding a tear or two.
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