It’s Monday, What are You Reading is a meme hosted by Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers (new host of Monday reading: Kathryn T at Book Date). Since two of our friends, Linda from Teacher Dance and Tara from A Teaching Life have been joining this meme for quite awhile now, we thought of joining this warm and inviting community.
Truth be told, these two epic, multi-award-winning novels fall more along the genre of literary fiction rather than crime/thriller/mystery. However, crime and murder can be found in some of the pages here, given the context of war and revolution in both African countries. Plus, there is no worse crime than being betrayed by someone whom you love and trust, a twin no less.
These books are also wonderful addition to our Literary Voyage Around the World Reading Challenge which has now brought me to Nigeria and Ethiopia. I found it remarkable that two massive novels, both with African countries as its setting, deal with tales of twins and betrayal.
Written by: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Published by: Fourth Estate (2017, first published 2006). ISBN: 0007200285 (ISBN13: 9780007200283).
Literary Awards:Orange Prize for Fiction (2007), James Tait Black Memorial Prize Nominee for Fiction (2006), Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction (2007), PEN Open Book Award (2007), National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for Fiction (2006), Hurston/Wright Legacy Award Nominee for Fiction (2007). Copy read was part of an international book club, but I have a personal copy of the book. Book quotes laid out using Typorama.
I read this book as part of our #1001BookSwap reading group in Litsy, specifically the #SEAReaders (or Southeast Asian Readers – since two of us are from Singapore, and two are from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia).
The book is meant to be a *secret* – not to be revealed until mailed to the next person in the group. However, since it has been a few months since I’ve read the book and it has been passed on to the next few persons, it’s relatively safe to post its real “identity” now.
This is my second Adichie novel (the first one being We Should All Be Feminists). This one, though, has an epic-like vibe to it, set in the 1960s in Nigeria, spanning decades of story among family and friends, juxtaposed with Biafra’s intentions to establish its own autonomous republic – and the violence that ensued with this struggle for independence. I knew very little about Nigeria’s tumultuous history riddled with gratuitous violence, which this narrative helped bring to vivid life.
The first thing that made me pay attention was the fact that much of the voice is delivered from such a learned perspective, with Olanna giving up her life of privilege in Lagos to live as a university professor (she is a social scientist) with her academic radical of a boyfriend, the Professor, whose none-too-pleasing appearance is compensated for by his sharp intelligence, eloquence, and charisma. The notions of self and identity – as divorced from the White Man’s imposition, constructions, and interpretations – resonated with me deeply. This is a reality that people from colonized countries continually struggle with.
I was also fascinated by the relationship of Olanna and Kainene, fraternal twins who are as different as night and day. While Olanna is considered the beauty (and the academic) of the family, Kainene is regarded as the ruthless business woman who is formidable in her lack of physical graces (compared to her twin, that is) and her seeming lack of concern about this palpable disparity. While there is a soft and enchanting allure to Olanna, there is an edge to Kainene that is both enigmatic and indomitable in all its untouchable quality.
Needless to say, I was not taken by Olanna’s professor boyfriend whom I thought loved the sound of his voice way too much: the idealistic fervor unmatched by a real strength of character measured in actual, lived, fundamental things that actually signify something in terms of survival. Yet, her love for him, as inexplicable as it is for me, is very apparent here:
The love between Kainene and Richard, the White British wannabe writer who seemed adrift in his own unexamined existence, felt more genuine to me. Maybe because Kainene seemed very elusive and self-sufficient, such that Richard’s being able to penetrate that chilly exterior was deeply moving for me:
Given this kind of ardor, the reader could imagine the pain of betrayal from someone whom one has trusted deeply with one’s very being. I won’t reveal much of what actually transpired, but the rift between Olanna and Kainene seemed so complete that I felt nothing could possibly repair it, that is, until the civil war happened.
The women in this book, I find, are luminous. They glitter in their rage, resolve, and unapologetic desire and zest for not just survival, but making their very existence matter, in the larger scheme of things.
The ending is also left hanging in the air. I appreciated the ownership of the story in the end (particularly Ugwu’s narrative, another important character in the book), and the fact that Adichie did not feel obligated to tie all the loose ends in neat little bows for the reader to have a sense of completion. It simply is.
There are books that make the reader richer, with one’s sensibilities expanded to infinity, one’s very humanity challenged, as the reader looks up from the pages, wondering why we do what we do to each other. This is one such book. I feel that I have been handed a precious gift after reading this book, with the feeling that I am more inextricably linked to the earth because Adichie is able to weave some magic with words. Read this book.
Written by: Abraham Verghese
Published by: Vintage (2009)
ISBN: 0099443635 (ISBN13: 9780099443636). Literary Awards: PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award Nominee (2010), Exclusive Books Boeke Prize Nominee (2011), Indies Choice Book Award for Adult Fiction (2010), Dayton Literary Peace Prize Nominee for Fiction (2010), Wellcome Book Prize Nominee for Shortlist (2009),Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction (2009). Book was given to me as a gift. Book photos taken by me.
I received this book as a gift from one of my mentors who left Singapore a little over a year ago. She enjoyed this book and knew that I will love it too. She knows me well.
The premise of the book is so compelling: a highly conservative and pious Indian nun working as a medical practitioner in a mission hospital in Ethiopia in the 1950s had twins with a brilliant British surgeon whose limited social skills is more than made up for by his mastery in the operating ‘theatre.’ The illicit love affair is made even more clandestine by the fact that Dr. Thomas Stone, the British surgeon, is completely unaware that he allowed himself to be vulnerable around Sister Mary Joseph Praise whenever he would have his drunken black-out episodes where he has zero idea of what he has done, including impregnating the completely besotted and devoted Sister Mary Joseph Praise (don’t you just love her name)?
Given how the mission hospital in Ethiopia consists of British and Indian expatriates, this particular quote about “home” resonated with me:
It was not surprising that Dr. Thomas Stone disowned his infant babies because of his utter horror and disbelief over the fact that he impregnated the one woman he truly loved in his entire life. The fact that he blamed the babies, Shiva and Marion, over Sister Mary’s death was unconscionable, mainly because the death could have been so easily prevented if the good doctor had his wits about him.
It was really Shiva and Marion’s good fortune that they were raised by two loving parents instead of the detached and unfeeling Thomas Stone: Dr Hema Kalpana (the formidable and fierce obstetrician gynaecologist) and Dr Ghosh Abhi (the fun-loving medical practitioner) who instilled in them a love for medicine.
Over and above the “betrayal” that the twins experienced from their own father at birth, there is also the one that they would commit towards each other. Just like Olanna and Kainene in Half of a Yellow Sun, Shiva and Marion are total opposites. While they are identical twins, Marion was blessed with a measure of emotional/affective sensitivity – something that is totally lost on Shiva who is sharp and incisive, but terribly lacking in social graces.
The saving grace of the twins – given the fact that they have been practically orphaned at birth – lies in the absolute joy experienced and conveyed in full by Hema and Ghosh with their very existence. Their commitment as adoptive parents and their integrating Shiva and Marion in the very fabric of what they do as medical doctors made it inevitable that they will both regard medicine as their muse. Ghosh was one of my favourite characters in the novel: his unerring devotion to Hema and the twins, his humanity, the goodness of his soul. This advice that he gave to both Shiva and Marion before he passed away is indelible:
I have to admit that much of the medical allusions are totally lost on me, yet Verghese still managed to make it accessible, notwithstanding. The book picked up even more for me when Marion had to leave Ethiopia and practice as a medical resident in the United States. His impressions of New York reminded me of how I felt the first time I moved here to Singapore from the Philippines exactly ten years ago (my family and I celebrated our tenth year in this city-state yesterday):
The inevitable meeting of the Stones – with Shiva and Marion both being in the medical field as their biological father – was a jaw-drop moment for me in the book. Verghese definitely knows how to blindside his reader. It was nearly 12 midnight when I reached that part, and I just had to continue reading until the wee hours of the morning, because I couldn’t put the book down. This is definitely medical drama at its finest, except that it is much more culturally nuanced, with an epic family saga at the heart of it all. Another must-read, must-buy novel.
#LitWorld2018GB Update: 39/40 of 40 – Ethiopia (Cutting for Stone) and Nigeria (Half Of A Yellow Sun)