Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Faber & Faber, November 2018, 229 pp

Faber & Faber, November 2018, 229 pp

“All water is connected. All freshwater comes out of the mouth of a python.” Based on Igbo beliefs and practices rooted in southern Nigeria, Freshwater follows Ada from her childhood to maturity, studying abroad in the US and travelling in Europe. On a purely physical level, Ada’s development is not that different from the trials and tribulations of an average teenager and young adult: first love, alcohol, casual sex, broken hearts. Think of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. But it is the mental, or the metaphysical level, which plays a bigger role in the novel rather than the deceptive surface.

Ada herself narrates only a few short sections. For the most part, the reins are in the hands of the various emanations of Ala, referring to an Odinani deity, the python of the quote with which I started the review, something “sacred, beyond reptile.” Ada has travelled far from Nigeria, but the spirits follow her. The novel begins with a we-narrator, whose forms are indistinct, but which at one point are defined by themselves as “Smoke … a complicated gray” and “Shadow … deep black.” What’s not vague, however, is the narrative voice of these semi-characters navigating Ada’s new reality in America. The we-narrator exhibits a distinctive way of infiltrating and controlling Ada’s existence. Later, triggered by a traumatic experience, another spirit appears in Ada’s “marble room” – the metaphysical level of the text, Ada’s mind – called Asughara. Everything in Freshwater is filtered through the space of this marble room, where the smoke, the shadow, Asughara, or Ada herself communicate and control one another.

Emezi’s debut work is vividly written with sensuous language. The amount of tasty detail in some passages is admirable, like here where she writes about “the wet blackness of [Ada’s] eyes” and the “pomegranate water and honey under [the priest’s] fingernails” during her christening. However, there are moments in the latter part of the novel that resort to semi-tacky, cuss-driven dialogue, which do not assimilate so well into the otherwise intricate, almost mythical language of the spirits. But maybe it’s intentional. Maybe the spirits lose their ground and act more childishly when Ada, over the course of the novel, regains agency over her life. Be as it may, Freshwater is a refreshing and timely novel, because the notion of multiple selves provides an interesting analogy to contemporary ideas of identity as something fluid and multifaceted. It goes hand in hand in with Zygmunt Bauman’s notion of liquid modernity, if you excuse my imposition of a Western idea on Igbo concepts. I’m intrigued to see where Emezi goes from here, although I think I already heard that she has a young adult novel lined up for next year, followed by another literary novel in 2020.

The Study Circle by Haroun Khan

Dead Ink, October 2018

Dead Ink, October 2018

“Many English novelists have had the luxury of turning to the interior. The comfort of seeing the individual as … independent from all around them: the book as an excavation of the self.” In a recent essay accompanying the publication of his first novel The Study Circle, Haroun Khan explicates the motivations behind his political novel. His remark is interestingly close to what Richards Powers recently said about the privileging of the psychological over the outer experience in literary fiction. But times are changing, or, at least, novels are branching to different directions. Powers’ environmental epoch The Overstory was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize earlier this year, whereas Guy Ganaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City, portraying a more heterogeneous London, was longlisted for the same prize. Speaking of Powers in the context of Ganaratne and Khan might seem odd, but they all share the anxiety of living in a self-centered world, and all are more or less desperate for change.

Gunaratne’s novel is easily comparable to Khan’s The Study Circle. Whereas the former navigates around the northern parts of London, Khan depicts South London with great detail. He charts the experience of living in estate housing around Tooting and Streatham, and follows a group of characters in an increasingly hostile environment where, for instance, the English Defence League is gaining ground. Ishaq is a university student who’s not sure whether to pursue a doctorate when an auspicious but morally questionable opportunity arises; Shams is looking for work which turns out to be quite a challenge for someone with a background like his. Khan’s writing is often atmospheric, not rushing to move the plot forward as the protagonists move in the city:

For the first time in its history the southern side of the river was rapidly gentrifying, to mirror the north, but echoes of what had been still lingered. It held narrow streets that had once hosted boozy inns, whorehouses, docks, and a wretched prison. He wondered whether people from that other time looked across the water in the same way. Unimaginable wealth poured through those offices, in instruments and methods that the general public could hardly imagine. Everything was centred around servicing the needs of those few. Maybe that was the real London.

These descriptions are accompanied by incisive critiques of white, well-off Londoners, as, for instance, Ishaq notes:

As if they got everything right? All that wealth and the English were still miserable bastards. They had lost any religion; they poured scorn on any spirituality. The void couldn’t be filled by intellectualism, as they distrusted that too. They had no real shared culture across their classes except for crap television and consuming in excess. They were inhospitable to foreigners, sometimes to the point of being hateful. But then they did not seem to like each other too much either, or even themselves for that matter.

It is good to remember that these are the thoughts of a character, who, over the course of the novel, is also shown to find glimpses of sympathy for the people he initially despises. Things are not just black and white, quite literally, and this is what Khan explores in The Study Circle, a novel largely built around conversations between different people in London. Included are protesters from both sides of the political spectrum, as well as members of the eponymous Koran study circle. Some sections I found predictable (Ishaq is carried off by security at a conference when he contests the speakers’ ineffectual blabber along the lines of “we need to work together for a brighter future”), while some other dialogue was thrilling to follow and fittingly shook me a little as a white reader. As an outside observer not living in the UK, I enjoyed the ways that Khan captures the wide array of Muslims living in London:

Taking in the full vista, he could see all the varieties of Muslim. To an acute observer, a believer’s choice of clothing and grooming habits helped indicate their religious and political leanings. For men: length and type of beard, whether they were clean shaven, the presence of turban or type of hat, a full face of hair, a shaven moustache line, wearing leather socks, wearing trousers that stopped above the ankle, western clothing, type of foreign clothing, were they openly wearing something silk or gold. For women: presence of a head or face covering, if so how they wore it, was it patterned or plain, an abaya or a burka or skirt, use of jewellery and make up. And so it went on and on. All formats in all types of configurations were present, but nowadays it was just a free-for-all. Cultures within cultures, a din of apparel and clashing accoutrements like some mystifying border town.

What signals to me that The Study Circle is a debut work are the occasional overwritten parts, by which I mean the successive repetition of a sentence with different wording, like here: “They were truly assimilated, in that they would make wonderful British politicians. They were better off in their natural abode, the Houses of Parliament.” There is nothing necessarily wrong with this (I think it mirrors the ways our consciousness works, rewording thoughts in order to make sense of reality), but it does add up and lengthen the novel to over three hundred pages, while I could vision it as a sharper whole if just trimmed a little more. In many ways I find it more successful and, somehow, more real than Gunaratne’s novel, which felt constricted in its form. The Study Circle is a free-flowing novel of many ideas: there is relatively little to follow in terms of plot, but Khan writes good dialogue and interesting characters, resulting in a text that kept me intrigued throughout. I’m sensing Khan is a writer to look out for – his honesty is surely a welcome addition to the current climate of self-centered literary fiction, slowly crumbling as our world is changing.

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones)

driveyourplow.jpg

There is a man called Oddball in Olga Tokarczuk’s newly translated novel Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, and the word is quite an apt description of her writing in general. The Man Booker International winning Flights was a conglomeration of things and characters slightly awry, and the same crookedness is visible here too, when an elderly woman, housesitting locals’ summer houses over the winter, gets involved in the investigation of a series of murders occurring in her vicinity. The plot is much more coherent than in its predecessor, and the novel could be broadly categorized as a murder mystery, but, knowing Tokarczuk, it transgresses all generic categorizations. It is a story of an eccentric woman who is frowned upon by men: as she names the men around her according to her own will (one she names Mustachio, for instance), she takes agency over the conventions largely set by the men she deals with in red tape. Her penchant for nomenclature is linked to the other essential theme, animals: Tokarczuk deliberately blurs the dichotomy between people and animals by giving nonhuman creatures/creations names with capital letters. (Her car is a Samurai). While the overarching presence of William Blake feels somehow disconnected from the main story, and although the story’s denouement falls a little flat, Drive Your Plow is a masterful work, as witty, weird, and ingenious as its predecessor, but with an environmentally relevant element added in. Tokarczuk’s sharp observations shine through the protagonist’s various “Theories” such as testosterone autism: “He develops an interest in various Tools and machinery, and he’s drawn to the Second World War and the biographies of famous people, mainly politicians and villains. His capacity to read novels almost entirely vanishes; testosterone autism disturbs the character’s psychological understanding.” How brilliant, how true!

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, 269 pp, is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in September 2018.