Teju Cole travels back to visit his hometown Lagos in Nigeria after living in the States for fifteen years. He gets off the plane, faces dirt, poverty and corruption but also memories from his past.
Through short vignettes, the author creates a vibrant portrait of the city’s culture, its infrastructure, customs and traditions. The first night he arrives, the power goes out and he lies in the dark, the noise of generators filling the neighbourhood. It sets the tone for this book, which is an account of what he experiences during his stay. These accounts are like searchlights illuminating different and sometimes violent aspects of the city. Ranging from corruption and economic realities to the treatment of the history of slavery, Cole looks at many fragments that make up this city. He visits his first girlfriend, goes to museums, bookshops and concerts. As he travels through the city we also get a sense of how he sees his home after a long absence. America has changed him and therefore his perception of Nigeria. As a reader I found this very interesting, not only does it touch on themes of national identity, immigration and belonging but it also gave me a self-reflected insight view into Lagos life.
Even though I have read novels by Nigerian authors before, this particular book helped me understand and see some of the issues the inhabitants of this city face much clearer. The reality of being an artist in Lagos is something that I haven’t read about before. The struggles that people face on a daily basis, the violence and noise, the sheer amount of people takes a toll on everyone and it becomes a difficult setting in which to create art. This made me see other Nigerian books in a very different light. I could appreciate their accomplishments even more.
I lie in bed, on my back, wearing only boxer shorts, enduring the late afternoon’s damp heat. I have headphones on, and I am listening to “Giant Steps” […]. It is at high volume , but the generators say, No, you will not enjoy this. I have no right to Coltrane here, not with everything else going on. This is Lagos. I disagree, turn the volume up, listen to both the music and the noise. Neither gives way. No sense emerges of the combat between art and messy reality.
It took me a while to finish The people in the trees by Hanya Yanagihara. It is without a doubt a very intelligent, brilliant and complex book but at the same time it deals with a lot of difficult subjects and the main character Norton Perina is far from likable. We are being told the story of Perina’s life through letters he sends from prison to his assistant. From the beginning it is questionable how reliable a source Norton really is, as he seems to be crafting a version of the truth, focusing on certain things, while leaving others out. The story that he does tell is as much a confession as a defence. He describes his time as a medical researcher when he travelled to the secret Micronesian island of Ivu’ivu. There he discovers a turtle that allows people to live a far longer life. The price to pay for this extended life span is however, madness. The description of the life on the island and his time there is told in an almost meditative way, the attention given to little details is immense. I never thought rainforests could be this claustrophobic.
The book opens with the reason that Perina is imprisoned; he is being accused of sexually abusing some of his adopted children. Perina is based on the scientist Carleton Gajdusek, a fact that makes the novel all the more harrowing.
Is a brilliant man still brilliant man if he is also a monster? How far are we willing to go for science and what are we willing to sacrifice in its name? But maybe most interestingly how much is it our responsibility to question someone’s version of the truth? I think it is obvious that this novel is not one that you read and feel good about after. It is so disturbing at times that it was hard to continue. I also felt that certain issues within the novel like the destruction of nature, colonialism and moral relativism all had a current relevance. Hanya Yanagihara challenges the idea that characters must be likeable, Perina as a misogynistic sociopath. Also the novel doesn’t offer neat resolutions at the end but challenges us to question our own beliefs and moral point of view. Which is, quite frankly, far more important.
This is a quirky and wonderful novel about family life and all the craziness that comes with it. The father, Jonathan, a palaeontologist who passes out when he sees clouds, is struggling to find a giant deep-sea squid and with it his place in the scientific community. His wife Madeline, a behaviourist, who is studying pigeons, is following a man-shaped cloud in her car. Also, Jonathan and Madeline might possibly be separating. Their teenage daughters, the revolutionary Amelia and the obsessively religious Thisbe (who’s is trying to keep everyone alive by praying), are meanwhile busy building pipe bombs, baptising stray animals, falling in love and fighting capitalism. Lastly, their grandfather, Henry, is trying to disappear, from his retirement home and possibly this earth and:
“…what follows is both astonishing and quite ordinary.”
What’s linking these isolated characters is, that they all are dealing with different forms of fear. And so all the uncertainty, the pains of growing up, of making an impact and finally growing old and saying goodbye, each of these phases entails demons but also beauty. “It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful because it’s complicated. Because there is not one thing. There’s not one thing that makes sense of everything.” This was suggested to me by Aidan.
I’ve been meaning to read a novel by Ali Smith for a long time and when I saw this copy of Hotel World on a shelf in my library I immediately picked it up. I guess what draws me to Smith is her unique style. Often times the story is being told as a stream-of-consciousness monologue by one of the characters. So as the point of view shifts, so does the language. I like this because we are not presented with a narrator who polishes all language to be homogenous and easily accessible. The characters, even though they are all intertwined get their own voices. Even the dead ones.
The stories of the characters are all connected to the hotel. We get to meet a depressed receptionist, a girl that fell to her death, and the sister that mourns her, a homeless woman who gets a free room and a woman that stays at the hotel to write about it. And even though each of the women has her own story and her own issues to face they are all connected with each other. Sometimes through pain and sometimes through chance.
I must admit though that I liked the novel less than its theoretical concept. I could relate to some of the characters but especially at the end the novel felt more like a statement about form. I have read a lot about Ali Smith and about her work and somehow I believe that this probably wasn’t her strongest work. I definitely want to read more by her, as her style, as unique as it is in Hotel World, is probably even more refined in some of her other novels, stories and essays.