BOOK REVIEW | White Teeth by Zadie Smith

3/5 stars

I’ve delayed writing this review because I’m struggling a little with placing it appropriately. Zadie Smith is an immaculate writer and this book is witty and insightful, with razor sharp prose. Smith writes dialect beautifully, crafting characters that feel real. Something is lacking in the plot for me though, and while this is a character driven story, something is missing from each character’s arc that would push this into 5 star territory. This is a multi-generational saga that follows 2 two very different families as they overcome immigration, racial tension, war, and the pressures to raise their children in modern society without losing connection to their heritage. Throw in some genetic engineering and The Godfather, and that about sums it up.

There is a weighty plot here with a lot going on, but it essentially boils down to the story of Archie and Samad, two friends who meet at war, and their families. Archie, an Englishman, marries a Jamaican woman named Clara, and they have a daughter, Irie. Samad and his wife Alsana are Bengali immigrants and they have twin boys, Magid and Millat. I absolutely loved Clara but she disappears before long, becoming a secondary character. There was an interesting friendship between Clara and Alsana which could have been fleshed out into something significant as well.

I felt the deepest connection with Irie and I wanted so much more from her story; I would have loved to follow Magid and Millat further, to find out how they reconciled after a lengthy separation. Too many narratives felt incomplete and I wanted to go deeper. We are introduced to a third family, the Chaulfens, resulting in a completely unexpected turn in the plot. I found many scenes with the Chaulfens to be worthwhile, but ultimately felt like I was reading two different books – it felt disjointed.

Smith’s style is reminiscent of my favorite writer, John Irving: confident, bold, a little over the top, but never lacking in the right amount of sentimentality. Even though this wasn’t a home run for me, I’m really looking forward to reading more of Smith’s work.

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BOOK REVIEW | Harvard Square by André Aciman

4/5 stars

Perhaps he was a stand-in for who I was, a primitive version of the me I’d lost track of and sloughed off in America. My shadow self, my picture of Dorian Gray, my mad brother in the attic, my Mr Hyde, my very, very rough draft. Me unmasked, unchained, unleashed, unfinished: me untrammeled, me in rags, me enraged. Me without books, without finish, without a green card. 

André Aciman’s flare for writing internal dialogue is alive and well in Harvard Square, as is his focus on meaningful relationships. While romantic relationships are explored in this work, Aciman’s focus here is on the power of male friendship. Told through the lens of the immigrant experience, Aciman explores an unlikely, and occasionally unwelcome, friendship.

In recounting his days as a student at Harvard, our unnamed narrator reflects on his old friend Kalaj (short for Kalashnikov). He meets Kalaj by chance one day at Café Algiers, a local eatery and hangout. Kalaj is everything he is not – loud, opinionated, and unabashedly forward with women. The two bond and develop a sort of love-hate friendship, though they connect deeply on their experiences as immigrants in America. Our narrator is Jewish, from Alexandria, Egypt, while Kalaj is from the Tunisia; they struggle with both money and assimilation, they long for France and the feeling of home.

I adored the ending of this book; it’s subtle, but remind us of the imprint that people have in our lives, even ones that are long forgotten. While our narrator is often frustrated with Kalaj’s big personality, the two shared a unique friendship that leaves a lasting impact. As this is my third Aciman read, I feel like I have a good grasp of his writing. Aciman is well read and highly intelligent, there is no doubt about that. There are moments in this book that drag a little, alienating readers who may not be as well versed in certain topics as he is. Overall, this was another great Aciman book, and I’m looking forward to continuing with his backlist.

BOOK REVIEW | The Boat People by Sharon Bala| Canada Reads 2018 Contender #4

3/5 stars

In a time when political views are extremely divided, Sharon Bala’s The Boat People portrays a unique set of views regarding the immigrant experience. The vast number refugees coming into Canada are simply seeking a safe life for their families, but how do we separate those who will become contributing citizens from those with other motives? Bala seeks to answer this question, as well as shed light on a process that feels more criminal than hopeful.

Mahindin and his six year old son, Sillian, flee the civil war in Sri Lanka, setting out on a boat with about 500 other people seeking refuge in Canada. When their boat arrives in British Columbia, the refugee’s hope is quickly destroyed. Rather than starting their new lives, they are detained, questioned, and subject to a legal battle that will determine if they can stay or if they will be deported. Mahindan is separated from Sillian during the process, and fears that his past political associations will come to light, destroying their chances for life in Canada.

Inspired by actual events from 2009, Bala is effective in her portrayal of the immigration process from all sides. The story is told not only from Mahindan’s perspective, but also from Priya, a young lawyer appointed to defend Mahindan, and Grace, an adjudicator who will ultimately determine his fate. As pressure mounts, questions arise about the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), why Mahindan was in a Tiger controlled area, and whether he has terrorist affiliations. Bala also touches on the smugglers and crime that goes along with moving people in desperate times.

This is such such an important story to tell, especially in our current political climate. The story surrounding Mahindan, Sillian, and their history was a joy to read. However, I was never able to fully invest myself in Priya’s or Grace’s stories – they were interesting, but didn’t feel necessary. Their stories made the book unnecessarily long, leaving me zoned out at times. This was a solid read, and a valuable addition to the Canada Reads contender list.

BOOK REVIEW | Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee

4/5 stars

In her heartbreaking debut, Mira T. Lee gets to the heart of mental illness. She examines the impact that mental illness has on both those living with it and those around them. Part immigrant story, part family drama, Lee has crafted a work of tender fiction that will resonate with anyone who has been touched by mental illness, and will serve as starting point for those who want to better understand.

The story centers around two sisters, Miranda and Lucia. Their mother immigrated to the United States from China while Miranda was very young, and she was pregnant with Lucia. The girls are inextricably bound, Miranda often taking on the role of protector to Lucia.

Lucia lives many lives – sister, wife, immigrant, writer. She is married twice, first to Yonah, a Russian-Jew living in the USA, and then to Manny, an illegal immigrant from Ecuador. Each of these relationships serves a part of Lucia’s soul – in Yonah she finds unyielding love, and in Manny she finds family. She becomes pregnant with a little girl, and her and Manny eventually decide to move their family to Ecuador.

Miranda is dedicated beyond compare, never unflinching in her attempts to protect and care for Lucia. Lucia is living with mental illness – possibly schizophrenia, possibly bipolar disorder; she is never accurately diagnosed, which is certainly intentional. Over the years she is off and on medications, and in and out of hospitalizations. Both Yonah and Manny will discover parts of Lucia that were controlled with medication when they first met her, Miranda always there as a guide and support throughout their struggles.

The only fault for me in this book is one that I see often in stories with multiple narrators – each narrator often re-tells a scene from their perspective, leading to repetition that feels unnecessary. This is a fantastic debut, full of beauty and pain, and I will certainly be on the lookout for more from Lee.

BOOK REVIEW | Brother by David Chariandy | 2018 Canada Reads Longlist

5/5 stars

There is so much packed into this slim book by David Chariandy. Brother explores topics that many would describe as timely, but that he describes as being felt by many for far too long. Chariandy dives into race, masculinity, police violence, community, the immigrant experience, and the power of music with striking precision and depth.

Michael and his older brother, Francis, live in a community called The Park in Scarborough, Ontario. Raised by their hard working Trinidadian mother, the boys are often left alone to take care of each other. Francis takes on the role of leader, guiding and teaching Michael along the way, often making mistakes of his own. With love and respect for their mother the boys stay on a clean path, but after witnessing an instance of violence, Francis is changed.

The story jumps back and forth in time from when the boys are kids to present day. As Michael and Francis struggle to find purpose and identity, the pair are subject to the prejudice that comes from having brown skin and living in an immigrant community; expectations are low. Through a love of hip hop, Francis begins to explore new opportunities, unknowingly sealing his fate. In the aftermath of tragedy, Michael discovers the healing power of his community.

Chariandy did a great job at representing for us children of Caribbean immigrants (my mother is Jamaican), layering in even more for me to love about this book. I don’t think I’ve ever seen “ackee” mentioned in a book, or that “pears” are “avocados”, at least to Caribbean folks. Knowing that so many Canadians will read this story through Canada Reads 2018 brings me so much happiness.