Last book club read for this year before we regroup in January, Purple Hibiscus is an engaging and beautifully written coming-of-age story set in postcolonial Nigeria. Its heroine, Kambili, is a shy and timid 15-year-old girl growing up within the confines of her wealthy family, ruled by her devoutly religious, authoritarian, verbally and physically abusive father Eugene. When Kambili and her brother Jaja get a chance to spend time with their liberal aunt Ifeoma and her children, freed from Eugene’s oppressive regime, Kambili slowly begins to find her confidence and her own voice.
In between book club reading, I’ve revisited one of my favourite short story collections, which is destined to be one of those books I take off the shelf again and again. I’ve heard a few people say that they find short stories frustrating; it’s probably the way they toss you out of the world created by the author just when the reader gets into the story and characters. And for sure, a novel offers a more engrossing experience you can get properly lost in. But as a reader, few things are as satisfying to me as an effortlessly perfect short story that makes an impression and creates a lived-in world in a space of a few pages, and Lahiri is one of the best authors I’ve read (Pulitzer Prize people agreed as well, since this collection won the 2000 fiction prize).
Neil Gaiman has become one of my favourite writers over the years and I was happy to get my hands on this latest third collection of short trips into the weird, shadowy country of Gaiman’s mind. It never really occurred to me to compare him to Ray Bradbury, but in fact Gaiman’s short stories have the same effect on me that I had while engrossed in Bradbury’s fiction when a teenager – a pleasantly uneasy sensation of looking at the world in a distorted mirror, or lifting the fabric of reality to find some dark, strange, disturbing things lurking underneath. Gaiman’s imagination is just as boundless, and his voice as a writer is just as distinctive (his books on the whole have a lot more graphic sex, though not in this particular collection).
I haven’t read anything by Anita Shreve before, but she sure knows how to grab the reader’s attention in the opening chapter. A video tape is brought to the headmaster of a small exclusive New England boarding school, which shows three male students, aged 17 to 19, engaged in sexual acts with a girl. She doesn’t seem to be in any way unwilling, but she is clearly very young, fourteen as it turns out. There’s also a fourth person operating the camera whose identity is never revealed during the scandal that explodes soon after and destroys the lives of the people involved.
I’ve yet to meet a Maugham novel I haven’t liked; I probably enjoyed this one the least of the four I’ve read so far and I still found it overall excellent.
The Razor’s Edge is somewhat similar to The Moon and Sixpence, the previous novel on my Maugham reading list. It also features a first-person narrator – in this case, Maugham rather bizarrely inserts himself into the story – who observes the people drifting in and out of his life over the span of years. At the heart of the story, there’s yet another character who chooses an uncompromising and unorthodox life path. Here, it’s Larry Darrell, a young American who, at the start of the book, has returned a changed man after serving as an aviator in World War I. People around him, including his fiancée Isabel, are sympathetic, but they still expect him to engage in life and find a steady job that would support Isabel in a comfortable lifestyle she’s accustomed to. Larry however makes it clear that he has no interest in making money; his harrowing war experiences made him want to seek out the spiritual life and answers to the questions of God, life and death.
I quite enjoyed the previous P.D. James murder mystery I’ve crossed paths with, but I didn’t have as much success with this last entry featuring Commander Adam Dalgliesh. Though seeing that it’s the 14th novel in the series, it’s not enough for me to cool down on them altogether. After all, a series this long-running is bound to produce some duds.
The finale to Ferrante’s four-part Neapolitan Novels chronicling the lives and complicated friendship between Elena and Lila didn’t disappoint and it’s hard to think of a series equally as rewarding and consistently fantastic. It’s impossible to convey, in a review, what makes Ferrante’s writing so extraordinary. On the surface, if you tried to describe the story, it sounds just like any domestic drama – lives of two women as they mature from girlhood into adulthood, going through various highs and lows, grappling with motherhood, making ends meet, becoming successful, growing old. But their experiences and everyday lives are just so incredibly well-drawn, with such degree of richness, texture and psychological insight, in prose that’s so crystal and powerful.