Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun is a novel about the Biafran war, told from the perspective of three people on the Biafran side. It switches back and forth between their lives pre-war and the war years. Adichie is too young to have been part of the war herself, but I gather from the Author’s Note that her parents and grandparents were in the middle of it, and that this novel is at least in part based on their stories about it.

Although it is in a sense written from a partisan perspective, in that all the main characters are fairly keenly pro-Biafran, the novel is inevitably written and read with the knowledge that Biafra was a doomed entity. So that gives a gloomy irony to all the optimistic political rhetoric. 

Sitting here with the book in front of me, with the Daily Mail quoted on the cover as saying that it is “without doubt, a literary masterpiece and a classic”, I am churlishly inclined to start finding fault, because I’m not quite sure that it is an undoubted instant classic. It’s a well-written if fairly conventional novel with strong characters, touches of humour even amid the gloom, a streak of satire and interesting subject matter. But a masterpiece? Maybe not.

Still, it’s a really good novel and something of a page-turner, and I would unreservedly recommend it to anyone.


The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

Like Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, I bought this on the basis of a Bryan Appleyard article where he mentioned Hazzard as one of his contenders for greatest living novelist; in fact, he entertained the possibility that The Transit of Venus was ‘the most perfect novel written in the past 100 years’.

I was less taken by this one than the Robinson. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good novel: lots of strong characters, a sense of time and place, a rich and engaging plot. And occasionally it’s very funny; there’s a vein of acid social satire running through it which just helps give it a bit of an edge. There’s an account of the changing reputation of a poet over his career which is absolutely superb, for example.

And yet… it never quite wowed me as much as Housekeeping. That novel, for me, had a touch of magic and uniqueness to it that made it really stand out. ToV by comparison seems ordinary. A very good example of a conventional novel, but conventional nonetheless. It didn’t help that I never quite settled with the prose style. It has a kind of staccato portentousness that, even after a couple of hundred pages, still kept niggling slightly.

If I sound rather negative, it’s only relative to the claim that the book is the most perfect of the past 100 years; it’s a good book, I’m glad I read it, and I’d generally recommend it. But for whatever reason of personal taste or mood, it didn’t blow me away. Shrug.


The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

This is one of the great novelistic portraits of London: a London full of smoke and fog, seedy backstreet pubs, horse-drawn cabs, and gaslights. That’s what I like best about it, really, the London it creates and the grotesque characters that inhabit it: Verloc himself, the secret agent and seller of pornography, his coterie of seedy, ageing and probably ineffectual foreign anarchists and revolutionaries, the police chief on his trail, the idiot brother. All of that is done brilliantly. One vaguely assumes that as a European immigrant to London himself, Conrad was drawing on personal experience in his portrayal of the anarchists, but it’s just as possible that he made it all up. In fact, reading my own description of it, it makes it sound like he set out to write a parody of a Sherlock Holmes novel.

On the whole, I think that when it gets into the psychodrama at the end — his wife’s reaction to what has happened — it becomes a bit less interesting. But it’s still a great book.

Culture Other

1984 by George Orwell

I picked this up to read again because I’ve just read a biography of Stalin. I think I first read 1984 when I was really quite young — certainly no older than my teens; in fact I may have made a point of reading it in 1984, when I was nine or ten — and though I was precocious and superficially well-informed for my age, I didn’t really have much sense of the reality of what life under totalitarian regimes could be like. In fact even when the Berlin Wall came down, when I was fifteen, although I knew intellectually that it was an incredibly important event, it didn’t have the emotional resonance you might expect. Knowing the basic facts isn’t enough; it’s the cumulative effect of finding out about a subject bit by bit over a period of time, of encountering lots of details and seeing it from different perspectives, that makes it seem real.


So back then I read it almost as straight fiction: dystopian and science-fictiony, and with limited relationship to the real world. I wondered if the older, better-informed me would find it more evocative and more powerful as a book about totalitarianism; I’m not sure it does quite work that way. The society Orwell creates is too highly fictionalised. One thing in particular, I think, is that the Party is just too good at what they do: the Thought Police come across as infallible and all-knowing, the Ministry of Truth manages to maintain total control of all information. To have the ring of truth, I think it needs to be a bit more capricious and random; the organisation itself, the Party, needs to have more of an edge of craziness and paranoia to it. I appreciate that it isn’t supposed to simply be a portrayal of Stalinist Russia, or any other particular regime; it’s an extrapolation of that kind of regime into something different. But even so.

One thing it did make me think of, not surprisingly in retrospect, was Guantanamo/Abu Ghraib, just because that’s what torture reminds me of at the moment. It’s a depressing thought that the Ministry of Love should remind me of US policy.

Big Brother

The least successful part of the book seems to be the romance. I didn’t find Julia to be believable: she’s just too good to be true. She seems to be completely untouched, psychologically and ideologically, by having grown up under IngSoc. In fact at times her dialogue makes her sound like she’s just wandered into the novel by mistake, having taken a wrong turn when leaving a gymkhana in 1940s Surrey. And she’s too good for Winston. Nothing we learn about him suggests he might be an attractive character, physically or in personality; so the moment when this young, sexy woman spontaneously declares her love for him at the risk of her life seems completely implausible.

As long as we’re dealing with Winston’s interactions with the Party, the bureaucracy, his neighbours, even the proles, there’s a certain kind of cohesion to the world he’s moving in. It occasionally hits a false note — the dialogue, particularly the working-class dialogue, is often a bit strained, and I’m not sure his portrayal of the proles, or the whole class system of the book, is convincing — but it’s all part of the same overall vision. The relationship with Julia seems to be happening somewhere else altogether.


But then the strength of book is not really as narrative at all: it’s a combination of atmosphere and ideas. The atmosphere is in all the details: the griminess, the smell of cabbage, the physical jerks in the mornings in front of the telescreen, the red sash of the Junior Anti-Sex League, the Two Minutes Hate, the relentless drinking of Victory Gin. What really lasts about the book, though, is the ideas, and I was surprised how often they seemed topical and relevant: the citizenry under total, constant surveillance, a state of continual war maintained to keep the people fearful and patriotic, the finessing of political rhetoric, the politically motivated drive to change the very vocabulary people use. None of these are part of modern society in quite the forms they take in the book, but there are continual resonances and parallels and points of friction. Not bad for a political novel which is sixty years old next year.


Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

I bought Housekeeping because of an article at the end of last year where Bryan Appleyard made some suggestions of great artists working today. One of his two greatest living novelists was Marilynne Robinson; I don’t always find myself in sympathy with Appleyard, but with a recommendation like that it seemed worth a punt.

detail of Hiroshige’s ‘Two men by a gate in the mountains’

It is a remarkable novel. It’s a first-person story of a girl growing up in a bleak town somewhere in the north-western US in a household that gradually dissolves around her. It’s humane and atmospheric and deeply sad.

Most of all, it’s beautifully written: full of striking images and unexpected, often bleakly humorous details. And elusive and gradual and minor-key.

Is she one of the two greatest living novelists IN THE WORLD? Umm, I don’t know. But I’m willing to consider the possibility that she might be.

» the picture is a detail from Hiroshige’s Two men by a gate in the mountains, found on Wikimedia.


The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

The Leopard has been on my to-read list for some time and I’m glad I finally got round to it. It’s a novel, written by a Sicilian prince in the 1950s, about the declining aristocracy in Sicily in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The leopard of the title is the Prince of Salina, whose heraldic emblem is a leopard. The novel is centred around him, but he is a curiously passive figure. The world he grew up in crumbles around him and he gloomily but pragmatically goes with the flow.

stuffed leopard

The book is nostalgic and melancholy in tone—in so far as a writer can be nostalgic for something that happened before he was born—and it exhibits a kind of regret for a lost world; but crucially, it doesn’t read, to me, as wishing to turn the clock back. The aristocratic world represents a special kind of elegance and sophistication in the book and the shift of power to a nouveau riche class of merchants as a coarsening of society, but the book doesn’t attempt to claim the aristocrats as especially virtuous or deserving of their position. It reminds me a bit of Proust: not immune to snobbery and the glamour of the aristocracy, but just a bit too clear-sighted to fully buy into it.

It’s low-key and atmospheric and rather wonderful.

» The photo is a stuffed leopard in the Crystal Palace and is from the British Library collection.