9. She’s Gone by Kwame Dawes

Published in 2007 by Akashic Books.

I’ve seen several volumes of Dawes’ poetry collections lining local bookstore shelves, but reading She’s Gone, a Caribbean mystic-meets-American urbane love story, is the first true interaction I’ve had with his work.

One sizzling Southern Carolina night, the paths of Kofi, a Jamaican roots reggae man, and Keisha, an American sex and gender researcher, intersect. This book is about how they come to each other, come for each other, how they live together, as well as how they manage (or fail to do so) apart.

I confess, the novel irritated me profoundly at intervals, particularly in both the portrayal of Keisha’s character, as well as the stiflingly familiar revisited relationship rubrics for two passionate souls. All the elements of a rollicking Tyler Perry screenplay/film seem firmly established:

♣ the enigmatic, sexily-accented black man who is  both difficult to love and impossible to quit;

♣ this man’s smouldering, vicious ex-woman, who represents almost everything that is both dangerous and compelling about his past, his backstory before he meets…

♣ the intelligent and beautiful black woman who struggles with loving love a little too much (and has the tempestuous, abusive ex-boyfriend, pacing and promising in the background, to prove it);

♣ this woman’s smarter, more successful, infinitely lonelier, less loved cousin, who cannot help but fall for the enigmatic and sexily-accented man, knowing full well that there will be no storybook ending for her;

♣ the rest of our female protagonist’s extended family, (including a pistol-waving, housedress-wearing matriarch) who are full of opinions, comments and semi-relevant anecdotes – and a feast of the best Southern home cooking;

♣ this woman’s sassy, fierce, feisty best friend/boss combo, who’s there for her when she needs her the most, but is not there at least once when it counts the most – you know, so our female protagonist can dig deep and find her own hidden fortitude;

♣ the creation of a baby, who helps make things almost magically good, life-affirming, and tender –  the way that babies do.

I will own to the fact that it is not necessarily the existence of these tropes within this work that bothers me, so much as the persistence of many of these constructs in the world, in each of our separate, interwoven societies. At one point, while reading, I felt like murmuring to myself, “Mm. Yes. We get the point. Women love men who use them bad and use them up.” Still, if some of the character assessments that abound in the novel seem and feel tired, well… perhaps that’s not lazy, at all. Perhaps that’s just people as they are. I cannot declare Dawes’ story to be lazy, even if it is one I would avoid, strenuously, if it came at me in the form of a film adaptation. It simply means that Dawes is good—maybe even brilliant—at capturing that which exists around him, in people, in the ways they/we hurt and honour each other.

For all the groanworthy excerpts that centre on Keisha and Kofi’s amorous travails, the novel contains some heft, and more weight than is initially apparent. Dawes is at his best when he inhabits the thought-space of Kofi: an artist in exile, even in his lush island mountains, a man driven to dreams and despair, and achingly good music. His words, the way he articulates everyday frustrations, observations, fears—they resound from the page, skipping, trilling off the tongue in that sweet and unmistakable Jamaican dialect. (Dawes is a master of capturing the voices of his characters; no utterances seem contrived or out of place.)

Of all the lovers and losers we encounter in She’s Gone, Kofi feels the best-drawn, the most convincingly rendered. Is this because he is closest to home? Whatever the reason, he is a pleasure to read. His letters and e-mails to Keisha, both when he is courting her and when he is estranged from her, are organic, vital scripture: better and more beautiful, indeed, than the man himself. Isn’t that we want from our correspondence, anyway? Isn’t that at the heart of any extraordinary missive passed between two people? The desire to render yourself a little larger than the life you inhabit, for the one whom you which to ensorcell… this is what Kofi’s letters do.This is what most of us wish we could do when we write, no?

She’s Gone is not, in the final estimation, a masterpiece. I was as underwhelmed as much as I was moved, and the overall effect is not a consistent one of either delight or dismay. What Dawes crafts right, he crafts right, though: there is beauty in his depiction of landscape; there is palpable lyricism in the tones and timbres of every voice he makes speak. There is reverence, accuracy and respect in his treatment of island and Southern-U.S. state living. Is there fault to be ascribed, then, if the novel simply does not resonate with me as it might do with another? No, I daresay, there is none.

Is it an audacious thought, to have had the first taste of a writer, and then have thought—there is more to him, than this? There are better, bolder, richer lines, sweeter worlds waiting to be discovered. After I finished reading She’s Gone, I unearthed some of Dawes’ poems, and I knew, as I had felt instinctively, that I was right.

8. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore

Published in 1994 by Vintage/Anchor Books.

Admit it—you know you’ve got one.

Along with a paraphernalia-packed drawer of your idealistic, angry years betwixt eleven and nineteen, and every holdover memento that’s defied the lure of the garbage or local Goodwill/Salvation Army, (you feign laziness, unwillingness to ‘spring clean’, but you damned well know it’s nostalgia)—along with these, you keep the memory of a best friend. You braided her hair in thousands (you know, like, thirty?) of plastic-clipped plaits. You both got high off of office-supply glue, stolen cigarettes, illicit pay-per-view softcore pornography. You kissed him once, hard, in your father’s garage, and neither of you spoke of it, not ever. You thought of her on the day you got married, and for a guilty second, your maid of honour didn’t seem like such a perfect choice. Together, you played with fire. Together, you were sure you could both change or rule the world.

The enchantingly titled Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? was, for me, worth fishing out of a bargain bin at a charity sale, based on the quirky promise of its name alone. If I could compare the experience of reading it to consuming fruit, it would be like nothing so much as a crisp, tart apple—something in the vein of a not so wicked stepmother’s gift, bearing far less malice than the origin tale, with more wise humour that’s never too far from a sigh.

The novel’s progression seems bivalent at first. Protagonist Berie Carr remembers her adolescent ramblings and misadventures with her best friend, Silsby Chaussée, while the former navigates the murky waters of adulthood and a marriage that is failing in tragically slow increments—this, while she sojourns in a city famed for its passionate interludes. Approaching the story’s end, however, the narrative appears seamless. Whether Berie was assiduously pilfering money as an amusement park cashier in her childhood town of Horsehearts, evading drunken rape and other life threatening risks with Silsby at her side, or wandering alone in the present day through narrow Parisian streets, her hip aching for a secret reason, (one that, when revealed, smarts at the side of the reader herself, for all its quiet cruelty) the story feels linear. It follows the line of the life of Berie, with and without the person who has known her best. What could be simpler, or more haunting?

If it is difficult to quote Lorrie Moore’s prose, it is not because it is unlovely, quite the opposite. It presents a challenge because so much of it is lovely, and not with the hollow lustre of pretty words fashioning no purpose, either. There is a lilting cadence of sadness to Moore’s description that will catch your breath when you least expect to be swayed.

You might say that the novel goes nowhere, in terms of discernible plot progression, and you might not be entirely wrong. Life’s like that, though, isn’t it? We wander countless times over into the murky mire of our favourite mistakes, swearing anew each time, wondering why we are here again, with all the televised and replicated rebellion of teenagedom, all the mortifying ostentation that paves our tumble into adulthood.

When Berie visits with Sils again, on the occasion of their ten-year high school reunion, she knows that Silsby is simultaneously just as she ever was, and lost to her, always. She takes a long, languorous shower in Sils’ bathroom, thinking, wanting.

“I felt close to her, in a larcenous way, as if here in the shower, using her things, all the new toiletries she now owned, I could know better the person she’d become. All evening, I’d been full of reminiscences, but she had seldom joined in. Instead she was full of kindnesses — draping her own sweater around my shoulders; bringing me tea. How could I know or hope that she contained within her all our shared life, that she had not set it aside to make room for other days and affections and things that now had all made their residence and marks within her?”

This illuminating, thorny offering from a severely underrated writer is even more captivating than its title. Perhaps, when you have turned its last page, as I did, you will think of someone with whom you once made a blood oath, with whom you shared scabbed knees and shy showers. Perhaps you will pick up the phone to call them, and feel what I felt, to learn that the number had long been discontinued.

Perhaps you will be luckier (or infinitely less lucky?) and they will answer.

7. The Tattooed Map by Barbara Hodgson

Published in 1995 by Chronicle Books.

“My arm no longer belongs to me. It’s become another thing — to be admired and studied but not a functional object. It no longer carries my watch; it feels too precious to be made to hold things and I can’t bear to touch myself in case it spreads even further. As I become detached from it, I can admire and appreciate its physical beauty as though it were a map drawn out over months of exploration and study, but the moment I remember it’s mine, a part of me, I reel with nausea.”

Lydia and Christopher are the oldest and best of travelling companions. Former lovers and perennially out-of-sorts friends, they are perfectly attuned to the other’s idiosyncracies, without suffering them gladly. The two embark upon a meticulously planned journey to Morocco, intending to stay in North Africa for six months. Chris, a shrewd antiques dealer, scours the cities they visit for prized furnishings requested by his well-to-do clients, consulting his arsenal of haughtily precise buying lists.

Lydia, on the other hand (hands being a point of importance in The Tattooed Map, but more on that anon), is, by her own blithe confession, “just happy to wander. If I had my way, I would wander forever and ever.” After an uncomfortable layover in a disreputable motel, Lydia awakens with what she initially believes to be a cluster of flea bites on her left hand. During her days of heady exploration and documentation of Morocco’s multifaceted faces, Lydia observes, bemused, as the red puckers on her skin morph into an increasingly detailed map. The more Lydia attempts to unearth the secrecy surrounding her skin-inheritance, the more fevered she grows with semi-lucid dreaming. Her wanderings towards the truth of the tattoo take her beyond the grasp of the reader, and halfway through the journal, the confused, distressed Christopher turns to the same form of archiving he initially scorned—he keeps Lydia’s journal, both proprietorially and actively. His entries follow her own, each one an echo of her voice, each one hoping against hope that he will see her again.

Lovers of ephemera, of detailed dealings in flotsam and jetsam: The Tattooed Map will be a gold-starred destination on your literary sojourns. The novel is an archivist’s dream, bordered and fringed with annotations of addresses, grammatical conjugations in foreign tongues, pencilled-in calendars, rows of photograph details, sketches and schedules, of tattered post-its and sepia postcards. Nor does what would ‘normally’ be themed marginalia live merely in the margins of Barbara Hodgson’s freshman offering—maps, leaflets, full-page illustrations unfurl and explode across the shared journal. That which is pictorally visual carries as much importance as what is scripted. Hodgson has achieved an enviable balance of drawing us in through text and art. (I urge the furrow-browed cynic not to think of the concept that fuels The Tattooed Map as a carefully contrived, convenient marriage between scrapbooking and Photoshop, but rather like the brainchild-project of an author and an artist on vacation. Then, marvel at the fact that Hodgson is both author and artist on this lavish endeavour.)

I read the book in one fevered setting—to fully embrace this confessional rant/purloined pocketbook of a pair of lost and longing travellers, a first, urgent reading feels like the most authentic approach. The mysteries of Lydia’s  branding with a growingly elaborate cartographic plan, and her subsequent disappearance, held me in their thrall. I was unprepared, however,  for the emotionally satisfying journey of Christopher’s stilted, half-crazed forays into unearthing odd truths, in his quest to reclaim his missing friend.Somewhere along this sepia-studded, map-fragmented journey, my mind declared itself a willing and active participant in the baffling mystery at the core of The Tattooed Map. I hungered for an answer that would stymie and spellbind me, a plot machination of hefty and impressive weight.

I was dismayed not to find an answer, therefore. The last few pages of the novel seemed to sweep up in a rush to meet my impatient hands. I turned a page, hoping to have my fears for Lydia either quelled, or released in a grateful sigh—to meet blankness. The end of the book resembles nothing so much (initially) as a well-timed slap in the face, not one that is unkind, but rather, matter of fact. It is a proclamation that, perhaps archly, declares, “Well, what did you expect? This isn’t The Da Vinci Code, after all. You should have known better than to search for some fantastic, absolute overarching set of theorems and loopholes that fall neatly into place.”

In any fictional tale that shies away from clear cut propositions in plot resolution, if there is no happy, formulaic ending, then it follows naturally that there is no ending suffused with sadness, either. In fact, I will leave it up to you, dear reader, to discover how much of an ending there is. Will you be ultimately frustrated or fascinated by the peregrination of this novel, which resembles a thousand spiral staircases curling upwards towards some infinite, unknowable end? You may not love this ending, but it would be a challenge not to love the journey. To pass on The Tattooed Map would be to deny your wanderer’s spirit a whirling-dervish adventure, despite the possibly disquieting dust cloud it leaves in its wake.

“Only your skin and your tears will allow you this journey.”

6. Out on Main Street by Shani Mootoo

Published in 1993. This Edition: Raincoast Books, 2002.

Out on Main Street, the first short fiction publication of Indo-Trinidadian-Canadian writer Shani Mootoo, is a collection of nine stories with origins that are both Caribbean and Canadian, diasporic and contintental, here and there. Work like this represents nothing so much as it does a bridge, symbolizing, representing and contextualizing histories and customs only guessed-at or generalized. Mootoo’s epigraph (unattributed, presumably her own quotation) to the collection admonishes gently against the broad sweep of nostalgic generalization:

Which of us, here, can possibly know the intimacies of each other’s cupboards “back-home”, or in which hard-to-reach corners dust balls used to collect?

(Or didn’t?)

One’s interpretation of fact is another’s fiction, and one’s fiction is someone else’s bafflement.

There is no apparent taint of pomposity in Mootoo’s prose… no setting forth of her fiction as canonical or authoritative on any section of the Indo-Trinidadian diasporic experience. Perhaps she is writing strongly from remembrance, as do many Caribbean writers no longer living in the Caribbean. It seems more likely that her remembrances of Trinidadian rituals, customs and rites, specifically those pertinent to religious and cultural Indo-Trinidadian minutiae, are infused with the startling (though not unwelcome) presence and immediacy of Canada.

The narrator of Mootoo’s titular tale speaks straight from the Trinidadian streets. Her language is familiar, her manner inviting, her story foreign, but she, you feel instinctively, is someone you know. She might be the person whose presence you loathe, crushed against her chest in stifling City Gate crowds—and yet to overhear her tale in a crowded Vancouver bar might induce comfort, a sense of place and easy familiarity you do not reject, despite your homegrown aversions.

The unnamed narrator is simultaneously uncomfortable and fiercely protective of her brownness. She parries encounters with ‘legitimate’ Indians from India, hostilely, but not without cost to her shakily complex characterization of herself. It is confusion that she seems intent on avoiding, as she bitterly comments to her aesthetically feminine girlfriend, Janet.

“Yuh know, one time a fella from India who living up here call me a bastardized Indian because I didn’t know Hindi. And now look at dis, nah! De thing is: all a we in Trinidad  is cultural bastards, Janet, all a we. Toutes bagailles! Chinese people, Black people, White people. Syrian. Lebanese. I looking forward to de day I find out dat place inside me where I am nothing else but Trinidadian, whatever dat could turn out to be.”

Janet’s lover is simultaneously proud and wary of her crew-cut, non-heteronormative status, of her implicit possessiveness over her prettier mate who catches the attention of men, when she does not. Mootoo stands the Trinidadian-Canadian pair apart from the more obvious, militantly open couple of Sandy and Lise, who wear their “blatant penchant fuh women” as comfortably as they do their Birkenstocks. In a society that is, by comparison, thought to be far more sexually progressive than that of the Caribbean islands, it remains no less tricky for the narrator and Janet to navigate access routes to being free and comfortable in their brown, queer identity.

The other stories of Out on Main Street are no less concerned with the sometimes-rewarding, sometimes-damning navigation toward finding reliable pieces of oneself. In “Sushila’s Bhakti”, the titular character, a Trinidadian-Canadian artist who struggles with her skewered self-perception as “a goodBrahmingirl”, seeks out a path to prayer that does not contradict her unwillingness to bow before a patriarchal, omnipotent God. Sushila wrestles with the notion of where she really comes from, the precise marker by which she might measure the authenticity of her origins.

“I want to connect with my point of origin. Not the point of origin as in “Who-made-me-God-made-me,” nor the point at which we are said to have flipped over from animal to human, but rather the origin of Indian-ness. … What is my point of origin? How far back do I need to go to feel properly rooted?”

Sushila uses saffron for her art, colouring her hands deep orange, obliterating traces of white or pink from her fingernails. She claims the art of mehendi from its unused place in her early Trinidadian memories, channels it into her work, imbues her canvas with purpose until, exultantly, she begins to see herself in the work. Her saffron-mehendi creations feel far more organically connected to her than her pitiable attempts to fuse herself to a Canadian artistic identity through attempted landscapes and still life. Mootoo seems to be advocating using the tools of a multi-cultural identity to transcend the need to be rigidly defined. The message is implicit: that the search can be its own reward, and that it can be devoid of heartache. Ultimately, Sushila realizes that her identity need not conform to any documented or storied history—that it only need be her story.

In these stories live women who adore women, uncertainly but helplessly. There are wives who love and fear their somnolent husbands, and stir in the dark while their men snore, coaxing mysteries from the earth. There are terrified girlfriends who learn exactly on which side of abuse lies vengeance. There are  families who honour and hurt each other as best they can.

In the swirl of diaspora, where Hindi alphabets meld into modern art galleries, there are stories in this collection that read like home.

5. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller

Published in 2001. This Edition: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2003.

Winner of the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize, 2002.

Shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Prize, 2002.

“My God, I am the wrong colour. The way I am burned by the sun, scorched by stinging sand, prickled by heat. The way my skin erupts in miniature volcanoes of protest in the presence of tsetse flies, mosquitoes, ticks. The way I stand out against the khaki bush like a large marshmallow to a gook with a gun. White. African. White-African.

“But what are you?” I am asked over and over again.

“Where are you from originally?” “

How does one adequately, or aptly, summarize the telling of someone’s life by their own voice—especially when their life continues to be a work in progress?

This is the living life story of Alexandra ‘Bobo’ Fuller, her family, her country, herself, growing up in it, learning to survive, respect and fear it, and understanding her own love for her Africa.

Alexandra’s life in Africa began when she was two, transported from mild-pastured England by her parents along with older, improbably beautiful sister Vanessa. She learns, early, what it is like to straddle identities, as surely as she learns how to wield a shotgun, take a careful pee, rustle and herd cattle, defend herself against obvious and unspoken dangers.

Alexandra Fuller is the author of this uncompromising, tough narrative, but it is Bobo’s story we learn, Bobo’s thoughts, her vulnerability and her resolute toughness swaddled together beneath the blistering heat of Rhodesian, Zambian, Malawian, Zimbabwean sun.

Fuller turns a beautiful phrase, somewhat unexpectedly. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight seems, at the outset, like a tale suited for economy, for spare, flinty syllables and arid landscapes. There is no surfeit of that, but hard images are rendered, in Fuller’s prose, with touching elegance, with the generous, sensual touch of an artist’s brush, the sharpness of cartographic vision.

This novel is eminently two things before most others. It is the story of a remarkable childhood, adolescence, coming of age: a bildungsroman that would lose no sheen standing next to Great Expectations on a bookshelf. It feels like nothing so much as a sepia-toned movie, relentlessly and unforgivingly shot at the regular pace of growing up, but without the possibility of retakes. Lions, tigers and bears—oh my, indeed.

It is also the book most writers feel uncomfortably in their stomachs, and the one most of them never write. This is the origin story of the story-originator… the thousand and one family secrets in varying degrees of cleanliness. Here, amassed, told unflinchingly, are the Fuller family’s long list of bêtes noires. There is sexual harrassment, unabashed racism, weakness for drink, isolation and an aversion to demonstrative love. There is death, sorrow, and guilt that eats itself up in a neverending cycle… guilt linked to death, which, from the way Fuller recounts it, seems easily like it might just be the worst goddamned kind.

Black and white photographs of Bobo, her family, their farm, and other key figures in her life intersperse the chapters, often heralding their beginnings, on occasion tucked in unexpectedly between the painful, or hilarious recollections, and there is hilarity aplenty in Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. Certain sections made me put the book down to laugh, uproariously, shrieking to the ceiling.

We Trinidadians like to say that laugh and cry does live in the same house. Perhaps there is a similar saying in Rhodesia-now-Zimbabwe, or perhaps Fuller knows what the best writers know… that in sharing one’s life in print, it is hard to sift sadness out of mirth, glee out of gloom.

As with all the books I love best, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is not an easy read. Would it be so memorable if it were? It might… for all the laughter and the tears contained in Fuller’s African house.

“In those days, I explored the ranch as if I were capable of owning its secrets, as if its heat and isolation and hostility were embraceable friends. I covered the hot, sharp, thorny ground of the ranch on horseback, foot and bicycle, ignorant of her secrets and fearless of her taboos, as if these ancient, native constraints did not apply to me.”

4. The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Published in 2006. This Edition: Picador, 2007.

Winner of the 2006 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction.

The Times’ Book of the Decade.

Winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award, 2006.

“I will do what I promised, he whispered. No matter what. I will not send you into the darkness alone.”

A man and his son travel through a burnt and ravaged America, moving slowly towards the coast. On their journey, they are beset by threatening, sickening remnants of their dying landscape. They forage for food and supplies with varying degrees of failure and success. Their main objects of quotidian significance are a squeaky-wheeled shopping cart and a gun running low on bullets.

The unnamed father-son pair inch laboriously towards the warmer sea climate, since they both know that another frigid winter in their current environment will be the death of them. The father intermittently hacks up blood in heaving spasms, signs of an illness that he attempts to hide from his child. His wife has deserted them through suicide, her self-perceived last humane act in a world that was crumbling into fire and ruin, even before her son was born into it.

The man and his son have no dearth of reasons to be feckless, foul, feral. Instead, perhaps slightly implausibly (but only to the jaded), they are good. They affirm to each other that they ‘carry the fire’, that they are lightbringers, of a kind, in a time when thick clouds of falling ash darken the skies and men dine on each other – literally – to fend off starvation.

What makes The Road remarkable? Why does it stand out from the groan-worthy stack of literary post-apocalyptica that fawningly reuses the same three and a half tired tropes with fervent aplomb, gore and sexy zombie mayhem? This book isn’t like that. There’s no tastefully deformed protagonist, boot planted atop a still-spasming cryptwalker, musket smoke melding into a chemical induced fog. There are no blade-brandishing, half cyborg, half humanoid babes with rapier wits and… well, rapiers?

The Road can seem pretty damned irritating at first, with its truncated sentences, abrupt pauses, stops and starts, its jerky narrative openings, which also feature a distinct disregard for contraction-specific apostrophes. Once you accustom yourself to the manner in which McCarthy tells the story, however, it is unlikely that you’d want it told any other way. The prose is not just sheer minimalistic brilliance—that on its own would be accomplishment enough. The narration is shot through with spare, elegantly-wrought images, recollections and half-starved thoughts from the father which stun doubly: for their enchanting and harrowing symbolism, and for their startling beauty. The father’s ruminations are borne of starvation, hypothermia, desperation, and threaded together with an undeniable nostalgia for times without atrocities, in a way that provokes tears… tears and thoughts of what our own wonderings might be.

Who will benefit the most, from a reading of this novel?

A mother. An environmentalist. A thinker of quiet and often desperate thoughts. A person who thinks environmentalism is a waste of time. An over eater. A carrier of light. A thief. A person who has been close to death. A person who barely considers death. A person who cannot conceive of a time where money and books will be useless. An anti conspiracy-theorist.

Anyone who thinks that humanity is reckless. Anyone who thinks that humanity is visionary.

A father and a son.

I cannot remember encountering a book that has so strongly deserved to be read, for all its tender warning, its horrific spectacle, its imaginings of things that are awfully credible, for a very long time. This is a book that deserves your attention. My only regret? That I didn’t read it sooner.

“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.”

3. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire

Published in 1995 by HarperCollins.

“To the grim poor there need be no pour quoi tale about where evil arises; it just arises; it always is. One never learns how the witch became wicked, or whether that was the right choice for her – is it ever the right choice? Does the Devil ever struggle to be good again, or if so is he not a devil? It is at the very least a question of definitions.”

I like stories that unravel myths, fairy tales, and moral fables. I applaud the successful taking of an origin story, turning on its head and shaking it, emptying its pockets of archetypal copper pieces, of stereotypical silver doubloons. We have all been fed a steady diet of literary truths, whether or not we’ve ever picked up a book of our own volition. They surround us, circling in the air. They are the nursery rhymes our mothers and fathers murmured as they tucked us into bed. They are the talismans, artifacts and artifices we wear around our necks: our religious symbolism, our ethnic pride, our clannish representations of belonging. Old truths, especially those about good and evil, either comfort or dismay us accordingly. Most people are not concerned with questioning or interrogating the truths we’ve been told about the nature of sin versus virtue. Most people would be profoundly uncomfortable with even the suggestion that good and evil can be mutual partners in a never-ending symbiotic tango.

Such people will probably reject the premise of Wicked out of hand… and will not get past the first few chapters. Those who do not—those who are willing to have their preconceptions challenged—will fare far better. For readers predisposed to an appreciation of magic with a distinct adult rating: this is your stop.

Wicked is scripted, at a cursory glance, on the barebones of the world contained in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The Land of Oz that we encounter in Maguire’s novel is of his own geographical hand, drawn with detailed cartographic attention to specifics, peculiarities, the crafting of a believable and compelling otherworld. Oz is a land of wildly disparate regions and territories: the vast, windswept deserts of the Vinkus, the industrially prosperous Gillikinese state, the marshlands and stilt-legged dwellings of Quadling County, the prairie stead of Munchkinland. All paths and roads, including those made of yellow brick, lead to the glinting urban landscape of the Emerald City, where very little is ever as it seems.

The novel’s main narrative hinges on Elphaba, a green-skinned, clever, antisocial girl born to the Munchkinlander couple of itinerant preacher Frexspar and his beautiful, restless wife, Melena Thropp. Elphaba’s story—her strange, largely friendless childhood in Munchkinland, her rebellious, iconoclastic years at Shiz University, her encounters with condemnation, curiosity, concern and confusion all – these inform the heart of the book, but are not on their own, as it were, their vital organ. The voice of the novel is contained in other major characters (and periodic narrators) as well: in the tragicomedic maturing of beautiful Galinda, in the wise, brash motives of Fiyero, in the restless longings of Melena, the surprising intelligence of Sarima, the love-struck earnestness of Boq. Wicked‘s five sections—Munchkinlanders; Gillikin; City of Emeralds; Into the Vinkus; The Murder and its Afterlife—span several generations. Lives are lost, friendships are won, friendships and kinships made, shattered, found in unlikely places. Wars are waged, both political and personal; victims and villains work together in close quarters. Maguire is no respecter of tidy, seamless resolutions, or neatly pigeonholed plots. Characters’ lives run messily into each others’. This is no singular tale of a warty witch wreaking vengeance on a Kansas ingénue, though if you look for that single-mindedly, you will doubtless find it. The novel leaves itself dangerously, (or wonderfully) ambiguous on many points about which most readers will likely yearn for specificity. You would be hard-pressed to not find a concern that didn’t prick directly and perhaps uncomfortably at your personal conscience in these pages.

What makes us human, and how do we advocate our superiority over animals? What about that pesky infidelity business, when confronted with the possibility of true connection—or just a really good meeting of bodies, if not minds? When does sex stop being sexy and start being just damned strange? Do we prefer our prettiest society girls with or without a sobering grip on reality? What are the ethical implications of endowing mechanical creations with limited sentience, and forcing them to do our bidding? What makes one girl beautiful, and another… reprehensible?

Perhaps the most intriguing question of all lies in just how much we’re willing to do for a pair of gorgeous, self-validating shoes.

“She dropped her shyness like a nightgown, and in the liquid glare of sunlight on old boards she held up her hands – as if, in the terror of the upcoming skirmish, she had at last understood that she was beautiful. In her own way.”

2. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Published in 2006. This Edition: Harper Perennial, 2007.

Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction, 2007.

“ ‘Why don’t you want the money?’ Kainene asked him.

‘What will I buy with the money?’ he asked.

‘You must be a foolish man,’ Kainene said. ‘There is much you can buy with money.’

‘Not in this Biafra.’ ”

Half of a Yellow Sun is a meeting place for stories, told by three vastly different, irrevocably connected characters. Ugwu, a precocious boy from an impoverished village, is sent to tend house for the eccentric, eloquent Odenigbo, a lecturer at Nigeria’s Nsukka University. Overcome by the incredible improvement in his living situation, Ugwu becomes quickly devoted to pleasing his ‘Master’, as he insists on referring to the enigmatic lecturer and fervent anti-establishment nationalist. It is not long before the distractingly beautiful Olanna, the daughter of a wealthy, influential Lagos statesman, eschews her pampered circumstances to move in with her lover Odenigbo. Olanna’s gentle compassion towards Ugwu endears him to her, as simultaneously, her potent sensuality leaves the boy achingly aware of her allure. Neither is Olanna’s sensuality lost on Richard, a sensitive, thoughtful British national, who falls quickly under the spell of Olanna’s acerbically witty, less comely twin sister, Kainene.

The novel is about the marriage of circumstance and coincidence that envelops these five, set against the backdrop of the 1967-1970 Nigerian-Biafran War.

Wait. Do you think, as you open the first pages of this, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s sophomore novel, that you’re in for a torrid, sexy drama-romance lightly pedestalled atop an intriguing war-torn background? The novel’s background is its foreground. This novel’s setting is immediate… it is pertinent, at all times, to the concerns of the book, to its intertwining themes of love, loss, betrayal and survival. If you began with this book knowing little, as did I, of the Nigerian-Biafran conflict, you will not end it in the same manner. More than that, it is likely that you will be prompted to discover more, to unearth historical documents, to explore archived discussions, news posts and articles on the Internet. It is what I did, and why? I believe that, once you have read this novel, o discerning blog-reader, you may well understand that I was simply compelled to do so. It has been a long time since I’ve stumbled across a read this immersive.

I am no stranger to the powerful world of African (and African-Diaspora) literature. I have trembled and sighed at the bone-chilling moral fable of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I have laughed, belly-deep, and wondered just as deeply, over the Brother Jero plays of Wole Soyinka. I confess that I have wept at the most excruciating passages of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat. Maya Angelou’s works—autobiographic and poetic—pull directly and insistently at my heartstrings and my conscience. I could go on, but I shall not, apart from adding that Adichie deserves a seat at any table where great, moving, soul-stirring African works of literature are being discussed. Indeed, Achebe himself invites Adichie to sit at that table, with the assertion that she is “a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers.”

In Half of a Yellow Sun, it becomes evident, after only a few chapters have elapsed, that one is reckoning with a master storyteller, and no mistake. The novel’s timeline spans a near-decade, but the passage of time under Adichie’s plot-weaving is anything but linear. We may be unsure, as we read, of who says what, and perhaps even of who is speaking for whom. The writer reels us in with the expectancy of revelation, offering snatches of insight at telling intervals—and the skill resides, in retrospect, on not being exactly sure when we were reeled in. All is revealed, save one thing, by the novel’s end. That one thing lifts the story Adichie tells to the highest point of its possibility, transforming a potentially fitting ending to one that turns itself over in our minds for months, for as long as we keep even a sliver of this story on our mental bookshelves.

The characters of Half of a Yellow Sun are drawn with an expert hand, both in their evolution over the time of the novel (how they are altered by the horrors of surviving in civil unrest, how they remain the same), and in the scope of their relationships with each other. The discerning reader will sigh, and marvel, at Ugwu’s growth, at Olanna’s secret thoughts, at Kainene’s deceptive coldness. There will be amused concern at Richard’s alienated foibles, and grateful acceptance of his growing familiarity with an intoxicating landscape, as well as the woman who intoxicates him. One will wonder at how Olanna can possibly love Odenigbo, in his most abysmal moments, and exclaim, a chapter later, that she could love no other man so wisely, or so truly.

Then, there is the war itself… surely a volatile, capricious character in its own right. To become acquainted with the face of war can be a disconcerting thing, even with the comforting veil of distance, of sitting in one’s plump, overstuffed armchair, sipping tea while murmuring disconsolately over bombings in locales with exotic names. This novel works towards stripping away that veil of comfort. Whether it can be said to be entirely successful is up for debate, but surely it edges us closer to the seat of conflict, to the heart of the criminality and humanity of war. To care about a war when it has not happened to us—when it has not touched our lives personally—this can be a difficult thing to prompt in even a sensitive, educated reader. Adichie does this. She has us smell the smell of burning flesh, taste the sourness of dirty water. She has us dig in the rubble for those we love, and in so doing we learn, perhaps (even if we do not admit it readily to ourselves) how we would fight, flee, suffer or survive, in the context of our own wars.

1. Unless by Carol Shields

Published in 2002. This Edition: Fourth Estate Harper Collins, 2003.

Winner of the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, 2003.

Shortlisted for the Orange Prize, 2003.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, 2002.

Shortlisted for the Giller Prize, 2002.

Shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Literary Merit, 2002.

“I’m sorry, but I have no plans to be charming on a regular basis. Anyone can be charming. It’s really a cheap trick, mere charm, so astonishingly easy to perform, screwing up your face into sunbeams, and spewing them forth. … Of all the social virtues, charm is, in the end, the most unrewarding.”

Reta Winters enjoys modest success as a writer of coffee-table fiction, and greater acclaim as the primary translator of the works of literary academic, Dr. Danielle Westerman. Reta is the loving, even-handed matriarch of her nuclear household, comprised of her affable physician husband, Tom, and their three beautiful, talented teenage daughters: Norah, Christine, Natalie. One day, Reta’s eldest daughter, Norah, inexplicably retreats from the world around her to sit, indigent, on a street corner. The only clue behind the reason for Norah’s about-face hangs around her neck, a cardboard sign that says, in black marker, goodness.

If you demand much more in terms of a discernible plot than that, it would be a good time to slip Carol Shields’ Unless back in place on the bookshelf, in lieu of something… structurally meatier? More dense? Don’t be fooled, though—the book itself is no lightweight; neither can it be called the ‘coffee-table fiction’ dished up by Shields’ protagonist. Most of Unless reads like the diary-journal of a woman torn by grief, given over to reflections of her absurd, tragic hand. Reta’s ruminations are by turns funny, bitter and harrowing… and who doesn’t love a satisfying emotional stroll through a diary, especially when it’s someone else’s?

One wonders how Reta’s grief stocks up against notions of universal suffering—can a middle aged, upper middle class woman’s travail of a daughter deciding to play hobo hardcore compare, truly, to tales of the genuinely dispossessed, the structurally, financially bereft? Think of Unless as a semi-conscious case for the very real possibility that it may, it can, and it does.

Readers unaccustomed to a precise confessional narrative may find Shields’ prose tough—specifically, slow-going. Her style seems careful above all else. This is not a novel of many passionate outbursts, and even when passionate utterances are uttered, they seem filtered through the sobering veil of realization of loss, of an acceptance of devastation. It is a novel that does not rely on or require shock value, staggering loopholes, a thrilling dénouement, to make itself acutely felt.

Norah, of whom little is heard directly, save for one manic outburst of aching humanity (one of the novel’s high points, for me) is the perennial good child wounded by the whole wide world, enacting passive vengeance against cruelty through her self-imposed vagrancy. Reta is ‘unwomanned’, ‘unpersonned’ by a grief unsure of what sort of language it can legitimately adopt… much of her malaise is in not knowing, of terrible imaginings, of the futility, after all, of her overwhelming maternal love.

There is more to Reta’s wonderings than her stifling loss. There is the rest of her life, recounted to us, but with the knowledge of Norah’s alienation sounding a persistent background reminder. Reta writes (or, Shields writes as Reta writing) about writing, about finely calibrated, awkward exchanges with the farcical gem of Arthur Springer, her unctuous, self-absorbed editor, who flatters her work near-obscenely in one breath while forcefully proposing massive rewriting overhauls with the other. Secondary characters in Unless are largely drawn with a discerning hand. The little they say, with the exception of Springer, whose chief delight resides in his inability to shut up, is telling.

Reta’s unmailed letters to (mostly) male academics pepper the chapters and are some of the strongest selling points of her articulate rage. She rails against the masculine hegemony of exclusivity that has locked Norah out, or, even more aptly, split Norah from her mother’s arms. The unsent letters are bitter, often brutal, but also incredibly funny, as letters written as an aide to frantic conversations with oneself usually are.

A feminist novel, or a novel that’s ostensibly about gender wars? Sure, if you’re a feminist or gender theorist, then undoubtedly. A novel that will change your life? Um, probably not. This is not, after all, one of the fawning book reviews Reta says she scribbled in her youth—a subtle dig at the earnest undergraduate book reviewer, maybe?

I like this novel. It answers no questions, and makes nothing clearer except the ambiguity driving our personal missions for redemption. Goodness is what you make of it; human goodness seems largely predicated upon the ways we respond to grief—both our own and the sorrows of others.

A wise, fine tale, for a thinker, best suited to rainy Sundays, contemplation or cups of tea (or just as easily not… a packed Priority Bus Route maxi on a sweltering Wednesday afternoon will also do, just less elegantly). Pocket idealists, beware! There’s a touch of intense reality to this one that will sting you sore if you’re easily depressed. Unless is perfect for the reader who knows and appreciates the reminder that, in the face of indiscriminate woe, there is less quick fixing than slow adjustment.