What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?
Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
The Reason I Keep an Eye on Literary Prizes...
...is because sometimes their longlists and shortlists draw my attention to fabulous books that otherwise wouldn't cross my radar screen. For instance, the longlist for this year's George Orwell Prize generated two books that I'd number on my "best of 2011" list, Death to the Dictator by Afsaneh Moqadem (a chronicle of what befell a young Iranian who found himself becoming a democracy activist during his country's last elections) and Chasing the Devil by Tim Butcher, a gripping travel yarn that follows the author's prior expedition through the Congo by a little jaunt through some of the most remote parts of Liberia and Sierra Leone.
It was on the shortlist for this year's Orange Prize (awarded for the best work of fiction published in English by a woman writing anywhere in the world) that I stumbled across The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna, where it kept company with books like the wonderful Room by Emma Donoghue and the less-impressive ultimate winner of the prize, The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht. Both Obreht's novel and Forna's have one thing in common: they deal with the aftermath of conflict in a society other than our own. But while I found Obreht's plot often too clunky and opaque, and thought her elegant writing occasionally had a "look what I can do!" quality to it, Forna's book grabbed me from the first pages and never let me go until I had turned the final page. No, it's not flawless; in some places it's overwritten, and there are the occasional signs of florid writing or spots that a ruthless editor should have trimmed back. But for me, those sink into the background when compared to the novel itself.
Forna sets her tale in Sierra Leone, and weaves her relatively complex plot around three men and the women in their lives. Adrian is a British psychologist, on a one-year assignment in a country that he can't begin to understand -- he just knows he wants to help its citizens deal with the trauma of a horrific war. Kai, who survived some of those horrors, is a talented surgeon, wrestling with the obvious needs of his countrymen and the call to follow his closest friend -- and countless other medical professionals -- overseas. In the hospital where they work lies Elias Cole, a professor of history, who watched as his country began to disintegrate shortly after independence -- and whose own involvement in that breakdown of civil society may have been greater than he is prepared to admit even to Adrian, a stranger who listens to his memories of his obsessive love for Saffia, a colleague's wife, and his own selective memories of what happened to them and to Saffia's husband, the charismatic Julius.
At its heart, this novel is less about war and its aftermath than it is about the human need to keep secrets and about shame; and about the way keeping those secrets deforms those who must keep quiet. Even one of Adrian's patients is driven into a fugue state -- she wanders, oblivious, around the city and the countryside, driven into a state where she can't cope with any reality at all, by the nature of her war-related family secret. Admittedly, when Forna eventually unravels all these secrets, some of the encounters feel slightly artificial, but not the secrets themselves, or the impact on the characters in this beautifully-written and deeply moving novel. I came away with a realization that tragedy can be almost mundane in a world like that of Sierra Leone. One character points out to Adrian the ultimate futility of "curing" some of his traumatized and disturbed patients -- only to discharge them back into in a world of insanity. Forna even jousts with some of the most complex issues, such as where responsibility lies for the kind of nightmarish civil strife and war that Sierra Leone has endured. “Everyone talks about they. Them," one of her characters muses. "But who is they? Who are they?” -- the "they" in question being those responsible for the war and the atrocities.
This is a startlingly good book, a rare example of an "issue" novel that works on all levels and that doesn't sacrifice character development or style in pursuit of the author's overwhelming need to convince the reader of the justice of his or her cause. I got a sense of the beauty of Sierra Leone; of the people who have chosen not to abandon their country even as it became a failed state, as well as the issues that the author wanted me to focus on, such as the way that people lie to themselves and others to survive both physically and psychologically. Ultimately, despite the undertone of despair and loss, this is a novel that celebrates that survival. 4.4 stars, highly recommended -- and onto my "best books of the year" list.