Short story #24. The Arrangers of Marriage (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the queen of spades.

Story: The Arrangers of Marriage, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie [from The Granta Book of the African Short Story]

Comments: I first read this story in Adichie’s short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck, a few years ago.  It is about a young Nigerian woman just come to New York where her new husband, also Nigerian, is a medical intern.  The marriage has been arranged between their two families.  It deals with her reactions to many surprising things – the first one being that the “house” her husband had spoken of turns out to be “a furniture-challenged flat”.  There quickly follows her discovery of the extent to which her “new husband” (this is how she refers to him throughout the story) wants to become Americanized and to cast off many aspects of their Nigerian culture.  There is one particularly unpleasant surprise in store for Chinaza…  At the end we are left with a picture of this young woman, full of potential, with choices to make…  hopefully, she made good ones, but there is the possibility that she didn’t.

Re-reading this story spurs me to add Adichie’s Americanah (review here) to my TBR list.  This is a novel which deals with the experience of African immigrants in the USA.  I did try her Half of a Yellow Sun one time, and didn’t finish it, but that deals with the Biafran war, and this more recent novel sounds quite different.

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Short Story #23. A Good Man is Hard to Find (Flannery O’Connor)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the two of hearts.

Story: A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor.  I didn’t just read it, I listened to the author herself reading it, via YouTube:  But I needed the text as well, as the quality of the recording is not great (it’s from 1959!).  It’s easy to find the text online; whether the one I read is legal or not, I’m not sure, so I won’t link to it!

Comments:  I had never read this story, but I sure had heard about it.  And it was every bit as good as I expected.  I didn’t realise that there were some laugh-out-loud bits, until I heard O’Connor’s listeners actually laughing – that was fun!  And I guess any story as grim as this one needs a bit of comedy thrown in if the reader is not going to be overwhelmed.

On one occasion, many years ago, I was amongst a group of people talking about a particularly vicious criminal who had been caught by the police and was awaiting charges and trial.  One person in the group said that he should be hung, after the terrible things he had inflicted on others.  An older woman said, quietly, “He’s some poor mother’s son, too.”  That remark has stayed with me… I wonder if the speaker had this story in mind when she said it?  Because it certainly reflects one of the key insights in this story, when the grandmother recognises the crazed killer as “one of her children” too.

A brilliant story, where reality is definitely not black and white, but very human, very messy.

Short Story #22. The Homecoming (Milly Jafta)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the eight of clubs.

Story: The Homecoming, by Milly Jafta [from The Granta Book of the African Short Story].

Comments: This is a particularly short story, and on the surface of it, very little happens.  It’s just one scene: a woman (aged 55-60) gets off a bus someplace in rural Southern Africa.  She is met by another woman, her (adult, obviously) daughter.  Each woman takes one of the traveller’s two suitcases, and they walk towards their home village.  After a while they stop for a rest, exchange a few words, and then continue walking.  That’s it.

The narrator is the older woman.  She is returning home after a lifetime (about forty years, she says) working as a domestic, far away from her home place, in a job where she was always at the receiving end of commands and instructions.  In that time she has had three children.  Now she is retiring, coming back permanently to the village she left as a seventeen-year-old.  She is touched by the gentle words of kindness that her daughter extends to her, simply by asking her if she (the daughter) is walking too fast for the older woman, and by telling her how happy she is – they all are – to have the older woman back with them.

It is indeed a touching story.  But I had a lot of questions, especially about the daughter.  Who taught her to be kind and gentle like this?  Why is she not harsh and sour towards the mother who has always been absent?  Who reared her?  Is there a grandmother somewhere in the background?  If the mother has really been away for so long, this daughter can no longer be in the first flush of youth herself, yet she is described in quite youthful terms.  Are we not to believe the ages, or the descriptions?

I was also curious about the bigger picture: Why did the woman not come back and settle in her village earlier?  Is she married?  Is there a husband/father of the children?  Or are the three children from different liaisons?  And what happened after the women got back to the village, both in the immediate and longer terms?  Is there really the warm reception that the daughter promises?  Does the mother settle down after such a long time away?

The whole story read like a scene from, or which could be developed into, a much longer piece.

I think I’ll be inventing stories about the people I see on the bus for the next while!

Milly Jafta is from Namibia.  “The Homecoming” is also found in Opening Spaces: An Anthology of Contemporary African Women’s Writing (1999).

#29. Ravenscraig (Sandi Krawchenko Altner)

Book: Ravenscraig, by Sandi Krawchenko Altner

Genre: Fiction: Big House / family saga – the blurb likens it to “Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs with a Winnipeg twist”.

Where I got it: Free Kindle download

Length: 532 pages

Briefly, it’s about the intertwining lives of two families – one rich, the other poor – in Winnipeg, Canada, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Comments: This is a page-turner.  Not only has it an excellent story line , it also contains lots of social history, all of which was new to me.  The situation of poor Jewish immigrants, fleeing Russia and other Eastern European countries, their bleak, unsanitary living quarters, and the discrimination they experienced are vividly brought to life here.  The main characters are very well developed and we can empathise with them: even Rupert, the “rich baddie” was not completely repulsive and we got a bit inside his skin too.  Only towards the 80% mark did I feel that the book fell a bit from its initial high standard, especially when dialogue between some of the characters who are about to embark on the maiden voyage of the Titanic  turns again and again and yet again on the safety and “unsinkability” of the ship.  But afterwards – well, the ending has a double twist that is just superb.  

Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge, for the Category “More than 400 pages”; ebook reading challenge 2014.

Short Story #21. Cages (Abdulrazak Gurnah)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the Jack of clubs (my first Jack).

Story: Cages, by Abdulrazak Gurnah [from The Granta Book of the African Short Story]

Comments: “Cages” is a really clever title for this story, and is what caused me to stop and reflect on it – what cages? who is caged?  And ultimately, it seems, everyone is.  Hamid is caged in the shop in which he not only works but also sleeps and which he almost never goes outside.  Mansur, one of his customers, is caged – at least to come extent – by physical blindness, mirrored by a kind of moral blindness evident when he regards Rukiya, a young woman customer, simply as a potential sexual conquest.  Fajir, the owner of the shop, is caged in his room, his bed, by physical debility.  Rukiya is caged by her expectations of men – Hamid is attracted to her, but she expects only that he will want to buy sex with her, and so fails to see his potential.  Hamid tries to break out of his cage by taking some late night walks towards the sea, but he is limited by his fears.  And at the end of the story he is further caged by his sense of shame at the low opinion Rukiya has of him.  The story offers little by way of hope for a way out of these cages for any of the characters.  Pessimistic?  or just realistic?

Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in Zanzibar and now lives in England; he is Professor of Post-Colonial Literatures at the University of Kent.