Our basket of brilliant reviews this week includes Sarah M. Broom on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Notes on Grief, Imani Perry on Richard Wright’s The Man Who Lived Underground, John Banville on Richard Greene’s The Unquiet Englishman, Sigrid Nunez on Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts, and Lauren Oyler on Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby.
“…lays a path by which we might mourn our individual traumas among the aggregate suffering of this harrowing time. Our guide, Adichie, is uncloaked, full of ‘wretched, roaring rage,’ teaching us within the space of this work how to gather our disparate selves and navigate the still-raging pandemic. In doing this, she tells a global story of this moment, while mapping how her writerly voice, in particular, came to be … this intimate work implores, jerks us out of callousness, moves grief closer, right under our noses: Death and dying are still everywhere … Adichie knows to train her eye on what lingers … In the texture of many of these sentences you can almost feel where the writer has resisted bearing down with her refining tools—language and memory—so as to allow her emotional reality to remain splintered and sharp … Naming, Adichie knows, is a powerful inheritance, and a summoning. Some of the most affecting moments are when the author uses her native tongue to call her father by various nicknames … It is hard not to wish for more from Adichie, to know how she might contend with this loss over time, but what we have here will have to be enough for now. She is, in this work, ‘callow and unformed,’ and that may be the point … Over the course of these 30 fragments, we witness a shift in perspective, an assurance that whatever comes next will never have been created before. This may be true of Adichie’s work just as it may be true of where we all find ourselves in days to come.”
“Wright reached for the very core of the human condition in his portrait of growing up destitute in the Deep South during the early 20th century, and then making his way north: abundance everywhere and terrible hunger, tragedy mixed with the quotidian in the most disorienting ways. The experience he evoked might not have been every Black life, but it was indeed a part of Black life … Now that I’ve read The Man Who Lived Underground—a previously unpublished novel held in the Wright archives, also written in the early 1940s—I’m even more convinced that Wright deserves to be looked at with fresh eyes … Wright scripts a surreal reencounter with the world as seen through discovered cracks and doors that reveal hidden interiors … This isn’t the doctrinal Wright, warning us of the disasters that capitalism creates. This is an unmooring Wright, pushing us past the edge of social analysis and into madness … the novel is also a Protestant work, as much about God as it is about Black people … In Fred’s odyssey, which leads him back aboveground to confess to the crime he didn’t commit, Wright has him careen from rage at the pervasive burden of guilt to an embrace of it … Wright deserves sensitive reconsideration, especially now that so many of us have been proved naive in our belief that an honest rendering of Black people might lead to recognition of our existence in the universality of humanity … Wright tells an old story that still lives … He finds himself encountering the world, unfiltered by established terms of order, and acquires a tenderness for all people. In the end, his Black existence presents a particular window and a universal predicament—and a reminder: Surrounded by ghastly forces every day, we destroy life with our many idolatries and illusions.”
“The Unquiet Englishman…is perceptive, refreshingly unsolemn, lively, at times funny, and shrewd throughout. It’s also a wonderfully bright and entertaining read, for which we must be grateful in these shadowed times. His Graham Greene is an intrepid venturer into the world’s violent places who comes home and writes fictional accounts of his experiences. This seems right, for Greene was as far from an art-for-art’s-sake novelist as could be found. All the same, a little more art and a little less swashbuckling would surely have made him a finer writer than he managed to be … When dealing with Greene’s autobiographical writings, as the author of The Unquiet Englishman delicately notes, ‘caution needs to be exercised.’ All the same, the vignette, whether true, exaggerated, or invented, vividly predicts the atmosphere and at least some of the preoccupations of the future novelist: a figure standing alone in a darkling scene, sensing the immanence of wickedness, sin, and suffering, as well as the possibility of redemption … As the Cold War spread its permafrost on both sides of the Iron Curtain, people craved signs and, when they got them, took them for wonders. Greene’s books were no wonders, but they sufficed to allow readers to imagine they were not just being diverted for a few hours but were wrestling with the great, eternal questions of human existence.”
“In a novel about a person who is mentally ill—severely neurotic, say, or experiencing a psychotic break—the drama can write itself. (See, for a famous example, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.) Writing about a listless depressive with seemingly no deep passions or excitements and no significant relationship with any other living being is the far greater challenge Lahiri has set herself … I found the unsentimental, even ruthless, and at times excruciating account of chronic depressive disorder in Whereabouts utterly convincing. The book will strike a chord with anyone who has ever struggled with similar emotional pain—perhaps most forcefully with those who, like the narrator, have borne the wounds of inept and insufficiently loving parents well into adulthood, and who can say with her, ‘My childhood harbors few happy memories.’ But for all the gloom rising from these pages, there is more than a whiff of the romantic as well … I admire [Lahiri’s] stubborn insistence on the path she has chosen, which takes courage—a virtue perhaps especially bracing to see at a time when most other writers I know are feeling uncertain and cowed.”
“Peters’s mastery of plot and pacing allows her to move easily from descriptions of the effects and logistics of hormone replacement therapy to passages about the politics and pleasures of sleeping with ‘tranny chasers’ to discussions of the near impossibility of adopting a child as a ‘double-trans couple’. It’s about as open and accommodating as a novel can be, while leading with a scene in which a trans woman engages in impregnation roleplay with her married HIV-positive lover, whom she refers to as ‘her cowboy’ … The naughtiest thought I had while reading was that the novel recalls the work of Jonathan Franzen. Among young writers online, this is more controversial than any sex thing you can come up with. But less au courant readers will find the careful rendering of emotional detail, and sweeping narrative arc, comfortingly familiar from other good realist novels about relationships and family … If the novel sometimes approximates the gossipy melodrama of chick lit, then perhaps it could be considered ‘radical’ in the way a trans woman becoming a Brooklyn basic might seem radical. But Peters is up to something more interesting. (Devious, even.) The book is full of swaps, reversals, projections and scenes that challenge the conventional wisdom of the left while simultaneously provoking transphobic crusaders of all political persuasions.”