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North and South

Classics Book Review

Author : Elizabeth Gaskell

Genre : Literary Classic Fiction

Original Publisher : Chapman and Hall

Year of Publication : 1854

Number of Pages : 396

My Rating : 5 out of 5

My most recent read is this gem of a book by Elizabeth Gaskell, based in Victorian England. Margaret Hale is the daughter of a parson. At age nine, her parents sent her away from the sleepy hamlet known as Helstone, where her father serves as the Parish Priest, to go live with her maternal aunt in London’s Harley Street so she could get an education along with her cousin Edith. Nine years later, aged eighteen, she returns to the village home of her parents and is longing for a quiet, peaceful life walking in the forest and spending her days tending to the needs of her father’s congregation.

She took a pride in her forest. Its people were her people. She made hearty friends with them; learned and delighted in using their peculiar words; took up her freedom amongst them; nursed their babies; talked or read with slow distinctness to their old people; carried dainty messes to their sick; resolved before long to teach at the school, where her father went every day as to an appointed task, but she was continually tempted off to go and see some individual friend–man, woman, or child–in some cottage in the green shade of the forest.

When her father suddenly announces that he is moving the family North to the manufacturing town of Milton-Northern, she is shocked and grief stricken and wonders how this change will affect her family, most especially her mother.

Life in Milton is as different as expected – the air is heavy with smoke, the streets are bustling and the people are rough. Margaret tries her best to ease her mother’s worries and anxieties. With time, she gets to meet some of the people of Milton and make friends with them, in spite of the differences in behaviour, customs and mannerisms. She manages to get herself embroilled in the politics of the town and finds herself in the middle of a strike.

She also manages to draw the attention of Mr. Thornton, a mill owner and one of the wealthiest manufacturers in the town, who is also her father’s pupil. John Thornton finds Margaret haughty and thinks she treats him with contempt while Margaret finds him hard and unfeeling and only interested in getting wealthy at the expense of his poor workers. Yet the two are brought together time and time again by fate. Will they be able to overcome their differences and find common ground?

If Mr. Thornton was a fool in the morning, as he assured himself at least twenty times he was, he did not grow much wiser in the afternoon. All that he gained in return for his sixpenny omnibus ride, was a more vivid conviction that there never was, never could be, anyone like Margaret; that she did not love him and never would; but she –no! nor the whole world –should never hinder him from loving her.

This story is engaging and well written. It demonstrates what happens when there is a clash of cultures. Margaret and her family are used to Southern mannerisms and she struggles to understand the industrial town and its people. She has also had a privileged life at the her aunt’s London home which is very different from the life her own family leads.

Through the eyes of the other characters, we get to experience the industrial revolution and the inevitable clashes between the mill owners and their workers as each strives to protect their interests. I loved how the author presented us with different view points of the lives of the people of Milton – that of the owners, workers and outsiders in the form of the Hale family.

After a quiet life in a country parsonage for more than twenty years, there was something dazzling to Mr. Hale in the energy which conquered immense difficulties with ease; the power of the machinery of Milton, the power of the men of Milton, impressed him with a sense of grandeur, which he yielded to without caring to inquire into the details of its exercise.

This was my first Elizabeth Gaskell book to read as part of my 50 classics in 5 years’ challenge. Having gotten used to Jane Austen books where the biggest differences in social class were as a result of inheritance and the sort of family that one came from, it was refreshing to read about self-made characters who were not trapped in the lives that they were born into.

Adaptation

North and South has been adapted for TV three times. I watched the above 2004 BBC adaptation. It was a four episode production featuring Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe. I absolutely loved it and found the characters very fitting for their roles, save that the ending was to me a bit too different from the actual ending in the book. I would have loved to see that ending played out here, though I must admit that it did not come out very nicely in the last episode of the 1975 adaptation that I managed to find on YouTube!

I enjoyed every part of this book and recommend it to all lovers of classics. I rate it 5 out of 5.

Grown Ups

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Author : Marian Keyes

Genre : Family Drama

Publisher : Michael Joseph -an imprint of Penguin

Year of Publication : 2020

Number of Pages : 633

My Rating : 4 out of 5

I totally fell in love with Marian Keyes after reading Sushi for Beginners. It led me to her other books which I also absolutely loved. I know it says ‘gloriously funny’ on this book’s cover – a quote from the Sunday Times – but it was more of drama than humor to me. This is especially so when I compare it with some of her other totally hilarious ones, like Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married and Rachel’s Holiday.

The book is based on the Casey family, complete with a family tree, so we know who fits where – and once you tally all the children, they are quite a number. The three Casey brothers are close and spend a lot of time together, despite their estrangement from their very cold and distant parents.

The family is fairly well-to-do (or at least Johnny and his wife Jessie are) so a good portion of the book features them at elaborate dinners or on holidays in picturesque destinations. We see the usual family dynamics play out, as the different characters encounter their own unique challenges.

The book is quite voluminous at over 600 hundred pages. It took me a while to get into the story, I suppose due to the many characters, each with their own backstory and peculiarities. In fact, this felt more like several stories told together. Thankfully, once the story got going, I found myself pretty much drawn into it and I was easily able to follow the different story lines. I enjoyed the way that Marian expertly combined them into one tightly woven tale and, towards the end, I could not put the book down.

Whilst the story was not ‘laugh out loud’ (at least not for me), there was a lot of humor in it together with all the family drama. The characters felt pretty familiar to me. I loved the interactions between them, as I got to know them and watch as they evolved. Marian explores some pretty serious themes in the book as she reveals the characters’ strengths and weaknesses.

There was no part of this story that I did not like and I would recommend it to anybody who enjoys warm family stories about relationships and the trials and tribulations that we all have to deal with in every day life. I especially loved that this story does not take itself too seriously and none of the characters is reflected as being perfect.

I rate this heartwarming story as a 4. The only reason why it did not get a 5 is because I enjoyed some of Marian’s books so much more and actually laughed out loud!

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It Ends With Us

Book Review

Author : Colleen Hoover

Genre : Romance

Publisher : Simon & Schuster

Year of Publication : 2016

Number of Pages : 384

My Rating : 5 out of 5

Lily Bloom is upset following her father’s very emotionally draining funeral and just wants to be alone on a rooftop where she can breathe in the fresh air and unwind. She does not count on meeting handsome Ryle, a neurosurgeon with whom she makes an instant connection. During their brief chat, they tell each other some ‘naked truths’ about their lives.

Lily is trying to overcome complicated feelings around her father’s death and the life that she left behind when she moved to Boston. Ryle is struggling with his own demons that plague him. After their initial rooftop encounter, Lily doubts she will ever see Ryle again, as they want different things from life. When they reconnect several months later, she finds herself unable to resist him.     

In addition to starting a new business, and settling her mother in Boston, she reminisces about her first love, Atlas. She met Atlas as a teenager, at a time when he was lost, and she saved his life. When she unexpectedly bumps into him again, she believes she will finally get the closure she needs to be able to move on with her life.

This is a love story, but not just the usual love story. It is a love story that almost made me cry in some parts and left me frustrated in others. Colleen Hoover is a bestselling author of romance, young adult, thriller and women’s fiction. “And maybe a ghost story soon,” as she says in her Goodreads Bio. It is no wonder then that this was not just a romance story, even though romance is at the heart of the book.   

I really rooted for Lily and Ryle and the twist caught me by surprise. I honestly did not see it coming. As it turns out, this is a tale about life and relationships – and how complicated both can get. I found the story gripping, even as it took an unexpected turn. The author uses first person to narrate the story, so I felt all of Lily’s emotions intensely, as I followed her thoughts and experiences.

I loved Lily as a character and wish I had her strength. The other characters were also well developed and easy to relate to. This story seemed so familiar to me, yet the author managed to show me that some circumstances in life are not as they seem at first glance. She shows how easy it is to judge people unfairly when we do not fully understand what they have been through and what makes them act the way they do.

Ultimately, this is a story about one woman’s journey and her quest to overcome her past and build a fulfilling, meaningful life for herself. It tells us that we are not bound by our past – or even our present circumstances and we can make the decision to break patterns. No matter what path we take, there is always time and space to course-correct. This may not always be easy and it requires a lot of reflection to recognize where we went wrong and the right path. It also requires the courage to do what is right as opposed to what is easy.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and rate it 5 out of 5. I recommend it to anyone who loves a good story with romance and a bit of a lesson.

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The Woman in the Window

Book Review

Author : A. J. Finn

Genre : Psychological Thriller

Publisher : Harper Collins

Published : January 2018

Number of Pages : 390

My Rating : 5 out of 5

The Woman in the Window is a psychological thriller by A. J. Finn. The main character, Dr. Anna Fox, suffers from severe agoraphobia and is unable to leave her house. From the windows in her living room and her bedroom, she observes her neighbors. She knows all their goings and comings and sees everything that happens on her street.

One day, she witnesses something shocking through her window. Unfortunately, no one believes her because of her condition. Dr. Anna Fox is an unreliable narrator. She has a severe anxiety disorder. At times, she either forgets to take her medication as prescribed, or takes double dosses after forgetting that she has already taken the medicine.

She takes copious amounts of wine, even though she lies to her doctor that she will not take alcohol. She spends days and nights in her house, watching old thrillers shot in black and white. It is no surprise, therefore, that no one believes what she says. After a while, she even starts to doubt herself.

 I was drawn into this story from the beginning and it kept going at the same enthralling steady pace. It was full of twists and turns and a lot of suspense. At some point, I figured out part of the main character’s back story, but the main twist still caught me by surprise.

I loved the way the author was able to clearly show us what Anna was going through, though at times, even Anna was confused and unclear about some of the events. I do not know anybody who suffers from agoraphobia, but I was able to feel the intensity of Anna’s fears, as they were set out so vividly.    

The characters were well developed. Most of the story is focused on Anna, but there is a good mix of supporting characters, who help to build the story. At the beginning, I thought this would be just a story about a nosy woman at a window spying on her neighbors – especially given how the story started. It turned out to be so much more.  

I’m glad I picked this as my last read of the year as I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I rate it 5 out of 5 and recommend it to anyone who loves psychological thrillers.

A film based on the book, starring Amy Adams and Julianne Moore, is currently under production and is expected to air in 2020.

I’m looking forward to watching it and hope it remains faithful to the book, as I could not bear the disappointment if they mess it up.

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The Testaments

Book Review

Author : Margaret Atwood

Genre : Literary Fiction/Science Fiction and Fantasy

Publisher : Penguin Random House

Year of Publication : 2019

Number of Pages : 401

My Rating : 5 out of 5

This book is a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. It is set fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale. The author, Margaret Atwood, is an accomplished author whose work has been published in more than forty-five countries.

An adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is now an award-winning TV series. Though I haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale, I caught a few of the episodes which gave me some background into Gilead. The Testaments still reads well as a Standalone and prior knowledge of Gilead is not really necessary to follow the story.

Atwood was selected as a joint winner of the Booker Prize in 2019 for The Testaments.

Margaret Atwood

This book takes us back to Gilead, a dystopian society that can only exist in one’s worst nightmare. It is a country set up after the so called ‘Sons of Jacob’ overthrow the US Government. They are deeply unhappy with a country bedeviled by numerous ills and want to make it better. I didn’t know there was a place in the Bible known as Gilead, but it makes total sense that the country would be named after a biblical place. Or maybe it was named after another actual town in the US called Gilead.

The Sons of Jacob set up a theocratic government that has retrogressive views on the role of women in society, deeming them unsuitable for any positions of power. All steeped in religious bigotry. Women are not allowed to do any professional work. They can only be Wives, Aunts, Marthas or Handmaids.

Marthas are domestic workers for the elites whilst the sole role of Handmaids is to get impregnated and carry babies for couples who are sterile. The world has a severe fertility crisis and most adults are sterile. Many babies are born with serious genetic defects and do not survive. As in many such societies, it is the women who are assumed to be infertile, hence the Handmaids are meant to bear children on their behalf. This makes the Handmaids extremely valuable and they are forced to perform their role with no escape.

Handmaids wearing their ‘white wings’.

The story is narrated through the voices of three women, whose connection becomes evident as it progresses. These are Aunt Lydia, who featured prominently in The Handmaid’s Tale and two young girls, Agnes and Daisy.

Aunt Lydia is one of the founding women of Gilead. She is extremely resourceful, powerful and greatly feared. To ensure her own survival, she maneuvered her way into being placed in charge of all the women. She runs the revered Ardua Hall where Handmaids are trained and no men are allowed. She protects her position by ensuring she has incriminating information on all the senior members of  Gilead’s governing council.

Agnes is a fifteen year old girl, born after Gilead was formed. She is the daughter of a high ranking Commander. Through her story, we get an insider’s perspective of how life in a Commander’s house is and the sort of upbringing that Gilead girls have. She lets us in on life at school and the transition from being a girl to becoming a Wife. Eventually, she ends up at Ardua Hall under Aunt Lydia and gives us a front seat perspective of the lives of recruits selected to become Aunts.

Daisy is a sixteen year old girl living with her parents in Canada. She only knows of Gilead through what she learns in school or sees on the news. She gives us an outsider’s perspective of Gilead, through the eyes of a young girl. She eagerly participates in anti-Gilead matches and disdains the Gilead Pearl Girls, who walk around her neighbourhood looking for fresh recruits to take to Gilead, thinking them ignorant.

This is a story of horrific treatment meted out to others in the name of religion. Those in charge take it upon themselves to decide the fate of others with rigid oppressive laws, rules and guidelines. Spies are everywhere. Disobedience is severely punished and life in Gilead is full of fear, violence and death. Serious crimes by powerful men – such as pedophilia – are, for the large part, ignored and victims are more likely to be punished for speaking out than the perpetrators.  Handmaids occasionally gather to carry out a horrific execution.

Whilst this is not a story that one can call at all enjoyable, it was an intriguing look into what could  happen when there is unchecked power. I loved the style that Atwood used to tell the story as I got a clear, firsthand view of events from different angles as represented by the three main characters.

Whilst I really hated Aunt Lydia in the TV series, she somehow comes out as sympathetic in this book and I found myself empathizing with her, in spite of my better judgement. I suppose that is what happens when you are able to see a character’s motivation articulated so clearly.

The book has quite a number of characters. Though many of them are totally unlikeable, they play a vital role in showing us the treachery, deception and vindictiveness pervading in Gilead. Some of them are heroes, working to end the tragedy that is Gilead. A few are even unsung heroes.

All in all, what I loved most about this tale of woe was the ending. It gets a well deserved 5 out of 5. I recommend it to anyone who loves literary fiction.

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A Doll’s House

A Classic’s Club Book Review

Author: Henrik Ibsen

Genre : Realistic Problem Play

Publisher: T. Fisher Unwin

Year of Publication: 21st December 1879

Number of Pages: 101

My Rating: 5 out of 5

I picked a Doll’s House as the next book to read for my Classics Club ’50 books in 5 years challenge’ because my son is reading it for school and I thought it would be cool to discuss it with him and share ideas on the themes.

This exceptional read is a three-act play written by Henrik Ibsen, who was a leading Norwegian playwright. It features Nora Helmer and her relationship with her husband, Torvald. The play takes place just before Christmas.

Nora is overjoyed because her husband has been appointed Manager of the local bank. He is to start at the beginning of the coming year. The family has been experiencing financial problems and Nora is looking forward to having more money than she can spend.

Torvald believes his wife wastes money, calling her extravagant and a spendthrift who cannot save, even as she says that she really does save all that she can. His opinion of her is also evident in the way that he addresses her, calling her ‘a little squirrel’, ‘a little lark’, ‘a little skylark’ and ‘a little featherhead’. Ugh! When he says something that seems to upset her, he gives her money to cheer her up.

Unknown to Torvald, Nora is not as helpless as he thinks, as she reveals to her old school friend, Mrs. Linde. She has had to work hard as well to support the family. Soon after their marriage, Torvald had overworked himself and fallen ill. The doctors had recommended that he travel south. The trip had to be taken, even though the couple did not have money to finance it.

As far as Torvald knew, Nora borrowed some money from her father to pay for the trip. But Nora’s father had also been ailing at the time and she did not want to bother him. So she did the unthinkable and borrowed money from an unsavory man known as Nils Krogstad, without telling anybody else about it.

Since then, Nora has saved what she can and worked long hours on whatever job she can get in order to repay the loan and the interest charged. When Mr. Krogstad realizes that Torvald is planning to fire him from his position at the bank because of a fraud that he committed, he attempts to blackmail Nora. He threatens to reveal that she borrowed money from him (and committed a fraud in the process) if she does not get her husband to retain him in his position. Nora is distressed by this as she knows Torvald detests loans and any impropriety.

This play is a very insightful look into the way that women were regarded in society at the time. Torvald thinks his wife is a feather head and constantly refers to her as ‘little’. It is clear that he has all the authority in the home and does not regard his wife as an equal.

Eventually, Nora realizes that her husband does not really love her, as he even refuses to do a favor for her. He implies that he would do anything for her, but when she faces condemnation, he turns on her and blames her for ruining him. All he cares about is himself.

As appearances mean a lot to him, he is happy to keep her in his house but proclaims that she must not have any contact with her children, lest she infects them with her immorality.

She also realizes that she does not love him anymore. She feels that she has been treated like a doll, first by her father, then by her husband. Her opinion does not matter. Torvald does not understand her and he has no respect for her. She decides to do the unthinkable and put herself first, for once, and look after her own interests.

I found this play very thought – provoking. The characters were so well developed that I felt like I knew them and what drove them, within such a short period. Their obsession with societal expectations was evident as they place this above all else. I thought it was fascinating how they believed that a parent’s immorality or indiscretions would inevitably lead to the ruin of the children. And how Nora was astonished by the realization that altruistic intentions could not forgive a crime!

The play shows us how damaging secrets can be. It also demonstrates how unreasonable it is to expect that others will always be grateful for what you do for them, especially when you cut some corners in the process. I found it hilarious that Torvald was quick to forgive his wife after he realized that no harm was to come to him and how he attempted to make her forget what he had said before when he thought he was going to be ruined.

The only thing that puzzled me was how a mother can walk out on her children, especially when they had such a good relationship and the kids kept on insisting on spending more time with her. In as much as I understand the need to put herself first, this seems a bit extreme to me!

It therefore does not surprise me that Ibsen was made to write an alternate ending to this play (which he called ‘a barbaric act of violence’) for a staging in Germany where Nora eventually decides to stay, as audiences of the time could also not fathom such an ending.

All in all, A Doll’s House was an interesting take on life and marriage in particular in the 19th century and I give it 5 out of 5 stars! I also greatly enjoyed hearing my son’s take on the themes in the play, so that’s an added bonus.

Adaptations

This play was first performed at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark on December 21, 1879.

Since then, it has been performed numerous times and adapted for TV, radio and cinema. I didn’t really enjoy watching the adaptations. I think this is because an adaptation of a play follows the script very closely, so I just felt like I was re-reading the play again!


  1992: Part of the British “Performance” series, with Juliet Stevenson as Nora and Trevor Eve as Torvald. Directed by David Thacker.
1973 : Claire Bloom as Nora and Anthony Hopkins as Torvald. Directed by Patrick Garland.

If you love plays or classical literature, I recommend that you check this one out!

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The Tattooist of Auschwitzt

Book Review

Author : Heather Morris

Genre : Biographical Fiction

Publisher : Echo/ Bonnier Publishing Australia

Year of Publication : 11th January 2018

Number of Pages : 194

My Rating :4 out of 5

The Tattooist of Auschwitz has been on my ‘to-be-read‘ list for a while. To be honest, it has stayed so long on my TBR list because I really did not want to read a story about the horrors of the Holocaust, having never read one before. The movies and documentaries I watched on the subject gave me quite a chill! I still kept coming across it everywhere, so my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to read it.

This is Heather Morris’ debut novel, originally written as a screenplay before being reworked as a novel. The book has received international acclaim with four million copies sold worldwide (according to Amazon). In the midst of all this success, there has also been some controversy surrounding the book.

This is the story of Lale Sokolov, originally known as Ludwig Eisenberg. It is April 1942 when Lale leaves his home in Slovakia. The German government has demanded that each Jewish family provide an adult child to work for them. Failure to do this will lead to the whole family being sent to a concentration camp. To save his family from this fate, Lale presents himself to the Germans for service, believing his family back home will be safe.

On the gate at Auschwitz are the words ‘Work will make you free’. Lale ponders the meaning of this phrase. A number is tattooed on his arm. He soon learns the true nature of life at Auschwitz where a simple misstep can lead to the loss of a life.

Fortunately for Lale, he gets appointed as a Tätowierer, whose job is to tattoo other prisoners. This puts him in a protected and advantaged position but also at risk of being considered a collaborator, since he now works for the political wing of the SS.

He meets Gita as he tattoos her arm and immediately feels a connection with her. They start a relationship that endures until they separately leave Auschwitz and find each other back home in Slovakia. Heather Morris wrote Lale’s and Gita’s story from Lale’s recollections, more than sixty years after the events had transpired. Lale told her the story after Gita had passed away.

Gita and Lale

I liked the author’s writing style. The story is well written and easy to follow. I was able to easily picture the events as they happened and follow Lale’s thoughts as he lived through the traumatic events. The horror of life at the concentration camp – fear, devastation and suffering – are laid bare in a manner that made me feel like I was watching the events unfold through the characters’ eyes.

Yet in the midst of all that is a powerful story of the resilience of human beings, their ability to survive brutal events and remain hopeful, even when surrounded by suffering and death. Their ability to fall in love and trust that they can build a relationship.

It would have been easy for the characters to just give up but throughout the book, the desire to overcome their circumstances was evident. It amazed me how Lale and Gita were able to find one another and develop such a close bond in such restrictive and devastating surroundings when their future was so uncertain.

Although I really doubted the authenticity of some of their encounters given my (admittedly limited) knowledge of concentration camps, I rooted for them and admired Lale’s determination to be with his beloved. Most of all, I marveled at his courage and ingenuity.

I rate this book 4 out of 5 and recommend it to anyone who loves stories about overcoming adversity. It would have been a 5 but for some discussions I came across online, which resonated with me, given some of my misgivings about the book.

Controversy

Given the historical significance of the Holocaust, any story that is centered on it is bound to attract a lot of attention. Some researchers have questioned the accuracy of some of the details in the book and have stated that some of the events that have been described could not have happened.

Critics have been concerned that readers may take the story as a source of knowledge about life at Auschwitz – Birkenau. In as much as the author clearly states that she changed some facts to further the plot, the story is described as being ‘based on a true story’ and a lot of readers connected with the story because of this.

When questioned about this, the author stated that she wrote “a story of the Holocaust, not the story of the Holocaust.” She told the New York Times that ;-  “The book does not claim to be an academic historical piece of non-fiction, I’ll leave that to the academics and historians.”

My Take on this

This made me ponder on whether writers of historical fiction have an obligation to accurately depict historical events in their books. Is it not true that inaccuracies can mislead and leave readers with a wrong impression of events?

Is it enough for authors to state that their stories are fictional and expect readers not to assume all the historical events are as they happened? What is the line between the fictional and the historical bit? And what is biographical fiction anyway?

I think critics here were so concerned because this is described as a book about real people in a real place at a real time in history. A very sensitive time and place. This would therefore lead most readers to expect the story to be mostly true. And it should be.

How much artistic license do you think an author has when they claim that a novel is based on a true story? Shouldn’t they at the very least get the actual known historical events correct? Let me know!  

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The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives

  • Book Review

Author : Lola Shoneyin

Genre : Literary Fiction

Publisher: Serpent’s Tail

Date of Publication: 2010

Number of Pages: 245

My Rating : 5 out of 5

Yes, I somehow ended up with two copies of this book. I think I bought the first one and whilst it was still on my ‘to read’ list I came across it again and bought a second copy!

Lola Shoneyin is a Nigerian poet. The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives was her debut novel published in 2010.  Lola was nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2010 for this book. She won the PEN Oakland 2011 Josephine Miles Literary Award and the 2011 Ken Saro-Wiwa Prose Prize.

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives features the Alao family, made up of Ishola Alao (Baba Segi) and his four wives – Iya Segi, Iya Tope, Iya Femi and Bolanle. Iya is the Nigerian term for ‘mother of’ so they are named after their respective first born children. Baba Segi is, of course, named for the oldest child of the first wife.

The book opens with Baba Segi contemplating a problem that he has had to deal with before. The latest addition to his family, his wife Bolanle, has not yet conceived a child. The last time he faced this problem, he found the solution at Teacher’s shack, where men gather and discuss different topics over whiskey.  

Teacher recommended a visit to a herbalist. Not long after taking the prescribed powder, his first wife got pregnant and Segi was born. Now with seven children from his three wives, he is again concerned because Bolanle has not yet conceived, after almost three years of marriage.

Bolanle is different from the other wives. She has gone to university and is educated, whereas they are not. She refuses to see a herbalist. Teacher advises Baba Segi to take her to a hospital.  

Bolanle married Baba Segi against the wishes of her family and friends, who do not understand why she would marry an uneducated polygamist. Baba Segi’s other wives resent her because she is educated. As a result, they refuse to let her in on the secret that they all share, hoping to get rid of her.

When Baba Segi decides to visit the hospital with Bolanle, he sets in motion a course of events  that will change their lives in unimaginable ways.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It gives us a good view of life in a polygamous family and the power dynamics that influence it. The role of the first wife and how it evolves as the husband gets more wives is explored. I enjoyed seeing the different personalities of the characters and how they affect their relationships.

Baba Segi believes he is fully in control of the family and tries as much as he can to be fair to all his wives. Iya Segi is cunning, wise and controlling. Iya Femi is spiteful and vengeful. Iya Tope is lazy and not so bright, yet she is also kind. Bolanle is lost and carries deep-seated pain.

Lola tells this story in an engaging way. She lets the main characters tell us their backstories and show us their feelings by using a first person narrative. In other places, she uses the third person to further the story. These characters are well developed and authentic. I empathised with them, even when I did not like their actions.

The book tackles themes such as polygamy, violence, infertility, prejudice and other social injustices. It is a beautiful narrative that both entertains, questions and challenges. It is a tale of how far people will go to get what they want and to maintain their livelihood.

It shows how easy it is to misjudge people and not appreciate their strengths. How our prejudices can make us blind to what should be obvious. Perhaps the most important lesson of all is – always be wary of karma!

I rate it 5 out of 5 and recommend it to lovers of African literature.

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Purple Hibiscus

Book Review

May contain spoilers…..

Author : Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Genre: Literary Fiction

Publisher: HarperCollinsPublishers

Date of Publication: 2004

Number of Pages: 307

My Rating : 5 out of 5

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award (Best Debut Fiction Category) in 2004 and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in 2005 for Purple Hibiscus. Purple Hibiscus is Chimamanda’s debut novel, published in 2004. I read it after reading Americanah which resonated with me because of all the stories I had heard about the lives of immigrants in the US.

Purple Hibiscus is a heartbreaking story about fifteen year old Kambili and her family. Kambili’s father, Eugene, is a wealthy Nigerian businessman. He is also a religious fanatic who does not allow any dissent in his family. Everything has to be done his way. He exercises tight control over their lives, planning and intricately scheduling every minute including family time, reading time, eating time and prayer time. There are prayers before and after meals, with a prayer before meals taking twenty minutes. Any dissent is met with horrific acts of violence.

Eugene is fastidious about rituals and prayers but fails in kindness and compassion, yet he is blind to his many faults. Typically, he blames others for his wrongdoing and makes them go for confession when they have done nothing wrong.

There are a lot of lessons to be glimpsed from the book. Chimamanda shows us how violence begets violence. Eugene was exposed to violence for behavior that was deemed ‘sinful’ by a priest he lived with while in school and metes out similar punishment to his family.

Whilst this is no excuse, it helps us get a better understanding of his character. His family lives in silence and fear. This has greatly affected Kambili who rarely talks. When she does it is in a voice that is barely audible. Their mother, Beatrice, tries to prevent the violence by deflecting Eugene’s attention when she sees his temper rising, though she rarely succeeds.

When Kambili and her brother, Jaja, visit their Aunt Ifeoma at the University campus in Nsukka where she works and lives with her family, they are surprised at how different life in her house is. Though Ifeoma’s family lacks the abundant resources that Kambili’s family has, they enjoy cheerful banter during meal times.

Ifeoma’s house is full of music and laughter, which is alien to Kambili and Jaja. To their surprise, their aunt tells them that there is no need to follow their father’s strict schedule while they are at her house.

At Nsukka, Kambili meets Father Amadi, a young catholic priest whose amiable behaviour is unlike anything her father would approve of. Father Amadi quickly notices that Kambili is different and pays her special attention. Kambili develops a crush on him. Though we do not see any inappropriate behaviour on Father Amadi’s part, he manages to draw Kambili out of her shell. She is able to open up and relax due to the way he treats her. Eventually she falls in love with him, even though she knows nothing can come out of this relationship (sigh………).

Another theme that is explored in this book is how the wealthy are allowed to get away with ghastly behavior. Eugene is extremely generous. He is the main benefactor of his church. This gives him the confidence to stand in judgment of other worshippers, regarding those who missed communion on two consecutive Sundays as ‘having committed mortal sin’.

Villagers flock to his rural home when he goes there and he gladly dishes out money. He is a highly regarded member of society, even though he permits his children only fifteen minutes to visit his own father whom he regards as a ‘heathen’.  

He refuses to have anything to do with his father. When they fail to report that they spent time with their grandfather at Aunt Ifeoma’s house, Kambili and Jaja are punished for knowingly being in the same house with a heathen. This in spite of the fact that their grandfather is only brought to Nsukka due to his deteriorating health.

Eugene is not even moved when his father dies, his only comment is that a priest should have been called to pray for him and convert him. This does not stop him from sending a lot of money for the funeral, though he doesn’t bother attending it.

Neither the villagers nor Father Benedict are shown as being at all concerned about the way he treats his family, though it must be clearly evident that something is off as others easily pick up on this. The only person who dares defy him is his sister, Ifeoma, who goes as far as to refuse his financial assistance because he tries to control her life in exchange for his support.

Another theme that Chimamanda brings out is how society tends to turn a blind eye to things that make us uncomfortable. Nobody asks Kambili how she got hurt when she lands in hospital after her father repeatedly kicks her, not even Father Eugene or the doctor. The only person who dares broach the subject is her cousin, Amaka, who mentions it in a way that makes it obvious that she is already aware of what happened.

How long can people really survive such treatment? Kambili’s mother, Beatrice, seems weak and helpless, as victims of domestic abuse often appear to be. She tries to protect her children but seems trapped by circumstances. She goes back to her abusive husband even after Ifeoma begs her not to go.

Ifeoma often tries to talk some sense into her brother, although ultimately, she concludes that he is broken, perhaps beyond redemption. Jaja is wracked with guilt because of his inability to protect his mother. He is eventually able to take a stance against his father, and we see his character begin to develop. Unfortunately, the cycle of violence is doomed to continue as victims of violence often retaliate.

All in all, this book was a poignant look at religious fanaticism and domestic violence. It is heartbreaking and distressing. It made me mad and frustrated. I wished I could enter into the book and shake some sense into some of the characters.

I found the story well-paced and superbly written. The characters are well developed and easy to understand, even those that I did not like – Eugene and Father Benedict. I felt sorry for Kambili, celebrated Jaja’s growth into manhood, and empathized with Beatrice. I understood Ifeoma’s anger and frustration with her brother and even Amaka’s attempt at rationalizing her uncle’s behaviour.

The story is told against the background of political instability and a military coup in Nigeria, which provides some useful information on what is going on in the characters’ lives.

I love how Chimamanda uses the blooming of the newly planted and rare purple hibiscus  to depict a new beginning for the family and how the characters are at last able to move on. The story is told from Kambili’s point of view and her emotional turmoil is brought out beautifully.

I appreciated the way Chimamanda contrasts religion as depicted by Ifeoma’s family and Father Amadi, as opposed to Eugene and Father Benedict. The same religion expressed very differently. We see how Kambili feels isolated from her religion because of her father’s fanaticism, whereas her cousins embrace their religion and have a friendly and casual relationship with their priest, free from judgment.

Even though a lot of violence is depicted, and I could clearly see how inhumane and traumatic this is for the characters, I did not find it at all graphic.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, even when it made me sad, and rate it 5 out of 5. I recommend it to lovers of African literature.

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Sometimes I Lie

Book Review

Title : Sometimes I Lie

Genre : Psychological Thriller/ Mystery

Author: Alice Feeney

Publisher : HQ/HarperCollins

Date of Publication : March 13th 2017

Number of Pages : 279

My Rating : 4 out of 5

My name is Amber Reynolds. There are three things you should know about me:

  1. I’m in a coma.
  2. My husband doesn’t love me anymore.
  3. Sometimes I lie.

This is the opening of Alice Feeney’s debut novel, Sometimes I Lie. Amber is in a coma, unable to move any part of her body. She was in an accident whose details she does not remember.

As she lies in a hospital bed, she hears everything that is happening around her and tries to tie together the fragments to figure out what happened to her.

I have always wanted to read this book but I’m only now getting round to doing so. I saw a lot of people discussing it online and the views presented made me want to read it.

This is a gripping thriller that I really loved. The author tells the story using Amber’s experience as she lies in hospital, flashbacks to the days leading up to her accident, and diary entries from her childhood.

At first, she appears to be a sympathetic character and I started off feeling sorry for her. But that is only because I had not paid enough attention to the “Sometimes I lie” bit at the beginning.

As the story progresses, it becomes quite clear that Amber is anything but a sympathetic character.

Ultimately, I started having many questions. What really happened before the coma? What of her childhood? Does her husband Paul really not love her anymore? What is the role of the sister/best friend Claire, in all this? And the mysterious Edward who appears in the story to leave a distressing and shocking footprint?

I liked Alice Feeney’s writing style. Amber is likeable and sincere, until she is not. I empathized with her as the victim of serious wrongdoing, then discovered that perhaps that may not be so. She is such an unreliable narrator.

I must say that I was very confused. As I went along, I had to undo all the impressions I had in my head about all these characters, most especially Amber.

In any case, since Amber is a self declared liar and no other point of view is presented to help us discern what is really happening, how do we know what part of the narrative is true and what part is not? This is the point of the story, I guess……..

By the end, I was still not sure what was going on. I felt a strong inclination to re-read the book and try and garner new facts from hints that I may have missed. Like the significance of the colour red and the events as set out in the diaries, use of the name Taylor, among others.

Amber is shown as clearly having an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). She has to check everything 3 times. We later see that she also suffers from anxiety and the OCD developed as a result of that.  This story is full of twists and turns and I kept wondering what would come next.

 I have seen many people speculate about a lot of aspects of the book, especially the final twist. For me, I was totally sure that this was a case of someone who had a Disassociative Identity Disorder (DID) and was heavily medicated in a mental institute!

It would make sense (to me anyway) if these characters (or at the very least Amber and Claire) are all the same person, especially as the lines are so blurred between Amber/ Claire/Taylor – and it’s not even clear who the villain in this story is! Or maybe I have just been reading too many books with DID characters recently!

I loved the suspense and mystery in this riveting psychological thriller and rate it 4 out of 5. It would have been a 5 if it didn’t confuse me so much! I recommend that you pick it up today, if you love psychological thrillers full of twists and turns.

You will enjoy trying to figure out what is going on. If you have read it, let me know whether you were as confused as I was!