Other Voices Bookshelf

Appears in Other Voices #40

Purple Hibiscus, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2003

It is possible to scream in a whisper.

Especially when you're an adolescent girl. However it takes an incredible talent to capture that voice in a book. In her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie not only does this with perfection but she also manages to capture Nigeria's rich culture and political turmoil in the meantime. The result is a whirlwind of drama that sucks you in so quietly that you won't realize what's happening to you until it's too late. And that's when Adichie throws in a twist that will leave you pensively disturbed when you finally close the book. Purple Hibiscus is about a lot more than it lets on. From the first line you know that life will go wrong.

"Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère." Adichie is obviously paying homage to the great Chinue Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart . And as in Achebe's book, things are falling apart but this time, it's happening in the world of a fifteen-year-old girl.

Written in the emotionless first person voice of Kambili Achike, the novel is set in the city of Enugu, Nigeria, where Kambili and her older brother, Jaja, lead a life that on the outside looks privileged. Their father is a wealthy factory owner and publisher of a politically charged newspaper called the Standard . Kambili and Jaja are waited on by servants and live in a big house. To the rest of the world, their father is a loyal Catholic and a man who demands great respect.

Nevertheless, behind closed doors, Kambili, Jaja and their mother know him as a dictator with a violent tempter. They live quietly with his beatings and rigid schedules. To Kambili and Jaja this is just the way things are. Kambili speaks of these things in her quiet voice without flinching. And so this is life for her family, until an unscheduled visit to their freethinking Auntie Ifeoma's house, the sister of their father. After this visit, everything changes.

With moments of bright humor and dark reality, Purple Hibiscus starts off slow and harmless. Along the way, the reader is exposed to several Nigerian Igbo words and customs, making Kambili's world that much more vibrant and alive. Though Kambili is disturbed sometimes to the point of nausea by her father's abuse, she still worships the ground he walks on, constantly seeking his approval.

At their Auntie's house, Kambili and her brother's untouched minds are inoculated with ideas that life can be different; that hell won't fall on them for not following their father's strict schedules; that their father isn't always right; that they are each thinking beings; and that non-Christians are deserving of love. Her brother Jaja is the one to start their confused rebellion. Kambili's following actions are quieter but no less intense.

Purple Hibiscus is an amazing tale of a child's harsh coming of age. It's also a realistic depiction of Nigerian culture only a few years ago, a Nigeria that hasn't changed much to this day.

—reviewed by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

The World of Glass by Eugene Wildman, Univ. Notre Dame Press, 2003

Eugene Wildman's latest collection of short stories is proof that second acts can happen for American fictionists. It's a far cry from the exuberant experimentalism of Montezuma's Ball, the challenging 1970 work that defined Wildman as an avant-garde voice of an avant-garde literary generation. While the aesthetic values of The World of Glass are a world apart from Wildman's earlier work, they share the same commitment to craft. The World of Glass prizes transparent, clear, nuanced language in the service of sharp, focused meanings. The separate pieces of this inter-related story cycle are all model exemplars of the refined, traditional American short story. If Wildman had something to prove, that a one-time enfant terrible could mature into an accomplished, aesthetically conservative master craftsman, he has proved it.

The World of Glass centers around the figure of Todd White, a writer of modest success. The different stories in the cycle capture him at different points in his life, from childhood up to the age of around fifty, though not in chronological sequence. This approach allows Wildman to hit on some defining moments in the history of a generation, from the war in Vietnam and resistance to it at home, to 9/11. The locales also mirror the preoccupations of the times. Todd White divvies up his time between Southeast Asia, where he attempts to answer riddles and fathom ancient and recent mysteries, and dreary Chicago, capital of realism.

There's also a warning to aspiring writers in the finely depicted failures of Todd White to sustain a meaningful relationship with another human-being. He remarks at one point that “experience” is only good for “material.” And remarks later that he feels he's wasted his life. Wildman seems to be suggesting that writers have to try extra hard to be in their own skin, without obsessively embroidering or interpreting raw experience, which may be beautiful and meaningful in its own right. A good point, and well conveyed.

—reviewed by C.W. Cannon

The Wrong Stuff, by Sharon Fiffer, St. Martin's Minotaur, 2003.

Sharon Fiffer's third Jane Wheel mystery finds Jane considering whether she can balance being a private detective with working as an antiques picker without neglecting her husband and teenage son. When a mislaid permission slip causes son Nick to miss a field trip and husband Charley to bail her out, Jane vows to simplify her “stuff” with the help of an Oprah show self-help book. She chastises herself and prioritizes at the same time: “Hold on. First, buy the book and get a grip on the stuff overtaking the house. Second, be a better mother by never losing anything, forgetting anything, missing anything, or being late for anything ever again. Third, become an ace picker without becoming a muttering bag lady. Fourth, become an ace PI by clearing Claire Oh of murder.”

Clearing Claire Oh of murder takes Jane and her best friend/antiques dealer Tim Lowry to a ritzy furniture restoration farm in Michigan that is populated with colorful craftsmen and hippie artisans with a murderous thirst for only the finest things in life. Fiffer's plot thickens when Jane stumbles upon yet another body as she investigates the Westman Sun Flower Chest that lies at the heart of the crimes.

As with Tim, whom Jane has known since grade school in Kankakee, the other supporting characters are well drawn and have history with Jane. Bruce Oh, Jane's stoic PI partner, is also the suffering husband of Claire, the fashionably dressed prime suspect. Jane's musical cell phone keeps her in touch with her husband and son, but also her mother Nellie who calls at inopportune times with updates on her broken toe, complaints about Don (Jane's father), and advice for ensuring that Jane's long platonic relationship with Tim won't suddenly break up Jane's marriage.

Fiffer's writing is witty and layered with plays on language, antiques terminology, and references to other classic sleuths. At the rate that it takes Jane to sort through the bakelite buttons, typewriter ribbon tins and dead bodies, there's bound to be a lot more “stuff” to come.

—reviewed by JoAnne Ruvoli

Vermeer's Daughter, by Barbara Shoup, Guild Press Emmis Publishing, 2003.

Carelina, the fictional daughter who narrates Barbara Shoup's fifth novel is not the girl with the pearl earring. “Let me explain,” she says in the opening prologue, “I am not the beautiful daughter. Not Maria, there on the easel, the one who looks over her shoulder at you, caught turning for one last glance before disappearing into the darkness behind her. I am Carelina, the plain girl in the portrait that hangs beside her.” But in Shoup's hands, she is anything but the plain girl she claims.

The novel follows eleven-year-old Carelina through turbulent times in Vermeer's 17th century Dutch household. As any young girl might, she struggles with sisters who are prettier or more pious, a mother who is perpetually pregnant and an overbearing grandmother. Lacking domestic skills, Carelina finds herself much more comfortable in her father's painting studio where Vermeer teaches her to grind pigments, mix oils and clean brushes. There she watches the apparitions appear on each Vermeer canvas as he chases the light around objects and people.

Shoup's novel captures what it is like to be the girl in the background stuck having to watch. But in this coming-of-age novel, Carelina is transformed observing her father at work. From the camera obscura that captures the whole city of Delft to the lens of Mijnheer van Leeuwenhoek that reveals the Delft tower through the eye of a dragonfly, Carelina starts to challenge what she sees. Egged on by the philosophy of Spinoza and Descartes that gets bantered about in Vermeer's painting studio Shoup brilliantly lets art and science collide. Shoup handles the crisis with complicated simplicity appropriate to the young Carelina whose questions have her taking up painting in earnest. She is Vermeer's daughter after all.

Shoup draws rich detail of the era throughout the novel, from the powders and pastes of the painting accoutrements to the mouth watering descriptions of brown and crackly broodjes and Kermis cakes with pink sugar frosting.

Organized in chapters that focus on the completion of four Vermeer paintings, readers familiar with Vermeer will be rewarded with the appearances of many more. Through Carelina's eyes, Shoup renders the famous images and imagines the stories behind them unforgettably. As Carelina's artistic eye matures, simple moments—on the street, through a doorframe or in a doll's house—become luxurious images equally memorable. Shoup's language holds light and texture as finely as any Vermeer.

—reviewed by JoAnne Ruvoli