With only a couple of days left of November, I thought it would be fun to start a list of my three favourite books for each month. I have always been a bibliophile (so much so that my job is now as a paper conservator), and I love personal recommendations when it comes to new books, so in this series I will provide a synopsis of three books I think it is important everyone should read at some point, and why. The theme of my November selection is books which double as a form of poignant social critique.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
There is nothing like sharp, cutting and well-crafted satire to make us think, and The Sellout has these qualities in droves. Described by one reviewer as possessing “razor-sharp wit”, the narrative voice in this novel is not for the faint-hearted. Rather crass and unashamedly politically-incorrect, it took me a while to acclimatise to the language and get into the groove, however I am incredibly glad I persisted. By the time I was a couple of chapters in I was totally hooked.
The Sellout interrogates our preconceptions of the African American experience, challenging us to question our assumptions about the cultural legacy left by the slave trade, and forcing us to reflect on just what it means to be black in contemporary America today. As with all good comedic satire, it left me alternating between laughing uncontrollably, squirming at the outrageousness and irreverence, and hauntingly reflecting on my own beliefs, both cultural and political.
I had in fact seen copies of The Sellout in many bookstores long before I had a chance to read it. The first opportunity came when my Mum was gifted a copy. After reading hers I immediately and ferociously hunted down a copy of my own in a second-hand bookstore. Unsurprisingly, I am now in the process of gifting copies to friends.
This book has a certain quality; one that ensures once you have read it you won’t be able to get it out of your head.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
My beautiful friend Amelia gifted me a copy of this book when she visited Sydney a couple of weeks ago. We have very similar literary tastes, so her handwritten note inside the cover claiming this as one of her most favourite books had me bouncing with anticipation.
Deemed a ‘modern classic’, Things Fall Apart is a fictional narrative by renowned Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. The story chronicles the life of a Nigerian warrior from the Ibo tribe, Okonkwo, who fights to hold his tribe together under the onslaught of colonial rule. Despite being largely fictional, Things Fall Apart is an accurate and heart-wrendering depiction of the actual cultural and religious genocide which took place in Nigeria in the 19th century.
This is a masterly written story by one of Nigeria’s most celebrated activists and political commentators. The central character, Okonkwo, is poignantly crafted to demonstrate the insidious effect of colonialism not only on communities and the nation as a whole, but also on an individual’s sense of self. Contrasting traditional Nigerian fables and story telling with the missionary’s more contemporary Christian teachings, this book highlights the fundamentally conflicting dual premises which inform contemporary Nigerian identity and culture.
Things Fall Apart is an easy read, but by no means a light one. Achebe’s skills as a writer, combined with his intimate knowledge of Nigerian culture and history ensure, however, that despite the heavy and often depressing themes explored, the reader’s lasting impression is one of resilience and hope for the future.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara
Where to start? What can I possibly say to accurately convey the emotional wrecking-ball that is A Little Life? This book literally left me sobbing. So powerful and haunting was Yanigahara’s narrative voice, that it was many weeks before I could even think about picking up another book.
I was first introduced to A Little Life in a note from the editor in Good Reading magazine. She described it as an absolute tome of a book (it is), difficult to get into at first (also true), but absolutely worth the slog and wholly heart-rendering (couldn’t agree more).
The story follows four university friends; Willem, JB, Malcolm and Jude; who are each haunted in the following decades by the self-destructive influence of Jude himself. Despite attempts to conform to social expectation, Jude remains broken; “haunted by a degree of childhood trauma […] he fears he will not only be unable to overcome – but that will define his life forever”.
I love books which investigate the frailty and flaws of human nature, revealing how little is needed to push an individual beyond social mores to violence and psychological collapse. Yanigahara’s writing possesses all of these qualities, presented in a way which, rather than leaving the reader feeling like a voyeur to human suffering, instead leaves them almost as broken as the characters she portrays.
There is no doubt A Little Life is a haunting experience, but it is nevertheless an undertaking I would highly, highly recommend.