Divergent, Veronica Roth
Now a Hollywood movie, Divergent‘s world is one in the wake of a great war. Humanity has realised that it’s not race or resources that cause conflict, but the human heart, and they have formed 5 factions according to what they blame for the war, and therefore what they value. Beatrice comes from Abnegation, who value selflessness, but considers herself too selfish to belong, and on the day of her coming of age leaves her family to choose Dauntless, who value courage and despise cowardice. However, she’s carrying a great secret: she doesn’t actually fit any of the categories. She is Divergent, and that’s a threat to those in power because she can’t be controlled. On Roth’s blog, she says, ‘The world is broken and we need to know about it’, and she explores this theme in a number of different ways in this book. The brokenness is both corporate and personal; in actions, intellect and emotions. It isn’t just that the factions themselves have become corrupt, it’s also that sometimes there is no ‘right’ in a situation. You get the feeling that whatever solution there is for humanity to live in peace, it won’t come from themselves; it needs to come from outside the existing structures. I’m looking forward to reading the second two books in this trilogy to see how she resolves this issue.
Carly’s Voice: Breaking Through Autism, Arthur Fleischmann
After seeing this youtube video of how Carly Fleischmann experiences a simple trip to a cafe, I bought her father’s memoir. I taught a number of kids who were on the ASD spectrum when I was a middle school English teacher, and they were always something of a mystery to me. It was hard to know how to help them, especially with the needs of 25 other adolescents competing for attention! I could only guess at the desperation their parents felt, and the early chapters of this book profile that: the endless appointments, the sleep deprivation, the longing for an emotional connection, the social exclusion and isolation, the insensitivity of others, the helplessness and confusion. This is a must-read simply to increase your empathy for parents of children with disabilities. However, the real highlight of this book, as the title suggests is when Carly finds her voice. Far from the diagnosis of intellectual disability, Carly is self-aware, emotional, funny, ambitious and intelligent, but unable to communicate her thoughts until she learns to type on a computer, an activity which is immensely painful for her. Many of her own words are included in this memoir and the insights into her world and how she experiences the world are absolutely fascinating, turning a stack of perceptions about autism on their head. At times funny, at other points heart-wrenching, the encounters and observations in this memoir shine a light on a much misunderstood condition.
We Need New Names, Noviolet Bulawayo
This debut novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize winning novel, and perhaps more importantly, won the Etisalat prize. It’s narrated by Darling who lives in a shanty in Zimbabwe, though this kind of poverty is new for her family. She refers to it as when ‘things fell apart’, presumably a reference to China Achebe’s famous description of the advent of colonialism in Africa, but this is not cultural destruction at the hands of the colonist. Rather, it’s a picture of the disenchantment and disenfranchisement of Mugabe’s own people. The second half of the book finds Darling in America, having been sent there to have a better life. It charts her growing alienation from her homeland, while she will never belong in America, and her life there is hardly the stuff of dreams. This is quite a sad story, wrestling with some difficult cultural and societal issues, but the childlike voice of the narrator brings fresh eyes to the events and characters in both Zimbabwe and America in a way that is both poignant and humorous.
Night and Day, Virginia Woolf
I had to read some Virginia Woolf at uni and I remember finding it hard going. Reading Woolf is something of a cross-cultural exercise. In terms of language, pronouns are more ambiguous and the meaning of some words is on the edge of today’s semantic range. Likewise, unless you know the social graces of Edwardian England, certain exchanges are difficult to interpret (“Is that character’s comment positive, negative, neutral? I have no idea! What is it even responding to?”) Despite all that, I enjoyed Night and Day immensely, once I got into it. The story is essentially a love triangle (which becomes some kind of mangled pentagon). It explores questions of love and marriage: is being ‘in love’ necessary for marriage? How would you know if your feelings were real or merely illusory? How can two lives, ambitions and temperaments cohere? These questions are made all the more stark by the background social upheaval around the first wave of feminism. Woolf’s wit and insights into human behaviour cut to the quick. They are simultaneously compelling and awkward, shining a light on each person’s internal life and how that affects outward interactions.
My Hands Came Away Red, Lisa McKay
This young adult novel follows a group of young North Americans who go on a short term mission trip to an Indonesian island to build a church. While they’re there, the village is attacked by Muslims extremists, fighting breaks out, and the team embark on a new mission which is to get back home. Along the way, they’re asking big questions about life and faith. The three dimensional treatment of suffering is a welcome addition to Christian fiction, as are some of the missiological issues that are raised, but I didn’t find the writing or the story immersive enough to really get into this one.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.