20 Books of Summer, #14 and #15: Rosewater and Everything I Never Told You

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Rosewater, the first novel in Tade Thompson’s SF trilogy, was published by indie press Apex in 2017 but is now being republished by Orbit after it won best novel at the 2017 Nommo Awards, which are for African speculative fiction or science fiction. Set in a future Nigeria in 2066, it focuses on Kaaro, a youngish black man who has a dual role: by day, he works for Integrity Bank and by night, and unwillingly, for an underground organisation called Section 45, an underground branch of the Nigerian government. Kaaro is in demand because he is a ‘sensitive’; he can pull thoughts and feelings from others’ minds, and can also access the ‘xenosphere’, an alternate, disembodied reality where he creates an alternative identity in the shape of a gryphon so he can explore freely without his own mind being invaded. The novel’s backstory explains that powers like Kaaro’s have been emerging among the human race after a series of alien invasions, kicking off in the late twentieth century; most relevantly for the purposes of this novel, the emergence of a mysterious, impenetrable biosphere in Nigeria, around which the city of Rosewater has formed. Visitors are attracted by the fact that once a year, the sphere opens, and illnesses and ailments are cured. But the full impact of the spread of alien micro-organisms on the human body and mind has barely begun.

Rosewater is both consistently inventive and somewhat disparate; it reads very much like the first book of a trilogy, with interesting threads picked up and then left to be resolved later. Much of the larger political background to the book, such as the fact that the United States has cut off contact with the rest of the world, is only revealed in its final chapters. This bittiness is amplified by the fact that it jumps back and forward in time a lot: mostly between 2055 and 2066, but with occasional excursions into other bits of Kaaro’s past. Given that the reader already has so much to hang onto, I found these switches consistently distracting. More annoyingly, the central story here is actually quite simplistic: the familiar thriller-esque narrative of a double agent. Kaaro is – as the novel recognises – a self-serving misogynist, and there doesn’t seem to be much impulse to dig any deeper. Reflecting this, the novel, which is action-driven, tends to focus on a series of narrow escapes in both of its timelines, when I cared much less about Kaaro’s physical safety than the world which he inhabits. The tantalising glimpses that Thompson includes weren’t really enough for me, and I hope that the next two books of this trilogy move away from Kaaro to open up broader vistas.

I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s being republished by Orbit in the UK on 20th September.

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[I have substituted this for Anna Yen’s Sophia of Silicon Valley, basically because I wanted a relatively light read as one of my 20 Books of Summer and this was much cheaper!]

I found Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywheredisappointingly schematic and moralistic, with the reader carefully instructed what to think at every turn. Everything I Never Told You, her debut, suffers from the same tendency to spell things out, but is in other ways much more subtle and much more moving. Set in Ohio in the 1970s, the novel opens with the news that sixteen-year-old Lydia Lee, daughter of James and Marilyn, has drowned in the local lake. Lydia and her family have always stood out; James is Chinese-American, and despite how desperately he wants his mixed-race children to fit in, they have always felt like outsiders. Meanwhile, WASP Marilyn has also been exerting a different kind of pressure on her daughter: cheated of her own opportunity to go to medical school when she fell pregnant at university, she has decided that Lydia must become a doctor, regardless of her daughter’s own inclinations. Caught in the jaws of her father’s social expectations and her mother’s academic ambitions, the novel poses the question: did Lydia take her own life, or is something else going on here?

While the novel is told from the perspectives of Lydia’s two siblings as well as James and Marilyn, it’s the parents’ stories that stand out. Ng writes very well about the small, daily hurts that James has had to bear during his own childhood and adolescence, and now in his career as a history lecturer. Even his supportive wife can’t avoid these kind of micro-aggressions at times – when she accuses him of ‘kow-towing’ to the police who are investigating Lydia’s death, ‘the word rifles from his wife’s mouth and lodges deep in his chest. From those two syllables… explode bent-backed coolies in cone hats, pigtailed Chinamen with sandwiched palms. Squinty and servile. Bowing and belittled.’ Marilyn’s history, like James’s, is both familiar and made newly poignant; after facing down institutionalised misoygny at university, she finds herself living exactly the kind of life her conservative mother would have wanted her to lead (minus the Chinese husband). This is summed up in a scene when she encounters a female doctor of about her own age:

‘It was not her imagination. Everyone repeated it, like a mantra. Dr Wolff. Dr Wolff. Dr Wolff… The nurses, bottles of penicillin in hand… The candy stripers… Most miraculous of all, the other doctors. “Dr Wolff, could I ask your opinion, please?”… Only then did Marilyn finally believe. How was it possible? How had she managed it?’

It’s a shame, then, that Ng can’t resist giving us a number of pages from Lydia’s perspective at the end of the novel, in which everything we already know about these characters is underlined and then underlined again, robbing the ending of much of its emotional weight. Ng writes with exceptional fluidity, and her stories have an incredible narrative drive – I only hope that in her next novel she trusts in her own talents more, and lets the reader do more of the work.

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2 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer, #14 and #15: Rosewater and Everything I Never Told You

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer: A Retrospective | Laura Tisdall

  2. Pingback: The Other Americans (Laila Lalami) and The Boat People (Sharon Bala) | Laura Tisdall

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