Summer reading! As an English literature student, I look forward to when I am able to pick up a book that I’ve been meaning to read of my own volition, and stepping away from set texts. I spent the summer in my family home in the south of France, rifling through dusty book-packed shelves and finding hidden gems that had likely not seen the light of day for thirty years or so. My father and I are the readers of the family, and between us two, we have amounted a collection of hundreds of books. So, my summers are often spent scouring these shelves and finding well-loved aged paperbacks to read and reread. The books that felt the most… summery, to me, are those that I will speak of here.
One of the books I started the summer with was not the lightest, but was definitely impactful. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe had been on my must-read list for too long, before I came across it on one of our numerous bookshelves and decided it must be a sign to read it. It is the start of a trilogy, and explores the life of a prominent man of a Nigerian village. It deals with the onset of colonisation and the disruption that religion and white men brought into their lives. It’s an emotional classic, with lyrical prose that stings of heat, dusty anger, wilderness and loss of control.
On an apparent postcolonialism kick, (it is what I am writing my dissertation on, after all), I continued my reading with The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I found this book in my local Waterstones, and as I was buying it, the clerk told me it was his mother’s favourite book. Although he himself had never read it, he trusted his mother’s taste and would vouch for its excellence. After reading it myself, I understand that his mother was right. The Poisonwood Bible tells the story of a Christian missionary family on a mission to Africa, to spread the word of ‘God’ and teach them ‘civilisation’. This novel is the flipside of Things Fall Apart. The cultural references made in Things Fall Apart were echoed in The Poisonwood Bible. A staple doughy food called fufu (still popular in West African and Caribbean cuisine today) is described as delicious, filling, and always present at feasts of celebration in Things Fall Apart. In The Poisonwood Bible, we are told of its ‘plainness’, it’s low nutritional value and it’s unhealthiness. Barbara Kingsolver is well educated, however, on colonisation and its devastating effects, so this is not an uneducated book promoting the side of the missionaries. The various family members all leave their mission in a very different state of mind, their beliefs shaken and shown to be misinformed. At least, those that do end up leaving do so. This book is emotional, beautiful, gripping. I would describe it as humid, not a light beach read, but one where you sit in the heat of the sun and are more easily transported to the feverishness of an untamed jungle. You will learn something, your head will reel.
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is another book where heat seems to rise off the pages. It tells the story of a mother and her young boy fleeing Mexico to the ‘North’ (the US) to escape the territory of a very dangerous cartel leader who killed the rest of their family. This book is the desert, of heart wrenching emotion, of struggle, fear, guilt and of the tunnel-vision of survival. I avoided this book for a long time, as I knew the author is not Mexican. I questioned whether it was her place to be writing on such a topic as I read this book. It caused me to look at the book very critically. The idea of a white woman writing on the struggle of refugees of colour is not one that I liked. But the novel encouraged research, and rose awareness of important issues. My mind is not made up on where I stand with this, but the book is topical and difficult.
There are many more books I would love to mention, but I will leave the rest for some other time. Reading the books I have mentioned, I hope you would understand what I mean by ‘summer’. The heat I spoke of is not always pleasant, but it is necessary.
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