Book Review of Kiley Reid's Such A Fun Age
As a rule I wouldn’t comment on a book cover, but the sleeve of Such a Fun Age really pulled me in. Jojo Moyes’ comment “I couldn’t put this down” promoted its accessibility. In addition, the positive comments from both the Times “A new literary star” and the Guardian “A firecracker debut” added to its appeal. The story Such a Fun Age lived up to its promise. I wasn’t disappointed and hope this reaches the Booker prize shortlist.
In Such a Fun Age the issues of what it means to be racist, who is and isn’t racist, why and how this might manifest itself is tied up in an exploration of messy real life. As such it is a fascinating read.
Context is significant in Such a Fun Age and at a time when the ‘Black Lives Matters’ campaign is making readers like myself question our own self-awareness regarding white privilege, I found myself being quite self-conscious as I read along. Normally I would simply immerse myself in a text and respond to it naturally and with confidence in my views regarding character, theme and plot.
When reading Such a Fun Age, however, I was questioning my own responses as someone experiencing ‘white privilege’ and trying to be reflective of this as I read from the perspectives of the key characters. Interestingly, Kiley Reid actually refers to raising awareness about racism in our current society within the story itself.
Regarding the plot: in brief, the main protagonist Emira is a black twenty something graduate, living in Philadelphia who is moderately disenchanted with her life. Working as a babysitter she feels left behind, earns little, but knows she is great at her job. She has a firm affection for Briar, the toddler for whom she cares, Briar is the daughter of seemingly successful and woke Peter and Alix. They are not necessarily quite all they seem and one evening they call Emira and ask her to take Briar to the mall following a disturbance in their own home. This leads to Emira being accused of kidnapping Briar and thus unleashes an unexpected chain of events during which the reader can reflect upon and challenge aspects of all the key players’ motivations and beliefs. Things come to a head when we learn that Emira’s current white boyfriend Kelley had been Alix’s first love. The relationship had ended badly with Alix being presented as racist during her time in school.
Part of the reason for responding to Such a Fun Age with some element of self-doubt is that it doesn't present characters that are archetypally villains or heroes, so is constantly demonstrating that we can all make errors of judgement whilst not being fundamentally ‘bad people’. Each character has flaws and all have some redeemable characteristics. Race is the central theme explored in the text and yet, at the same time, it almost isn’t. It is as if ‘colour’ is an external theme to which the characters all react. In Renni Eddo-Lodge's Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People about Race she talks about how it is only white privileged people who make the claim of everyone being at the same starting point in life. Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age proves the validity of this claim. The text is continuously presenting the actions of the different characters within a justified framework which seems legitimate to themselves. It is for the reader to either accept or refute the legitimacy of that claim. The central example of this is when Alix loses her virginity to Kelley, but almost immediately afterwards calls the police when his black friends arrive at her house. This can seem legitimate to her, but of course her narration of the events is just one narrative and not necessarily a reliable one.
Book Discussion Questions on Such a Fun Age
thebookerprizes.com/fiction/2020To what extent is it possible to read Such a Fun Age without being self reflective about how your own race, wealth or class have influenced your own life?
What are the main flaws in Alix’s character?
What are your views on why Kelly and Emira don’t reconcile once he is proven to be basically ‘right’ about Alix?
It is when Emira realises that she is the only one of her friendship group who is still on their parents’ health insurance policy that she reflects on her lack of financial and career success. She knows that she is being ‘left behind’ yet doesn’t seem to be able to quite do anything about her prospects. What are the factors stopping her becoming richer and more successful?
Which of the characters in the book do you most identify with and why?
What are the reasons for Alix’s ‘friendship crush’ on Emira?
In the story Such a Fun Age we see the significance of ‘first love’ and how it can affect a person’s whole future. We also see how unreliable personal narrations of first love can be. How much, if any sympathy do you have for Alex as a teenager? Can she be forgiven for calling the police?
In the story, Kiley Reid comments that Kelly gravitated towards black cool kids at school and that he always has black girlfriends. Reid has Emira express how grown up she feels having an older white boyfriend who doesn’t buy his furniture from Ikea. Discuss what this reveals about Emir, Kelley and society at large.
Both Kelly and Alix wanted to share the video of the racist incident involving Emira and Briar in the grocery store even though Emira doesn’t want to. What are their motivations for wanting to put the video on social media?
Both Alix and Emira rely a lot on their female friends for companionship and validation of their life choices and decisions. Do you think their friends let them down at any point in this story?
Is it possible to argue that Alix truly believed that she was genuinely helping Emira by sharing the video clip?
Peter is probably the least ‘fleshed out’ character in this story. Discuss whether any significance should be attached to this.
Discuss the importance of the final line of Such a Fun Age “Emira would carry the dread that if Briar ever struggled to find herself, she’d probably just find someone to do it for her.”
Kelly and Alix both assume that they know what is best for Emira, regarding how she should respond to the racist attack on her in the shopping centre. Discuss.
The exploration of racism and prejudice are dominant themes in Such A Fun Age. What other issues are also significant? How do they manifest themselves?
Discuss what you understand by the term ‘white privilege’. Review how it is central in the story Such a Fun Age.
Can Alix’s growing awareness of her own ‘white privilege’ be used as any kind of excuse for her errors of judgement?
Alix accuses Kelly of being racist. Is he? Discuss.
Would you like to see this book win the 2020 Booker Prize? Why or why not?
Bookclub Questions on Kiley Reid's Such a Fun Age (If you haven't read the book!)
The initial incident in the shopping centre where Emira was accused of kidnapping Briar was the result of a suspicious white shopper who jumped to outrageous conclusions based on various prejudices and assumptions surrounding not only race, but also class, wealth and appearance. Do you have incidents of friends being similarly wrongly judged simply because they are not white and/or other assumptions? Alternatively are you prepared to admit instances of when you have jumped to conclusions based on prejudices and assumptions that you may have?
How aware are you of what ‘white privilege’ is and what it means?
When writing these questions I felt very self-conscious, as a white middle-aged woman, about whether they are appropriate or whether I am revealing any unconscious prejudice that I might have. I would hope I am not racist, yet not having experienced racism myself makes me cautious about commenting about it. How comfortable are you discussing issues of race?
Have you read Why I’m No Longer Talking About Race? Did you find it a valuable read? Why or why not?
How important is an individual’s nationality or cultural background when interpreting text?
Further Comment on Kiley Reid's Such a Fun Age
Whilst the issues explored in Such a Fun Age can never simply stop mattering and Emira’s life journey doesn’t suddenly stop, the story does have a definite end. Loose ends are, by and large, tied up which is quite pleasing for the reader. On one level, Such a Fun Age is an easy read. The writing style is enjoyable and has a light touch that pulls the reader in. On a different level though the book is a challenge and raises as many questions as it answers. The complexity of this really appealed to me.
Book Review of Reni Eddo-Lodge's Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race
Reni Eddo-Lodge's Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race was first published in 2017. It shares a title with a blog post she published in 2014, but wrote in 2012 with the same title. She explains how she doesn't wish to discuss race with those white people who are defensive about their 'own white privlege and those white people who don't even believe that it exists. With such a strong opening the reader (if white) is immediately required to reflect on their own attitudes towards racism and forced to confront what may be uncomfortable for them.
The irony of Eddo-Lodge's claim that she isn't talking about race, when she spends most of her working life doing just that in the white publishing world isn't lost on her. Neither is the knowledge that she is inevitably going to have the reprisals and character assassinations that come from the discussion of race. Eddo-Lodge is rightly angry and forceful.
In Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race Eddo-Lodge clearly shows the legitimacy of the claim that structural racism and its symptoms continue to be rampant in today's society. She does though express hope as she describes how in 2017 she felt that, despite the continuation of far right political progress, the world climate was finally ready to discuss racism. The current popularity of this text must, of course, be related to the 'Black Lives Matter' movement. Eddo-Lodge's claim in the final sentence of ther book 'It's happening right now' was, at the time of publishing, an incredibly accurate prediction of the imminent future
The structure of the text cleverly separates issues into topics in order to enable the reader to consider specific aspects of racism before bringing it back together in order to demonstrate the wider picture of the origins and continuaton of structural racism at all societal levels. Why I am No Longer Talking To White People about Race is a very comprehensive account of the history of racism. It's chapters on how racism needs to be considered specifically when exploring issues relating to women and class had me reeling. Eddo-Lodge skilfully shows how even in these marginal groups racism exists.
Even though, the time is, I think, ripe for the success of Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race it is currently attaining, it wouldn't be popular if it wasn't so honest and accessible. Eddo-Lodge is quick to admit her own failings and concerns. For example, she questions whether it is appropriate to use the Grenfell Tower Disaster to prove a point when the grief that people are feeling is so raw. This openness and tiny glimpses of self-doubt makes Eddo-Lodge very readable. That's not to say that she is a beacon of humble self-effacement. She is a strong, forceful powerful women whose angry voice rightly asserts itself through the pages.
Book Discussion Questions on Why I'm No Longer Talking To White Poeple About Race
These questions are all based on an acceptance that structural racism and white privilege exists.
How did the title make you feel? Could you relate to the sentiment expressed?
Did you learn anything from Reni-Eddo's book that you hadn't known before?
What was the value to you of reading Why I'm No Longer Talking About Race to White People?
Do you think many people will read this book and completely dispute the validity of the arguments made in it?
If Reni-Eddo was here now what would you ask her?
Having read the book what do you think white privilege means?
Do you think anyone can be completely without prejudice?
Do you think you or 'people' more generally would respond differently to the book if it was written by a man?
Is it uncomfortable discussing this book in a bookclub environment? Why is this?
if the movement is happening now how will you contribute to it? Discuss?
Is there anything you disagree with in Eddo-Lodge's account of society?
Do you think there will be many book groups discussing this text? Why or why not?
How would you describe Reni Eddo Lodge's character?
What chapter of the book did you find most revealing and interesting? Why?
What emotions did you feel as you read the book?
Has reading this book changed your perception about racism? How? Will it change your behaviour?
Is age an excuse for racism?
How would you respond to someone who rejects the 'black Lives Matter' statement by claiming that 'all lives matter?
If you are a white person do you feel that reading Eddo-Lodge's book has helped give you a platform for discussing racism more freely? Why or why not?
Wold you like to explore how different members of the groups' experiences regarding racism have been different? What can you learn from each other?
If structural racism pervades our society what can you do to help eradicate it?
Is it possible to feel as passionately about inequality if you are not experiencing it?
Personal Response to Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race
One reading of Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race is not enough. A second reading allows the reader to assimilate and reflect calmly on the points that the reader reacts emotionally to the first time through For anyone who is struggling to really accept the extent of racism that underpins our modern world this book is a real eye-opener. Eddo-Lodge has claimed that white guilt isn't helpful and rather it is white action that is required. She is right but it is hard to not dwell on the guilt. This was an important point for me to consider.
This powerful, focused book on race is the first about this issue that I've seen become a best-seller. It is an essential read,
Book Review of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus
I absolutely adore Adichie's books, so it was a joy to revisit Purple Hibiscus.
The story is told by fifteen year old Kambili whose father, Eugene, is a wealthy business man and prominent public figure. He takes huge personal risks in publishing stories in his newspaper, The Standard, that challenge the actions of the Nigerian government. In addtion, Eugene donates considerable sums to worthy charitable organisations and local families. He is a staunch Catholic and rejects wholeheartedly anything he considers heathen. This includes his own father who is a follower of traditional beliefs. Within his own household, however, Eugene is a cruel tyrant subjecting Kambili, her brother Jaja and her mother to horrendous physical and pyschological abuse.
Using an extended flashback Adichie tells the story of the events which lead to Jaja standing up to his father. He does this at first by not going to church. This act of rebellion initially seems like the 'resolution' of the story, but it is in fact followed by an additional section of text which reveals far more serious repercussions which then begin to unfold.
Through the voice of Kambili we are able to hear the power that abusers have over their victims. What makes Purple Hibiscus so fascinating is Adichie's clever portrayal of the complexity of Eugene's character. Whilst the reader primarily simply wants the abuse to end (in this respect it is similar to Tara Westover's Educated) they are also fascinated by Eugene. Interestingly Eugene's sister, Auntie Ifeoma doesn't demonstrate any of the same cruel traits of character. She is seen as intelligent, open minded, poor and political.
In Purple Hibiscus we investigate religion, hypocrisy, politics, charity and culture. These are big issues which run alongside an almost separate 'rites of passage' story where we see Kambili fall in love with an unobtainable priest, Father Amadi.
The characterisation is fabulous in this story, the structure is effective and the political insight fascinating for anyone interested in Nigeria. Like all first person narratives, with an unreliable narrator, it is fascinating to consider the portrayal of character from alternate perspectives. What I found particularly interesting was how little space was given to exploring Kambili's mother's thoughts.
The only thing I'd change in Purple Hibiscus is affording a little more time to finding out what happens next, after Jaja's release from prison. Perhaps there might be a sequel one day.
Book Discussion Questions on Adichie's Purple Hibiscus
What do you think are the reasons for Eugene's behaviour?
What similarities can you see between Eugene and his sister? What is your opinion of Aunt Ifeoma's parenting style?
Jaja was convicted for the crime, not his mother? The narrator says that no one believed her confession. What do you think?
Why did Jaja take the blame for the murder of his father?
Kimbali's grandfather is known as a heathen to Eugene and a traditionalist to his sister. What does this difference in viewpoints reveal about their different attitudes to religion?
How is Father Amadi different to missionaries that Eugene and Auntie encountered when they were young?
Is there anything to reproach about Father Amadi's behaviour?
What different types of inequalities are explored in the novel?
In the novel there are numerous instances of things not being what they seem. What examples can you think of where the appearance of events differs to the reality? Explore the significance of this?
What do the purple hibiscus symbolize?
Father Benedict is still considered to be the new priest, even though he has been in the role for seven years. This is, according to Kambile because he is white. Discuss the concept of being an outsider both in relation to this specific story and in literature more generally?
The story is set against the backdrop of political instability. Auntie Ifeoma is likely to leave Nigeria and move to America. This is criticized by her friends who claim that she will become a second class citizen in America. Discuss.
Bookclub Questions on Adichie's Purple Hibiscus (if you haven't read the book!)
Adichie has written a small book (I was lucky enough to have my school Headteacher agree to give copies to all Year 12 students) where she outlines her views of feminism. I've linked to the clip in this post and the full transcript. It is utterly brilliant. If you have time watch or read this Ted Talk of We Should All be Feminists before your bookclub meeting and discuss its importance.
Adichie's book. won what was then known as the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Purple Hibiscus.. The prize has since ceased to exist in the format it was in. This is what Salman Rushdie said about the prize. “Isn’t this the very oddest of beasts… a school of literature whose supposed members deny vehemently that they belong to it? Worse these denials are simply disregarded! It seems the creature has taken on a life of its own,” Discuss your views on 'the Commonwealth'.
Eugene is descirbed as being too much the product of colonialism. Regardless of if you have read the book discuss what do you think this means?
Discuss the idea of using religion to justify controversial beliefs and actions.
It is through gardening and helping his aunt that Jaja starts to find a strength and purpose to his existence. What activity has helped you through difficult times
At different points in this story Kambili has all of her beliefs challenged. Have you ever felt the ground shift under your feet and lose everyhing you believed in? Would you like to share what happened?
Kimbala's cousin is prejudiced against her because she has wealth and a seemingly privileged lifestyle. Have you ever allowed your own prejudices and jealousies to stop you seeing the truth of a situation?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of using a first person narrative when writing fiction?
Personal Response to Adichie's Purple Hibiscus
I remember when I read Purple Hibiscus the first time I was fascinated by the connections Adichie made, to Achebe's Things Fall Apart. I was fascinated that she actually spent part of her childhood living in Achebe's house - so cool! My first reading of Purple Hibiscus focused a lot on considering how colonialism was explored through the book. I think I felt that Adichie somehow was a figurehead for all modern Nigerian literature. Hardly fair on my part!
In this reading of Purple Hibiscus I spent less time exploring whether this was a modern take on the themes specific to 'post-colonail literature' and more time reflecting on the theme of domestic abuse that dominates the story.. This highlighted for me how we bring different things or priorities to the reading of a book. There is no such thing as objectivity. I absolutely loved revisiting Purple Hibiscus. it served to remind me what a top class writer Adiche is. I now need to re-read all of her books, especially Half of a Yellow Sun, which was one of the books I wrote on in my dissertation for a Masters Degree in English.
Book Review of Sally Rooney's Normal People
I first read and enjoyed Sally Rooney’s Normal People a few months ago. I remember thinking the level of the self-reflection and introspection by the main characters, Marianne and Connell were intense. Somehow it put me in mind of Simone de Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay.
Both books are love stories (of a kind) and both deal with the complexity of emotions resulting from attraction, envy and faithlessness. Beauvoir’s book is autobiographical, it was written as an act of revenge against a 17 year old who came between her and Sartre, with whom she was involved. Sally Rooney's Normal People isn't autobiographical. In an interview for the Irish times she states "“it's not autobiographical . . . but I did feel that as characters, as people, their psychology was very much drawn from facets and aspects of my own psychology as a younger adult and even now” (Rooney, 2020).
Normal People traces the relationship of Marianne with Connell as they move from their small town in the West of Ireland to university and finally to Connell accepting a place on a creative writing course in New York. Marianne is wealthy, middle class and intellectually snobby; Connell is sporty, bright but considered 'the wrong sort of person' for a match to be possible between them.
The book’s focus is almost completely on the dynamic of Marianne and Connell’s relationship. Who they are and the influence of nature and nurture in determining their relationship is never far from the surface of the text. Domestic abuse, bullying, parenting, class, wealth are all topics that are explored and are all used, in part, to explore not only the emotional relationship of the two characters, but also the sexual relationship between them.
I can see why Normal People has such appeal for young people in particular. What I particularly found intriguing about it is how the text is structured. The chapter headings are dates at which key events occur and several months pass between the beginning of a new chapter. This often reflects a period of time during which Connell and Marianne were 'seeing other people' or not in the same physical location. The reader often learns about a change in the relationship and then a flashback approach is used to show how the current status quo of that particular chapter occurs. (Does that even make sense?!) Consequently, there is a kind of series of mini flashbacks that I imagine are used when dividing up the book for the BBC Three TV series. which stars Daisy Edgar Jones and Paul Mescal in the roles of Marianne and Connell.
Book Discussion Questions on Sally Rooney's Normal People
Bookclub Questions on Sally Rooney's Normal People (if you haven't read the book!)
Personal Response to Sally Rooney's Normal People
I am an avid fan of the Fortunately podcast, available on BBC Sounds. When hearing Jane Garvey and Fi Glover discussing the serialization on their podcast, I thought I would watch it with my grown up girls. When I mentioned this to them though they'd already seen it. I think the knowledge that it had a lot of ‘sex scenes’ was incentive to not watch the programme with their old mum!
Not to be put off, I started watching the series anyway. however only watched the first half of one episode before deciding that the series wasn’t for me. I simply couldn’t be doing with the intensity of all that exploration of first love. If I'm honest, I felt a little bit the same when I read David Nicholls' One Day. It was great, but I wouldn't have wanted to watch it on screen. One of these days I’ll need to reflect why I am open to reading about teenage angst and first love, but not viewing it. I am tempted to revisit She Came to Stay and see how I respond to that. (Perhaps I'll have to add to the list of ways that I know I am middle aged!) For now though I’ll finish by saying I definitely would recommend Sally Rooney's Normal People, but there are aspects of it that I found uncomfortable to read.
Book Review of Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles
I read The Song of Achilles as part of a challenge to read all of the winners of the Women’s Prize for fiction. (Naomi Alderman's The Power and Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing are other worthy winners.) It is an effective and original re-telling of part of Homer’s The Iliad, focusing on the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles.
Patroclus narrates his own story starting from when he is banished from his father’s kingdom, after inadvertently killing another child. It is Patroclus' own voice that takes us through this journey. It being with narrating how his father Peleus gives Patroclus to Achille's father, as penance for the crime and ends when Achille's mother, Thetis finally agrees that Patroclus and Achilles lay together after their deaths. It would be fair to say taht Thetis, a goddess of water was not a fan of Patroclus!
Patroclus comments how he is seen as weak and effeminate and possibly ‘simple’. This contrasts with half god Achilles, for whom things come easy and who is strikingly handsome and talented. The reader views Patroclus as insightful, warm and gentle and arugably too good for Achilles'. This is a clever use of story telling where an unreliable narrator is used to seemingly and inadvertently improve his own standing with the audience.
It feels like most of the adolescent love story aspect of The Song of Achilles is Miller’s own invention, rather than any kind of retelling of history. It is as we move from adolescence of the characters into the latter end of the Trojan War years that the story returns more closely to Homer's Iliad.
Througout The Song of Achilles the reader is encouraged to observe the contrast between tender Achilles and ruthless killer Achilles through the eyes of Briseis, the woman Achilles took as ‘slave lover’ in order to save her from cruel Agamemon. Agamemom, is (for anyone like me, whose knowledge of Greeky mythology is sketchy to say the least!) brother of Menelaus, husband of Helen, about whom all the fuss is about!
The Song of Achilles won, what was until recently called the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012, but is now known as the Women's Prize for Fiction. There is a lot to enjoy in the book. I like how the narrator isn’t presented as a typical alpha male. I also enjoyed the portrayal of Achilles’ mother Thetis A mother-in-law figure from hell, she is powerful and proud. A feminist reading of the text is invited when looking at her role and that of the other women in the story.
I’d be fascinated whether Pat Barker had read The Song of Achilles when she wrote her book The Silence of the Girls, which was shortlisted for the same prize in 2019. There is definitely a similarity in the style of the story and it records roughly the same events, but putting the women at the centre and using Briseis as the main narrative voice
In both cases the focus is on those heroes who have been marginalized. In the retellings of the stories. In The Song of Achilles Miller is very conscious of how she is doing this. Miller has Odyssey (who plays only a small part in her version of events) comment towards the end of the story, somewhat tongue in cheek, that when remembered in future years he might actually be considered more famous than Achilles and Patroclus. This is an amusing little coment.
. It is always interesting to consider famous stories from alternate perspectives and Miller successfully does this in The Song of Achilles.
Book Discussion Questions on The Song of Achilles
Who do you think is the more attractive character and why? Patrocus or Achilles?
Thetis is presented as a ‘mother-in-law’ from hell figure? Does she have any redeeming qualities?
In Greek mythology women are frequently raped and seen as two-dimensional characters. It has been said that if they are not being adored then they are spending their time lamenting the loss of their sons, lovers and fathers. Discuss how women are presented in the Song of Achilles? How does it sit with your modern views of ‘womanhood’?
Which of the male characters is most flawed. What is their hubris?
Do you think The Song of Achilles is a worthy winner of the Orange Prize? Why or why not?
Achilles arguably cheated the gods by not fighting Hector sooner, as he knew it was only Hector who could kill him? Should he have fought Hector sooner and saved thousands of deaths?
Which character in the book would you like to learn more about?
What is your favourite part of this story and why?
Bookclub Questions on Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles (if you haven't read the book).
In warfare would you prefer to be tending the sick or fighting the battles?
Achilles' logic for not fighting, but allowing Patroclus to dress up and pretend to be him is arguably very flawed? Can you think of an instance in your own life where your logic has been flawed? Share what happened with your bookclub friends.
After Patroclus tells Briseis he can’t love her because of his love for Achilles she says that she would rather stay with Patroclus as his ‘sister’, rather than not be with him at all? Would this arrangement be acceptable to you?
Do you know many Greek myths and legends? Share any stories that you can remember.
Who amongst you would make a great Greek tragic hero?
Have you read Homer’s Iliad? If so, wow! If not, what is the most literary book you have read?!
Personal Response to Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles
If I hadn’t set myself the challenge of reading the Women’s Prize for fiction winners this isn’t a book I’d have picked up. I lack the imagination to really go along with the combination of gods, demi-gods and humans interacting. I do think Miller made a brave attempt at creating rounded characters that took us beyond simply what the Greek heroes are remembered for.
For any readers who do love myths and legends this has got to be a winner. I very much recommend reading The Song of Achilles back to back with Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls. Having ventured to the world of Greek mythology so far, why not also consider reading Stephen Fry’s Mythos. It is a book that has been on my shelf for too long and I might now venture into its colourful pages!