Every Friday, our editors share which books, audiobooks, and comics have been keeping us company throughout the week. This week: A stunning debut from an 18-year-old British novelist, a melancholic meditation on the nature of place, a real-life tale of caring for the misunderstood beasts of the African Bush, and more.
Alex P: Helen Oyeyemi’s celebrated debut novel was written, as has been repeated in reviews of the book ad nauseam, when she was 18 years old. Normally I try to ignore such buzzy tidbits, but in the case of The Icarus Girl, knowing Oyeyemi’s age truly does enrich your appreciation of both her subject matter and the skill with which she handles it.
The Icarus Girl is the story of Jessamy, a lonely and observant 8-year-old girl. She’s as precocious—she writes Haiku and reads Hamlet—as she is troubled—prone to screaming fits and fevers. Much of the novel is concerned with her sense of disconnect from the world around her; she’s as out of place with her father’s family in England as she is with her mother’s in Nigeria. Her sense of self is always precariously balanced: she wakes up every morning reminding herself of her name, and there’s a menace behind her reluctance to accept her alternate Nigerian name: “Should she answer to this name, and by doing so steal the identity of someone who belonged here? Should she …become Wuraola?” Questions of self and the other ominously escalate as the novel progresses, and with the appearance of TillyTilly, Jess’s baleful Doppelgänger-cum-imaginary friend, things take a turn for the Gothic. Though there’s a distinctive uncanny cast to the novel, its real concerns—of identity and sameness, of society and self—are also the concerns of the coming-of-age novel. It’s no wonder, then, that the author of this novel could handle these topics with such mastery and ease; after all, she was just coming of age herself.
Justin: Does appreciating beauty make you a better person? Can an appreciation for beauty actually lead you to do what’s right? In this slim yet magnificent essay, Elaine Scarry, a beloved English professor at Harvard, argues emphatically yes. While critics have argued that attention to the aesthetic distracts us from suffering or makes us objectify that which is beautiful, Scarry shows, with dazzling intelligence and clarity, that the opposite is true. Drawing upon sources as diverse as Plato’s Symposium, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and Matisse’s paintings of palm trees, Scarry demonstrates time and time again that attention to beauty actually makes us more generous and empathetic. In other words: Beauty begets beauty, and beauty also begets justice.
As if to confirm her argument that we can’t help but replicate beautiful things in the world, Scarry has herself crafted a beautiful book, filled with rich imagery, lucid thinking, and clear, moving prose. Consider Scarry’s description of a palm tree the moment she first comprehends its beauty:
Suddenly I am on a balcony and its huge swaying leaves are before me at eye level, arcing, arching, waving, cresting and breaking in the soft air, throwing the yellow sunlight up over itself and catching it on the other side, running its fingers down its own piano keys, the running them back up again, shuffling and dealing glittering decks of aqua, green, yellow, and white. It is everything I have always loved, fernlike, featherlike, fanlike, open—lustrously in love with air and light.
Mallory: Sidewalks is about space: the spaces where we are born, where we find ourselves, where we lose ourselves, where we finally lay to rest. Empty spaces, furnished spaces. Private spaces, public spaces. Longlisted for the 2015 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, it is a beautiful meditation on the dichotomy between residence and wandering.
In the collection’s first essay, the author says we only have two real residences: “the childhood home and the grave.” The latter is the only permanent one. Everything in between is a derivative of the former, leading us to the latter. More importantly, everything in between—the temporary spaces, the movement, the language—are where we find ourselves.
But Luiselli inverts the notion of finding ourselves from the white whale that it is in much of contemporary literature to something unspeakably sad. If we were what we seemed to be, “learning,” she says, “would be a way of filling an empty space.” But she finds no truth in that. She thinks of experience and knowledge as digging “another hole” inside of us. Perhaps the saddest line in the entire book is this: “[I]n all of us, at every instant, the slow alchemy of erosion and loss is at work.”
Sidewalks left me with a deep melancholy, imagining myself as a ghost floating from space to space, never being able to truly return to the places I secretly dream of returning. The glimmering light is perhaps that the reinvention that happens with returning, revisiting, rereading will bring us understanding—even if that understanding brings us closer to death, it can also bring us closer to our true selves, in whom we may find company as we wander.
Ashley: Apparently, California only has three years left of stored water. In preparation for the coming apocalypse, I immediately asked all my East Coast friends to ship me their unwanted snow (one told me they’d flat-rate it). I also started reading Water Wars by Cameron Stracher. As you’d probably expect, richer folks have better access to fresh water in Stracher’s YA dystopia. What’s more, the government-distributed, desalinated water (cheaper than pure fresh water) may or may not be poisoning the population slowly. Stracher’s descriptions of the scarcity, disgusting food, and rampant sickness that afflict most of the population sent chills down my spine. Hearing how farmers are selling some of their allotted water back to the government for inflated prices (in real life, right now, in California) and reading Stracher’s novel, I’ve started to appreciate just how fraught the politics of water distribution really are.
Niree: Lions are incredible: Despite weighing hundreds of pounds and sleeping upwards of 14 hours a day, they still manage to be lithe and strong when it comes to chasing down an antelope across the plain. For this reason they are, obviously, terrifying. That’s largely what draws Marieta van der Merwe to them. As doyenne of Harnas, a large animal refuge in Namibia, she was responsible for caring for everything from baby baboons to an AIDS-afflicted lion. In Soul of a Lion, Barbara Bennett explores how van der Merwe, a former cattle farmer, came to be a savior and advocate to the animals of the African Bush. We see how van der Merwe, haunted by a harrowing past, seeks solace in attending to injured, mistreated, and misunderstood wild animals. But the lasting work van der Merwe has done is in showing her fellow volunteers – and now, the world – that, like humans, each animal, from the predator to the prey, has a soul, a personality, and a will to live.