Irene Muchemi-Ndiritu’s debut novel, LUCKY GIRL (324 pp., Dial Press, paperback, $18), is a coming-of-age story about a privileged but sheltered teenager in Kenya, Soila, who is eager for escape. She wants to leave behind the slums and poverty of Nairobi for the United States, a country she naïvely believes to be without human suffering, but mostly she wants to get away from her mother. Her only living parent, her “yeyo” is a successful businesswoman who is deeply religious and unyielding, sometimes to the point of cruelty.
The story is largely set in the New York of the 1990s, as Soila narrates her cautious exploration of freedom at Barnard and beyond. Still, even from thousands of miles away, her mother wields influence, steering Soila into a career she doesn’t want (investment banking instead of photography), quizzing her about her virginity (secretly gone) and deeming Soila’s boyfriends inappropriate, including an artsy dreadlocked dreamboat who is almost implausibly perfect.
Soila has our sympathies but she’s an erratic narrator, chronicling her duller activities with dutiful thoroughness, as if she’s journaling, while withholding information the reader craves. When she takes up with her first boyfriend, a medical student named Alex who is also Kenyan but biracial, there’s no mention of where they sit, sexually, until they’ve known each other almost a year. Given Soila’s history — she was molested and has shared her anxiety around sex — the reader may feel left out or puzzled by the omission. Muchemi-Ndiritu’s prose can be stiff, enhancing this sense of distance.
“Lucky Girl” is at its strongest when Muchemi-Ndiritu addresses the topic of American racism. Soila is for a long time willing to overlook it even when she experiences it firsthand; her perspective is that anything is better than the poverty in Kenya. She and her friends and lovers have passionate arguments about race that unfold in the kind of long conversational exchanges one might see in a Rachel Cusk novel. Alex urges her to code-switch, conform a little, as he has. Soila finds her identity “difficult to shed. It wasn’t a pair of boots I could just leave at the door and pick out another pair.” Her honesty about her “different brand of Blackness,” and ultimately her ability to drop the idea of it being a brand, make for some of the book’s most compelling passages.
Born in the Pacific Northwest in the spring of 2002, Elspeth “Betty” Noura Rummani is blue from head to toe. This spectacular development in the opening pages of Sarah Cypher’s THE SKIN AND ITS GIRL (352 pp., Ballantine, $28) ultimately keeps Betty in her family of origin. Her mentally unwell mother, Tashi, had planned to give her baby up for adoption, but the prospective adoptive parents flee when they see Betty’s skin. Betty grows up instead with her mother, her white father and a charmingly eccentric, “narratively endowed” extended family of Palestinian Americans.
Betty’s skin sounds beautiful and is — coincidentally or not — the same hue as the soap made by generations of Rummanis at their factory in the West Bank city of Nablus, the remains of which are blown up by Israeli F-16s just as Betty is about to be born. OK, that can’t be a coincidence, right?
But deciphering Betty’s blueness doesn’t seem to be Cypher’s point, nor does it play that much of a role in the plot, which includes other familiar elements of magical realism. There are elaborate folkloric storytelling sequences and some gorgeous, evocative imagery. (Betty’s skin is “the pure electric blue of a television-lit family.”) Not every description lands as successfully; at one point, one woman’s sigh is said to converse with another woman’s anger, “turning it over like a bolt of bright orange cashmere,” and this reader felt plunged into the world of sweaters, not emotions.
Maybe Cypher intends Betty’s skin to stand in for the otherness of immigrants like Saeeda, her grandmother, and more specifically, her great-aunt Nuha. Nuha, who came to America from Nablus as a young adult, barely blinks at the blue skin and serves as nanny and fierce protector in Betty’s infancy. For years, the family keeps Betty swaddled and hidden away, avoiding public transportation, as if she’s E.T. and the government might take her away.
Nuha is a marvelous character, like a chain-smoking Mary Poppins. Much of this ambitious novel is told from the perspective of the young adult Betty, gay and contemplating leaving America to be with her lover, walking through her closeted aunt’s life story, narrating it to the now-dead Nuha in the second person. But the fussy, multilayered nature of all the “you” in the storytelling gets in the way; no one could be better equipped to tell their own story than Nuha Rummani.
Lily Miller, the central character in Wiz Wharton’s GHOST GIRL, BANANA (400 pp., Harper, $30), lost her mother, Sook-Yin, when she was so young that she has only two memories of her: that Sook-Yin smelled like watermelon and that their family, which includes an older sister, Maya, was happy. As this story of family secrets opens, Lily is 25 and a depressed, prickly Cambridge dropout who has not yet entirely recovered from a suicide attempt. Her dead mother squats in her brain “like a dripping tap or an unpaid bill.”
The unpaid bill reference is apt; one of Wharton’s key narrative themes is money and the damage it can do, from either the lack of it or the longing for it, and the corruptions and compromises that come with having it.
The barely employed Lily receives a letter from a lawyer in Hong Kong, informing her that she’s been left a half million pounds in the will of a powerful banker. She doesn’t know who he is, there’s no explanation of why, and there is a provision to the money: Lily needs to come to Hong Kong and sign for it before the end of his family’s 49-day mourning period. It’s 1997, just as the historic transfer of power from Britain to China is to take place.
The novel bounces between three different timelines, and Wharton skillfully navigates between each. We meet the intrepid Sook-Yin in 1966 as she’s shipped off to England for nursing school and then gets stuck with a near stranger, Julian Miller, a pub-loving ne’er-do-well who impregnates her. In the third timeline, Sook-Yin, now a mother of two who has made repeated sacrifices to hold her family together, advances unwittingly toward death in 1977. We know it’s coming but not how, and Wharton makes this a real nail-biter; we’re invested heavily in Sook-Yin and wish for a happy ending for her.
Adult Lily interrogates this family history in Hong Kong and confronts her own biracial identity. She looks like her mother (Maya, who is blond and green-eyed, passes for white) but is not Chinese enough for her uncle, who dubs her “Ghost Girl.” (Sook-Yin was called a “banana” for choosing to marry a white Englishman, hence the book’s title built of twin pejoratives.) To be marginalized, to never quite fit in, even with all her striving, is Sook-Yin’s fate. But Lily’s journey of self-discovery, so winningly chronicled by Wharton, promises a better fate for Sook-Yin’s younger daughter.
Mary Pols is a Maine-based writer and editor. She is the author of a memoir, “Accidentally on Purpose.”
Source: Read Full Article