To WHET A foreign reader's appetite for a country with as bleak a reputation as Nigeria's requires a steady hand and great compassion. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Purple Hibiscus , possesses both. In a story set against the backdrop of a coup and the subsequent national disintegration, the flower of the title acts as a nuanced symbol for the individuality and freedom denied to ordinary Nigerians, in particular to three members of one family: Kambili, her brother Jaja, and their mother. Kambili is an emotionally stunted adolescent. Her life is privileged yet narrow, constrained by religious repression and physical abuse at the hands of her Catholic father, whom she both fears and adores. When her father's sister (a university lecturer) insists that her niece and nephew visit, Kambilis eyes are opened not only to a world of relative poverty, power-cuts and fuel shortages, but also to laughter, healthy debate, television, football, and the first stirrings of adolescent love for the local priest. As the country is brought to its knees by strikes and corruption, so Kambili's father's influence over his family and their beliefs begins to wane, until their collective defiance takes a dramatic, and tragic, turn. Adichie's descriptions of the smells of vegetation after rain, the texture of mango flesh or the bustle of a market announce that she is a sensitive writer of place. Such is the warmth of her writing that her poignant Nigerian Bildungsroman will have universal appeal.
Devotion of a different variety runs through A Clear Calling , David Austin's intense novella, which presents the devastating consequences of a loss of faith. Robert Radnor's passion is encouraged early in life and takes the form of an ambition to go to sea. This dream becomes his prop (its validity reinforced by his headmaster at naval cadet school, who regards Radnor as a 'born seaman') and the sea becomes his identity. By 1949, however, he has become fearful of the sea's potential, and shortly afterwards finds himself the sole survivor of a shipwreck. Many years later, the sunken ship is discovered in a location which casts doubt on Radnor's written account of the storm and the catastrophe. Radnor's version of the disaster makes for doubly uncomfortable reading: first because Austin has realised the violent drama of it with such fierce energy; and secondly because its obvious fabrication unsettles our sympathies towards him, a narrative device which is intriguing and well handled. Psychologically, there are some frustrating loose ends (Radnor's childhood need for security, which the dream of seamanship appears to and is perhaps under-developed), but elsewhere Austin demonstrates a satisfying grasp of psychological complexities, as in the character of Peeke, Radnor's last captain (whose anxieties are soothed by the routine of their nightly games of chess), and in Radnor's need in eccentric old age to confess, and receive redemption. This richly imagined maritime debut suggests that Austin (actor, sailor, farmer) is right to embrace the calling of the written word.
In The Sari Shop , Rupa Bajwa takes the story of a humble shop assistant in Amritsar and weaves into it an examination of complex existential ideas about identity and destiny. When the uneven did routine of Ramchand's life is broken (he leaves the shop to deliver a consignment of saris to the home of Rina, a wealthy bride-to-be), he is motivated to improve himself. Buying second-hand books, he sets about learning English, and even shaves off his moustache. But when, in another break with tradition, he is instructed to track down Chander, an errant colleague, Rarnchand unwittingly stumbles into the real world, from which he has been in retreat since his mother's early death. Bajwa has written a deceptively subtle novel, calling into question the values of contemporary Indian society, particularly its brutality towards those who dare to break its rules. Some are tolerated (independent-minded Rina marries for love, and writes a novel); others, like Chander's wife Kamla, are treated horrifically. Rarnchand's increasing despair at the arbitrary injustices of existence compels him to abandon his natural timidity, but with this new strength comes an understanding of his own impotence. A savage satire of middle-class pretensions shot through with rich descriptions and moments of mellow comedy, Bajwa's debut also possesses great moral integrity.
Loneliness and the human longing for positive affirmation are a couple of the emotions underpinning Colin McAdam's strong debut Some Great Thing, which tells the stories of two Canadian men whose lives in the 1970s are loosely entwined by their respective jobs in real estate. Jerry McGuinty is a bluff, talented plasterer who makes his name building quality housing developments; Simon Struthers is a gauche, self-conscious councillor in the Ottawa planning department, the kind of bureaucrat who can capture the world in a memo. Both, in their own ways, are vulnerable individuals who harbour dreams of greatness, yet who inhabit a ruthless world where men feel they can cry only in toilet cubicles. Married to an alcoholic, McGuinty gradually sees the life he has built start to fall to pieces; Simon pursues women with an ineptitude bordering on masochism. Behind McAdam's muscular dialogue and his affectionate characterisation (McGuinty's courtship of his future wife over the egg sandwiches she sells is touching and richly poetic) lies a brutal expos6 of personal and social alienation. Simon's liaisons are disjointed, as epitomised by his inept pursuit of his superior's daughter; in McGuinty's milieu, relationships are things to be cemented with bribes. McAdam has written a vigorous work, and, as a female reader, I was grateful for the way he eschews lad-lit schmaltz to unmask the difficulties and confusion men face in simply trying to be men.