Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi

“Hold it gently, this hungry beast that is your heart. Feed it well.”

5/5 stars.
ebook, 441 pages.
Read from February 21, 2021 to February 24, 2021.

I’m finally starting to catch up on the Canada Reads selection for this year, hopefully just in time for the debates happening soon. This is book three of five of the Canada Reads 2021 contenders. Roger Mooking is championing Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi in the debates taking place on March 8-11.

Butter Honey Pig Bread begins in Lagos with a young Kambirinachi, an Ogbanje, who is a spirit that causes misfortune to a family by being born and then dying as a child, unwilling to commit to the world of the flesh and causing misery to the humans that she affects. This changes one day when she decides to stay and live as a human. This choice however, does not come without consequences. The book follows Kambirinachi through her youth, how she finds love, that then gives birth to her twin daughters, Kehinde and Taiye. The story progresses through her daughters stories and the traumas that tears them apart. Kehinde’s childhood trauma causes her distance herself and blames her sister resulting in her running off to Canada where she becomes an artist and meets her husband. Taiye also runs off but to England where she covers her guilt and loneliness in one-night stands and benders. Taiye finds some reprieve in cooking and eventually pursues a cooking certification in Halifax, Canada. Each member of the family is haunted by the past and they can’t avoid each other forever. After Taiye returns home to take care of her mother in Lagos, Kehinde returns for a visit so that her family can meet her new husband, each are eager but reluctant to reconcile.

This is one of the most beautiful and moving books I’ve read in the last few years and it reached me in ways I didn’t anticipate. It’s a story of forgiveness, friendship, love, and family that spans across three countries with a whimsical touch from the addition of Kambirinachi’s real self as an Ogbanje. I cried at the story’s climax and conclusion as the writing had me absolutely captivated and captured in this world and characters. I was more engaged with Taiye’s struggles that circle around her tumultuous and non-committal love life that allows her to neglect her own feeling of guilt. Taiye’s connections and struggles with others are immensely relatable and I found the tension between her and Kehinde familiar. There are also some amazing and intense sex scenes and scrumptious descriptions of traditional foods from Nigeria. This book really has something for everyone. I was absolutely transported with this book, in fact, I missed bus stops while reading this book I was so enthralled with it at times. The writing it concise and succinct and shows off the author’s talents as a storyteller, especially with a debut novel. I hope to see more from this author in the future.

Out of all the books I’ve read from the Canada Reads 2021 contenders this one is my favourite so far. It’s a gorgeous piece of literature with a phenomenal story and it best meets the theme of One Book To Transport Us out of the books that I’ve read. A strong contender for the winner likely to be one of my favourite reads of the year.

The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen

“And here you are, safe in your asylum, one of the committed. The question is: Committed to what?”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 368 pages
Read from January 26, 2021 to February 2, 2021.

I was so excited to find this anticipated sequel to The Sympathizer on Netgalley and was even more thrilled that I’ve had a chance to read and review it before its publication. This story is a immediate continuation of The Sympathizer and won’t make much sense if you have not read it.

We were the unwanted, the unneeded, and the unseen, invisible to all but ourselves. Less than nothing, we also saw nothing as we crouched blindly in the unlit belly of our ark. . . Even among the unwanted there were unwanted, and at that some of us could only laugh.

Arriving in Paris as a refugee, the Sympathizer is still reeling from the trauma of his communist reeducation camp experiences in Vietnam. He was a communist spy working in America, a double-agent, though he always classified himself as a sympathizer to either cause, not that his blood brother Bon, an anti-communist, knows that. After a horrendous journey he and Bon arrive in Paris to stay with his French-Vietnamese ‘Aunt’, the communist woman who was his correspondence while he was in America. Between mingling with her snooty left-wing intellectual friends, the Sympathizer throws himself into capitalism through drug dealing. Bon is as immensely traumatized as the Sympathizer especially as he made it out of Vietnam alive but his wife and child did not. The Sympathizer knows that Bon will kill him if he ever finds out that he isn’t the die-hard communist hater that he is and that he was once a double agent but Bon is the closest thing to family that he has had since his mother. Unable to resolve his moral and political dilemma and unsure of where his personal beliefs stand he verges on the fence of nihilism and self-destruction.

And here you are, safe in your asylum, one of the committed. The question is: Committed to what? You have had two years …to confess to the crimes you have committed, to acknowledge that after everything you have been through, everything you have done, you are still committed to revolution, which must mean you’re crazy.

The book has a completely different tone and approach than the previous book. The Sympathizer was deliberately written as a spy or adventure type of novel. Wanting to take a different approach, the author stated in an interview that,

“I wanted to write a dialectical novel with The Sympathizer and to write a novel deeply influenced by Marxism and Marxist theory.” and to explore ideas such as “what does [a] disillusioned former revolutionary do with himself?”

Viet Thanh Nguyen,“On Writing Memory and Identity: An Interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen

This novel is by far more philosophical and theoretical than The Sympathizer which, at times is refreshing, but if you were hoping for more of the same spy action you might be disappointed. It’s not that this plot isn’t without action it’s that the author’s state is distressing and even while filling his head with rhetoric from people he would have gone on with previously, he see flaws in their beliefs and their racist personas and can’t come to terms with the indifferent person he is now. This story is one of trauma, love, friendship, sexism, rhetoric, and racism. The writing quality is still of immense quality and you still feel committed to this sad character and how his story is going end, it just didn’t pack the same punch as The Sympathizer. However, that book is definitely a tough act to follow. The narrator’s inner thoughts are still the best parts of the story and how he manages his trauma, decisions, and realisations. I really enjoyed reading this conclusion of his story and would highly recommend reading this novel to any that enjoyed The Sympathizer.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

You will be scared. But you won’t know why…

4/5 stars.
ebook, 183 pages.
Read November 16, 2020 to November 19, 2020.

If you have read this book and want to watch the Netflix show, DO NOT WATCH IT. I mean, even if you haven’t read the book I wouldn’t recommend watching the show. It was overly artsy, extremely drawn-out, boring, and missed all the best aspects and feel of the book. However, the book, I assure you is worth reading so just stick with that. A friend recommended this book, and when I first started reading it began as a typical relationship-based fiction but then, oh man, was I in for a surprise.

Jake and his girlfriend are on a road trip to meet Jake’s parents for the first time. The narration is from the girlfriend’s perspective and takes on a stream of consciousness approach as she ruminates about ending the relationship during the snowy ride over the family home.

“I’m thinking of ending things. Once this thought arrives, it stays. It sticks. It lingers. It’s always there. Always.

Jake once said, “Sometimes a thought is closer to truth, to reality, than an action. You can say anything, you can do anything, but you can’t fake a thought.”

And here’s what I’m thinking: I don’t want to be here.”

Outside of a strange reoccurring phone call and message the girlfriend keeps receiving, the road trip itself seems fairly normal until the couple gets to their destination. From there the narrative begins to show frays before completely unravelling during the detour on the trip home that finds Jake and his girlfriend trapt and lost in his old high school. As the girlfriend’s thought process progresses, she explores the inner depths of the psyche that covers everything from existentialism, intelligence, death, being alone, relationships, and mental illness.

“People talk about the ability to endure. To endure anything and everything, to keep going, to be strong. But you can do that only if you’re not alone. That’s always the infrastructure life’s built on. A closeness with others. Alone it all becomes a struggle of mere endurance.”

As the story spirals you come to realise that there is more to story than was initially present. The narrator becomes increasingly unclear all while you’re being sucked into this terrifying psyche. It’s a masterful psychological thriller that allows you to enter the mind of someone on the edge of ruminating between their perceived failings in life and the choice of death.

“What if suffering doesn’t end with death? How can we know? What if it doesn’t get better? What if death isn’t an escape? What if the maggots continue to feed and feed and feed and continue to be felt? This possibility scares me.”

I was on the absolute edge of my seat reading the last quarter of this book. I wasn’t sure if I wanted it all to end while also wanting to get through the anxiety-inducing plot as quickly as possible. It’s not often a book can produce that kind of effect, which is exactly what the Netflix show lacked, especially because it threw in random dance sequences and musical numbers at the pinnacle part of the story that was supposed to be terrifying. Needless to say, I vehemently hated the Netflix adaptation. The book is short, immensely poignant, brilliantly written. It can feel slightly convoluted at times because it’s hard to follow some of the thought processes as the plot comes undone but the feeling this book creates is consistent and remains long after you’ve finished reading. The story pulls you in until you find yourself within its inescapable hole. Arguably, I could also see why some people may not have enjoyed it for the same reasons.

I would recommend this book for those who enjoy psychological fiction and thriller and thought-provoking plots with a thriller or horror twist.