So Close, Helene Cixous
Shani Boianjiu: Cixous’ father died in Algiers when she was 11 years old. Soon after the political situation prevented Cixous’ mother from making any type of living and they were forced to leave their native land and relocate to France, which Cixous never felt was truly ‘her’ country. In this book Cixous describes her journey to the Algiers she left so long ago in her youth. Even though the author of this book is the oldest on my list (76 years old), this book feels the most youthful. Cixous says that “Sadness is immortally young. I came to Algiers to find once more the immortal sadness.” And as you read the book you believe that she found it. Every word is almost both violently and too lovingly felt and thought. It feels as though the author had put her own very personal life on the line in every imaginable way in order to be able to tell this vast and important story.
The Last Samurai, Helen Dewitt
Boianjiu: Sybilla is a single mother who keeps on riding around and around the circle line in London with her son. The second part of the book focuses on that precocious boy’s search for his father, but for the first part, we spend a lot of time following Sybilla and her son, always moving on the circle line, so that they wouldn’t be cold in their apartment, and hearing Sybilla compulsively and very seriously think about how she could solve problems such as gaining rent and surviving her life and her own inconceivable suffering and all of the suffering in the world.
Mister God, This Is Anna, Sydney Hopkins (aka “Fynn”)
Boianjiu: A poor teenager finds a four-year-old girl on the streets of East End London. He takes her home to his family and together they begin to rapidly explore what it means to be a fully alive and good human being in this world. Anna asks Fynn endless questions and she answers every single one of his, even if her answer is at times completely unexpected and takes months to arrive. Their topics of conversation range from religion to the theory of colors to math to public signs to poetry. The only question Anna doesn’t answer is, “Where did you come from?” Only years later Fynn finds out that she didn’t answer because she was scared he would send her back. She was not happy where she was, and so at four she found some place much better to be and think, and moved to live there for the rest of her short life.
How The Light Gets In, M. J. Hyland
Boianjiu: Lou Conner leaves her dysfunctional and poor family behind in Sydney, Australia to become an exchange student on a scholarship at a school in Illinois. She lives in the suburbs with a wealthy host family, and all of this should be fantastic news except Lou can’t turn her mind off. Lou’s experience of growing up without much social and intellectual stimulation has left her extremely perceptive of human behavior. The suburban American family and educational life she spent her whole life dreaming about is also one her hypercritical mind can’t help but mercilessly critique. The Americans are not happy about this, and cannot in any way understand why she can’t be perpetually grateful and accepting of literally, absolutely every single outrageous thing that they do to her and to each other. Hell and hilarity ensue, and Lou has to face the consequences of her actions and the Americans’ rage all alone in a strange land. This book is a sensitive and hilarious look at one slice of American culture through the eyes of a rarely considered outsider.
Lucy, Jamaica Kincaid
Boianjiu: Lucy comes from the West Indies to the United States to work as a nanny for a wealthy family. We do not know everything or even much about her past at first, but because she sees the world so differently from everyone around her it is clear that it had shaped her to be much different from everyone around her. Her relationship with Mariah, her employer, is complicated by the fact that Lucy feels that everyone around her, and Mariah in particular, is not leading a genuine life, despite feeling able to give her advice about her own life. Lucy severs ties with people back home, but increasingly feels that she also cannot develop meaningful bonds with the people around her, and so she is intensely alone. All the while she is deeply aware of how her behavior is affecting her and how others have shaped her mind in ways she can possibly no longer repair.
Vibrator, Mary Akasaka
Boianjiu: Rei, a Japanese journalist in her 30s who drinks a lot and hears voices in her head that are becoming bothersome for her, meets a (somewhat criminal) truck driver in a food store. She immediately decides to leave her increasingly upsetting and lonely life behind and join him on his truck delivery route. Although their mutual needs are both great and their personalities are very different, they manage to develop a very beautiful and mutually respectful relationship while on the road. Rei believes that the relationship is beneficial to her as she is becoming “something extremely good.” The translation seems brilliantly accommodating of Rei and Okabe, the trucker, associative and frazzled minds in Japanese. Told that she has to act her age, Rei thinks, “Gotta act your rage?” After refusing to say her name back to her a couple of times and simply replying, “It’s great,” Okabe finally says: “Rei, it’s great. It’s great. It’s g-Rei-t.” This is not in any way a book about vibrators.
Zoo Station: The Story of Christiane F., Christiane F.
Boianjiu: This is a memoir of a young German teen’s experiences with heroin usage in Berlin in the 1970s. Although this is often thought of as a drug-and-prostitution memoir, Christiane is also deeply observant of the changing landscape around her and the societal and political shifts that subtly and directly influence her very personal and painful experiences. She remembers how horrified she was when the grass plot where she played was filled with cement and there was no place for her or any of the other children to play. At the end of the book, in spite of her recovery, she imagines herself going down a hole with all of her friends, thinking that they would not want to ever come out to a society that has so little space for them.
The Peninsula, Julien Gracq
Boianjiu: Simon is a French man waiting for his girlfriend Irmgard to arrive at the train station in the middle of the day so they can start having fun. There is absolutely no basis for this behavior, as she had explicitly told him in a letter it is “very unlikely” she’ll get on anything but the evening train. Shockingly, she doesn’t come and Simon is completely stirred that he now has to wait for her to arrive on the evening train. So stirred, in fact, that he starts driving around Normandy and reflecting in the most complex and sincere ways about the constructed nature of his and others’ desires, his childhood memories, and all of his life choices. If you have ever looked at any old stranger at a bar at an airport in France after a bad day and for some silly, mean reason thought: “It is statistically unlikely that he has ever had one thought in his head that could be interesting or beneficial to my life in any way” (not that I have ever done that) — you should know that such a mind can apparently be blazingly fascinating as long as his girlfriend is taking the evening train.
Philida, Andre Brink
Boianjiu: Philida, the main character in this book of many voices, walks a great distance because she’d like to file a complaint: her owner had promised her freedom in exchange for her having sex with him for the past eight years (resulting in the birth of four children), but now he’s backed out on his promise because it is not financially convenient for him anymore. She feels this is unfair. That such a scenario is even possible is because of the highly unusual historical times Philida finds herself in; this is South Africa in 1832, the British presence is influential enough in her life that she is able to file such a complaint but still isn’t granted her freedom. What follows is a beautiful exploration of what it means to be fully engaged with the question of your own agency over your life in this world. Any book that can end with a character saying the word “I” and get me to believe that word is remarkable in my mind.
The Book of Words, Jenny Erpenbeck
Boianjiu: How do you move if you cannot move? Czesław Miłosz thought language is the only homeland. I do not know what that means, but for the young girl in this book, the only escape from the invisible horrors of her daily existence is through language. Her parents will not let her leave. She and her parents, who come from a cold country, now live in a country where it seems to always be sunny outside. But the explanations her friend gives her for the sounds and sights she registers are not ones she can believe. She wants to believe her loving father, an important government official, that she should not worry and stay sheltered in their fancy home but she does worry. All the time. Every word used by others seems to mean the opposite of what it truly is. And so she changes her own mind and place in the world by subtly shifting the language for herself and those around her — and she journeys further than most protagonists I have read in just 96 pages, all while staying put and moving nothing but language.