books · Novels

Review: Watership Down

“Rabbits (says Mr. Lockley) are like human beings in many ways. One of these is certainly their staunch ability to withstand disaster and to let the stream of their life carry them along, past reaches of terror and loss. They have a certain quality which it would not be accurate to describe as callousness or indifference. It is, rather, a blessedly circumscribed imagination and an intuitive feeling that Life is Now. A foraging wild creature, intent above all upon survival, is as strong as the grass.

 

I picked up Richard Adam’s Watership Down at my local Waterstones recently, not really sure what to expect from it. I had only ever seen the film when I was very young, and, having virtually no memory of it, was going into the novel completely blind. After buying it, a number of people said how sad it was, and so I spent most of the time bracing for some terrible, titanic-like tear jerker that fortunately, I never found.

What I did find was a novel that, despite being to all intents and purposes, about rabbits– and it really is, much as the novel may be termed to have much to say about humans- was very fast-paced, dark and dramatic, with rarely a dull moment to be .found. It is not a childrens book in any sense. Yes it may be true that it is as much a commentary about humans as anything else, there is an awful lot of rabbits in there- both literally and figuratively, as rabbit words (such as ni-frith) and rabbit mythology (the tales of el-ahrairah) interspersed throughout the novel. This does give it elements of childrens literature, but the sheer darkness and violence of the novel can be striking at times- as well as the deep politics involved in the novel, evident through the choosing of Hazel over Bigwig as Chief Rabbit (which surprised more than just the rabbits within the initial grouping) and the inclusion of other animals within the plot.

At times it appears it is just a simple “journey” story, for the rabbits to find their forever home, which in theory, would not take up much page space. What makes the novel different is that Adams appears to spot the plot-holes that would otherwise be there, and have the rabbits solve them- practical considerations, such as breeding, protection and food must be taken into account, so that whenver it may appear that the novel has come t an end, it truly has not, and there is much more to come, which in the case of this novel is a more than welcome surprise.

I have to say that this truly is one of the best novels I’ve read- or at least, one of the only ones I would go so far as to use the term “unputdownable” for in the sense that you really can’t stop reading because it feels so essential to know what happens next, and can only wish that there were more to be read.

Novels · poverty

“Genuinely Down and Out”- The Richness of Poverty in Literature

“If you set yourself to it, you can live the same life, rich or poor. You can keep on with your books and your ideas. You just got to say to yourself, “I’m a free man in here”- he tapped his forehead -“and you’re alright.”

Poverty in literature is the opposite of poverty in real life. It’s poverty in a parallel universe, where the poor aren’t walked past on street corners, where their poverty is what makes their characters endearing. Being poor is almost always an indication of a better class of character- it makes for richer personalities and experiences.

Literature is saturated with examples of this- in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, when Harry tells Draco he “can tell the wrong sort for himself”, in the characters of Oliver, Fagan and the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist, in Charlie Bucket and his grandparents in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Poverty does not necessitate the evilness that real life statistics suggest it generates- here is a place where ‘broken window theory’ doesn’t apply, where people root for them rather than refuse them opportunities and block them at every corner. No one says it’s their own fault- everybody sympthasizes, and everybody loves them.

It is, of course, a romanticized version of poverty- though poverty is perhaps one of the least ‘romantic’ subjects that one can think of. However it seems that the romantic idea of it is that it suggests the possibility of being poor and not being ‘lesser’ for it. That being poor is not even close to the worst thing that a person might be, because, in truth, it isn’t, though many think it is. Down and Out in Paris and London is very effective in conveying this through actual experience.

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“It is a feeling of relief, almost pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs- and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.”

This so perfectly illustrates that what people believe it is impossible to cope with is, in fact, possible. That humans, as a whole, are incredibly resilient and can survive in the worst situations. It also illustrates a negative thing about humans- in that we would be relieved to know we had reached the dogs, because we would no longer be concerned about our status and our roles in the world. That being “down and out” could actually be beneficial to some peoples character- to have nothing is not necessarily to literally have nothing- there is something to be gained from the experience. Traits that the rich cannot possess because their money and privilege bars them from such experience, but that come readily to the poor because their lack of money demands the experience. The poor may not be financially rich, but this gives them something the rich can never posses, because it is an experience that quite literally cannot be bought.

books · Personal

“Never Judge a Book by its Cover”- The Rise of the Mystery Book

All too often in a bookshop, I find it impossible to pick a book. There’s so many to choose from that if you haven’t gone in to the shop with a particular book in mind, it’s almost impossible to make only one choice. Inevitably, you will choose based on a combination of the cover, and/or the blurb, because it is near impossible to not do so. The concept of the mystery book removes the factor of the cover from the decision making process, and in doing so makes it surprisingly easier.

A few months ago I saw a post on instagram of a bookshop filled entirely with books wrapped in brown paper packages, with only descriptions of the content on the outside. I thought it was a good idea, but it seemed like a one-off sort of thing- it was creative and it was interesting, but didn’t appear as if it would be widely applied. To my surprise, while wandering around a station market, I found a stall named Myriad Market selling just that:

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As soon as I saw one I knew I’d have to get one- and for only £2 picked up this novel, which had an even more limited synopsis on the package than those I had originally seen. I knew just based on this that I would not have read the book before, and decided it was time to try something new. Inside was Vince Flynn’s Consent to Kill, which I now plan to read over the summer holidays:

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In addition to the single novel packages (pre-loved for £2 and new for £3) you could also purchase a mystery box, which contained two books, two tea bags, and a book mark, normally priced at around £7, although in this case the box was on sale for only £6:

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I was happily surprised with both purchases, and felt the concept worked very well- it is not until you only have a small blurb to look at that you realise how much you did once rely upon the cover to help you choose a book, or how unnecessary one really is to that decision.

Nigerian Fiction · Novels

From Lagos with Love- Americanah’s Ifem and Obinze

The love between Ifemelu and Obinze in Chimananda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Americanah, is the kind of love that everyone wishes they had. It breaks through the stereotypes that the romances of your youth are not built to last, and beyond that, through the hardships adult relationships face- distance, money, education, and status. Ifem and Obinze, in their respective journeys, beat the odds and prove that true love does exist- but it is not this that makes their love story so endearing.

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What Adichie creates in her recounting of the pair’s early relationship is a pure relationship, full of love and free from responsibility and hardship. This is something many can relate to- the kind of relationship you might have before you have a career, bills to pay, or a family. Where the only thing that is important in that moment is that you love each other and nothing and nobody else seems to matter. Ifem demonstrates that through her nickname for Obinze:

“My eyes were open but I did not see the ceiling. This never happened before.” Other girls would pretend they’d never let another boy touch them, but not her, never her. There was a vivid honesty about her. She began to call what they did together ceiling, their warm entanglements on his bed when his mother was out, wearing only underwear, touching and kissing and sucking, hips moving in simulation. I’m longing for ceiling, she once wrote in the back of his geography notebook, and for a long time afterwards he could not look at that notebook without a gathering frisson, a sense of secret excitement. In university, when they finally stopped simulating, she began to call him Ceiling, in a playful way, in a suggestive way- but when they fought or she retreated into moodiness, she called him Obinze.

This passage has stuck with me ever since I first read the novel- it is obvious only two chapters into the book (where this excerpt appears) that what Ifemulu and Obinze have is true love. This is the kind of sentiment that I wish I was able to express as well as Adichie allows Ifemelu to- it is something that many will feel and yet at the same time be unable to articulate to their partners in such a way. Perhaps if we could all, or had all told our Ceiling that, then things would somehow work out in the way that their relationship did- maybe we could defy the odds, defy what our parents say and what society says, and just be happy.