Sunday 25 May 2014

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe

I've mentioned before how certain books can be so mismatched with your life when you read them, that you find yourself right out of kilter. Like when I picked up Bridget Jones's Diary just after having my first baby, thinking it might provide some relief from the exhausting new routinelessness of round the clock feeding and mustardy poo. I was wrong and instead ended up almost projectile vomiting her annoying singleton obsessions straight out of the nearest window.

But sometimes book-timing can be serendipitously in kilter too, as I discovered while reading Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe. This collection of letters, telling of one nanny's real life experiences in a 1980s literary Camden household, proved to be an unexpected hit last Christmas; a wittily understated, welcome interlude in a seasonal best-seller chart more usually choked with vapid celebrity autobiographies. Sub-titled Despatches from Family Life, it has also proved the perfect comic antidote to the exam-related stress coursing through the collective veins of my own family this summer, as GCSEs take their toll.

Aged twenty, Nina moves from Leicester to Gloucester Crescent in north London to take a job as nanny for the two sons of Mary-Kay Wilmers, deputy editor of the London Review of Books. Separated from her sister Victoria (known as Vic) and without any convenient phone to hand, Nina writes to Vic about her new life with this endearingly unaffected family and their neighbours in the crescent - notably Jonathan Miller, Claire Tomalin, Michael Frayn and Alan Bennett, who often drops by for supper clutching a rice pudding. Bennett turns out to be surprisingly handy with household appliances and a general all-round dispenser of sound advice - even if he has subsequently disputed some aspects of this image.

Lacking the skills usually expected in a nanny, Nina quickly proves to be messy, disorganised, disingenuous, useless at cooking and overly fond of practical jokes.Yet she obviously fits in from the start and has a keen ear for dialogue. Many of her conversations are written verbatim, particularly those with Mary-Kay and her two boys Sam and Will; for example, when discussing Will's mark in a science test:

Will: My picture was OK but I dropped a per cent for drawing a smiley face on my sun.
Me: What's wrong with a smiley face on the sun?
Will: It's not scientific.
Sam: What's a water-cycle?
Me: An underwater bike.
MK: Don't tell him that.
Sam: It's not scientific.

The family comes across as funny, unpretentious and unflappable, while Nina seems intent on impressing her sister with anecdotes of London life. She often mentions famous people from the television that she's seen in passing - besides Alan Bennett, who's only just becoming well known, there's the likes of Joan Thirkettle (newsreader) and the posh bloke from Rising Damp. There's a great deal of food discussion, from the questionable qualities of turkey mince to the wisdom of making home-made chewing gum out of Blu-Tack and toothpaste. You wonder about Vic's replies to Nina's letters (do they still exist?), although there are often tantalising hints when Nina mentions her varied success in trying out her sister's recipes or the goings-on in the nursing home where Vic works.

Nina begins to study English literature and becomes a student at Thames Polytechnic. Developing strong opinions about her set texts, she dislikes Hardy, Chaucer and Shakespeare but loves many of the American playwrights like Arthur Miller and Edward Albee and the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney, whose pen she describes as 'an embarrassment to him for not being a spade.' 

If it seems at times that there's not much of a narrative drive, then this is deceptive - as Nina herself says (of the writing of J.M Synge)
Simple. Just telling what people are doing and saying. No moral. No symbolism.
For those of us of a certain age, it's great to remember Toffos (described as naked Rolos) and how we used to roam freely without the constant need to check in on a mobile phone. I worked in Camden in the late 1980s and was thrilled to recognise some of the landmarks in this slightly scruffy, Bohemian, not quite yet up-and-coming world. I can still remember my excitement at finding out that Alan Bennett lived in the area, having watched Single Spies in the West End (the double bill of his plays An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution which he wrote, co-directed and appeared in).

There are hints of more serious themes; Sam has some disabilities and attends regular appointments at Great Ormond Street Hospital. Occasionally, it's mentioned that he's been very ill. One of Nina's tutors dies too young and when she dwells on another death, Mark-Kay tells her
Don't do that thing of making it an excuse to do less. Do more.
This is a warm, perceptive delight of a book by a writer with a huge talent for comedy. Reminded of the joys of the lost art of letter writing, never quite to be replicated by emails or texts, it also sent me scurrying to reach my dusty copy of Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road down from my bookshelves. Love, Nina is recommended for those suffering from the stress of exams, Christmas or virtually anything else where great gales of laughter are needed.

Nina Stibbe's first novel Man At The Helm is due out in August 2014 (those of us at the Penguin Blogger's night back in March have already had the privilege of hearing her reading an excerpt) and that too promises to be a treat.

Love, Nina is published in the U.K. by Penguin Books, thanks to Penguin for my review copy.

Wednesday 14 May 2014

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is already a force to be reckoned with in contemporary African literature, her work focusing an unblinkered gaze on her native Nigeria. Like a mother with an errant child, she knows her country inside out, well aware of its faults and failures but loving it nonetheless. Having lapped up her previous two novels and read a raft of glowing reviews for her latest, the 2014 Baileys Prize-shortlisted Americanah, there seemed little likelihood that I wouldn't enjoy it.

Ifemelu and Obinze meet as teenagers in a Lagos school. To stay together, they choose the same university in Nsukka, but Nigeria's military dictatorship is falling apart and extended strikes jeopardise their education. Ifemelu grasps her opportunity to study in America but events conspire to keep Obinze away. While she sinks beneath the weight of her immigrant status and the lengths she has to go to for rent money, he must settle for attempting a new life in Britain instead.

At its heart, Americanah is a tender love story, beginning in adolescence
she liked that he wore their relationship so boldly, like a brightly coloured shirt. Sometimes she worried that she was too happy. She would sink into moodiness or snap at Obinze, or be distant. And her joy would become a restless thing, flapping its wings inside her, as though looking for an opening to fly away.
It's a vital young bond which nevertheless struggles to survive once Ifemelu and Obinze are continents apart. With Adichie there's always more than one dimension, and in Americanah her writing develops into an examination of the immigrant experience. So deeply perceptive is she and her characters so vividly portrayed, that you become more than just involved, you find yourself inhabiting them
She woke up torpid each morning, slowed by sadness, frightened by the endless stretch of day that lay ahead. Everything had thickened. She was swallowed, lost in a viscous haze, shrouded in a soup of nothingness. Between her and what she should feel, there was a gap. 
As Ifemelu struggles on the edge of society, alienated yet clear-sighted, she observes differences of race and identity, regarding herself as black for the first time. In America, she envies others their ease, watching her friend Ginika
There were codes Ginika knew, ways of being that she had mastered...Ginika had come to America with the flexibility and fluidness of youth, the cultural clues had seeped into her skin and now she went bowling, and knew what Tobey Maguire was about, and found double dipping gross.
At the beginning of the novel, Ifemelu travels to a New Jersey salon to have her hair braided, an act representative of the themes Adichie is about to explode. Why should African hair so often be deemed unacceptable in its natural state and why does Ifemelu have to travel from tranquil, affluent Princeton into the depths of Trenton to find a place where it can be braided?

Of Igbo descent, it's only in America that Ifemelu becomes acutely aware of the distinction between tribes. Her observations are often wryly amusing, noticing the lengths many Americans take to avoid describing a person by their colour and their assumption that the foreign poor are all equally blameless and somehow canonised by their poverty. She starts an outspoken, often tongue-in-cheek blog about race and its hierarchy, the 'slippery layers of meaning that eluded her'.

Adichie could write about the contents of your sock drawer and make them fascinating and in Americanah she mines a rich seam with every act, every sentence full of nuance. Switching back and forth between Ifemelu's present and her past in Nigeria, the two eventually merge as she's drawn back to a homeland at once familiar and strange, where Obinze is now living the life of a successful, married businessman.

This is an incisive, often funny and always ambitious book. If, at times, I found it harder to recognise Obinze's snapshot of Britain, this is likely because my own experiences are very different to his. Americanah must be a very strong contender to win The Baileys Prize because to read it is so much more than simple enjoyment; it's an immersive phenomenon which leaves you with a sense of bereavement when you're forced, kicking and screaming, to put it down.

Americanah is published in paperback in Great Britain by Fourth Estate. The winner of the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction 2014 will be announced on June 4th.

Photo of Americanah courtesy of Waterstones.

Monday 5 May 2014

NippleJesus at The Rondo Theatre, Bath

Shane Morgan's adaptation of NippleJesus, the tale of a security guard and his relationship with the artwork he's protecting, is as deceptively simple as the original short story by Nick Hornby.

In this one-man show Morgan is Dave, a nightclub bouncer who's jacked in his job after being threatened one time too many. Taken on by a contemporary art gallery, he's expecting regular hours and a quiet life but begins to suspect he's been chosen for a special sort of mission. Dave is a big bloke and the work he'll be guarding is controversial, but all he's told as he's led to a curtained-off side-room with a warning notice is to expect trouble. It's the complexities of his relationship with the picture behind the curtain, its creator and ragtag collection of visitors, which lie at the heart of this story.

Morgan begins his piece seated by a table at the back of an otherwise virtually empty stage, reading the newspaper and snacking on crisps and coke. As the story unfolds, with pared-back use of lighting and music, he very effectively recreates the curtained-off space and brings to life the presence of the picture.

Dave is your average man in the street with little interest in art, the first to admit that he'd usually be outraged if he read in the papers of a religious icon depicted through the medium of pornography. The beauty in this adaptation is how closely we're able to examine Dave's reactions as he grapples with the picture's meaning and develops protective feelings towards the work and its creator. Morgan is an entirely believable Dave and succeeds in bringing out the nuances and humour of Hornby's pin-sharp writing, the bigger questions behind this Everyman tale. He's the hard guy with unexpectedly intelligent and fuzzy edges, who finds them firming up again as the real reason behind his involvement becomes clear.

NippleJesus was first published in 2000 and the adaptation premiered at the Sidney Fringe Festival in 2001. It's been touring the world on and off ever since and the performance I saw was a preview of its most recent incarnation. It's still pretty faithful to the original story with only minor updating and deserving of the tour Morgan is working towards later in 2014.

I did mention a virtually empty stage. Let it be said I felt sorry for the onion*, but apparently, no vegetables were harmed during the course of this production. It's a clever and funny story, existentialism with humour so well delivered on the night. And that's never a simple thing to do.

NippleJesus is Shane Morgan's one-man show for Roughhouse Theatre. I saw it at The Rondo Theatre, Bath on 2nd May 2014. Many thanks to Shane/Roughhouse/The Rondo for my tickets.

NippleJesus is part of a short story collection Speaking with the Angel published by Riverhead Books.

*later humanely incorporated into a spaghetti bolognese.