What Happened to Sophie Wilder
By Christopher Beha
Tin House Books, 2012
Charlie Blakeman is a young writer in New York. He has published a novel that didn’t take off, and is living with his cousin Max, a film critic. Charlie and Max have regularly have parties in the Washington Square apartment they are housesitting. And although Charlie’s life seems exciting and cosmopolitan, he feels disengaged from it, until Sophie Wilder, a love from college who he has not seen in many years, unexpectedly shows up. Sophie too is feeling lost in her life and has recently separated from her husband. The book unfolds in the weeks after Sophie’s reappearance and alternates between them getting to know each other again, and flashbacks to their college days, where they met in a creative writing class.
I wasn’t sure what I thought of this book at first, mainly because I am suspect of novels with writers as main characters and this one has two, but Charlie and Sophie are bound by more than their love of writing. Both of Sophie’s parents have passed and Charlie lost his father. Sophie also took care of her former husband’s dying father. As the story twisted and turned, I became more engrossed in the book until it ended at a very unexpected place. I continue to puzzle over the ending (which I won’t reveal), and feel the book is ultimately about the people in our lives and to what extent we choose them or they choose us to be our companions. There is also a spiritual theme to the book, as Sophie converts to Catholicism in college and goes to church regularly.
Beha is an associate editor at Harper’s Magazine and published a memoir, The Whole Five Feet, in which he read all 51 volumes in the Harvard Classics Library.
The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), which celebrates the best novels written by women around the world, announced their longlist last week. There are a handful of debuts on the list. Some of them, like Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, have made it on to other prize lists. I will look at three that are less well known.
The Shadow of the Crescent Moon by Fatima Bhutto tells the story of three brothers living in contemporary Pakistan. Bhutto has also published non-fiction books and a collection of poetry.
Eleven Days by Lea Carpenter tells the story of an American mother whose son goes missing in during a Special Operations mission in Afghanistan.
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride is an experimental novel about an Irish family. This book is noted as much for its unique prose as for the story.
These authors come from Pakistan, the US and Ireland. One of the things I like about this prize’s list is that it is a way to discover new writers from around the globe.
We Need New Names
By NoViolet Bulawayo
Reagan Arthur Books, Little Brown, 2013
NoViolet Bulawayo won the Etisalat Prize for We Need New Names last month. I was deeply moved by this coming-of-age story about a young African girl who physically leaves her homeland, but who never leaves her memories and fondness for her culture behind.
Darling is 10 and is growing up in Zimbabwe. Her parents have all fallen on hard times, so they live in a poor section of town. For fun she and her friends go to “Budapest” where the wealthy people live to steal guavas from trees. They eat so many guavas they make themselves sick. They accept handouts from the “white NGO people” and spend life playing games in the streets as their parents struggle to make ends met. As life in the city deteriorates, people begin to leave the country, and Darling is sent to Michigan to live with an aunt, where the view from her window is very different.
Each chapter in this book is almost a story in itself. In the middle of the book is a two-page chapter called, “How They Left,” which recounts the reasons why people fled Zimbabwe and marks the end Darling’s life in Africa. It is a powerful chapter and Bulawayo has an incredibly strong narrative voice which reminds me of Junot Diaz and Tim O’Brien. I found myself more drawn to the first half of the book, as I enjoyed seeing her view of the world in/from Africa, but she tells a unique and contemporary immigrant story, which is grounded in the era of Obama, the Occupy Movement and Internet porn. This book has been much written about and it deserves the praise it has received.
Bulawayo has an MFA in writing from Cornell University and is currently at Stanford University on a Stegner Fellowship. I look forward to reading her next book.
I was given this book by a friend.