Highlights in the Charts: Issue 4
The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead
“If something is happening in one place, it’s happening in other places as well.”
The Nickel Academy is an institution, one of many, based on injustice. Colson Whitehead’s latest novel skirts between fiction and the grim reality of the Florida School for Boys, a living hell disguised as a reform school only closing after over a century of abuse and torture.
Whitehead does not spare the reader any feelings of discomfort. The first pages introduce Boot Hill, a graveyard which is home to the Nickel Boys who never got out and a conversation silenced until voiced by someone else.
In part 1, we are introduced to Elwood, a boy who is “intelligent, hardworking and a credit to his race.” Beginning to forge his path in life, all Elwood has to do is his best to end up at the Nickel Academy. The irony of being sent away to a school, trying to get to college, reinforces the fact that Elwood cannot escape the fate that society intends for him. Once at the school, Elwood meets Turner, who balances Elwood’s optimism and naivety with his life-earned cynicism. Their friendship is the driving force which binds the story together right to the very end. Despite the story navigating between the past and the present, Whitehead’s ability to seamlessly weave the two narratives together is just one of the reasons why The Nickel Boys is an essential read.
The Flatshare, Beth O’Leary
I was initially attracted to Beth O’Leary’s bestseller The Flatshare after hearing it compared to Sally Rooney’s infamous Normal People. Both novels involve relatable characters and an intoxicating love story, but The Flatshare rejects the brooding, often morose tone of Normal People, instead exuding warmth, laughter and joy.
The Flatshare depicts a charming love story between Tiffy, an eccentric editorial assistant, and Leon, a palliative care nurse, who have an unusual living arrangement. They are flatmates, but Tiffy works in the day, while Leon works night shifts. As such, they live together for months without ever meeting, communicating only through Post-It notes littered around their flat.
O’Leary’s clever use of dual narrative allows for plenty of comic moments, such as Leon’s horror at Tiffy’s re-decoration of their shared bedroom – “It looks like someone vomited rainbows.” Their impromptu first meeting also provides a laugh-out-loud moment, while simultaneously establishing the sexual tension between the two characters.
Despite the generally light-hearted tone, O’Leary isn’t afraid to explore challenging topics. She describes Tiffy’s experience of emotional abuse and gaslighting in a previous relationship, noting how Justin “eroded her independence.”
In contrast, the heart-warming subplots woven into the narrative, such as a young girl recovering from cancer or a dying man reigniting a lost romance, ensure the tone of the novel remains hopeful and joyous.
Leon’s cord necklace might not be Connell’s chain, but The Flatshare is certainly as worthy of praise as Normal People. Uplifting, romantic and packed with laugh-out-loud moments, The Flatshare is evidence of O’Leary’s talent for emotive storytelling
The Body, Bill Bryson
The Body is Bill Bryson’s witty, discursive exploration of the human body. Bryson is known for his charismatic travel memoirs, but The Body chronicles a more intimate journey of humanity. He proves to be an excellent tour guide, persuading us to follow him by the sheer force of his wit and his unflagging sense of wonder.
There are intriguing factoids dispersed throughout this hefty, 500+ page book, but it is worth re-considering Bryson’s bestseller in the light of COVID-19. It is striking to see The Body vibrantly displayed in bookshops alongside reminders to wear masks and social distance. In 2020 we are perhaps more aware of our bodies than ever before and Bryson’s meditations on the danger of the flu becomes impossible to overlook:
“We are really no better prepared for a bad outbreak today than we were when Spanish flu killed tens of millions of people a hundred years ago… In the event of a really catastrophic epidemic… [Dr Michael] Kinch believes we wouldn’t be able to produce a vaccine fast enough to treat everyone, even if the vaccine was effective.”
Despite these overwhelming contemplations, The Body still implements Bryson’s compassionate investment in humanity:
“Medical science has never produced a more noble and selfless group of investigators than the pathologists and parasitologists who risked, and all too often lost their lives… there ought to be a monument to them somewhere.”
Bryson’s optimism might feel ironic in the context of what occurred after the publication of The Body. But he reminds us that“There are thousands of things that can kill us… and we escape every one of them but one. For most of us, that’s not a bad deal.”