She cannot possibly complain of heat because “she is from Africa” or expect people to know where Nigeria is on a map. When she returns home to Lagos, Ifemelu finds herself distant from friends she used to be on the same wavelength with, as they now have different values, are obsessed with status, material possessions, dress differently and do not really understand her.
I suppose the reason I liked the novel so much is because it rang true to me. I even recognised myself, having similarly moved from Russia to Britain and having had to adjust to the new environment. I still get scolded for complaining about the cold: “But you are Russian!”, and I had to teach myself to be patient as I explain the whereabouts of Ekaterinburg, the third largest city in Russia.
In his book How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton quotes Proust:
"In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity.”
de Botton argues that “it is the only way in which art can properly affect rather than simply distract us from life.”
The experiences of fictional characters give us permission to re-define what’s “normal”. Recognising yourself or your own anxieties in a character from a XIX century novel is a way to appreciate that what you are going through isn’t just your own trial but something previously endured and accepted by the rest of the humankind.
Reading fiction can also help us be more sensitive to our own feelings and feelings of others. A novel may sometimes put a finger on something we’ve felt but have not quite formulated in our minds. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid expresses how a Pakistani student felt about Princeton, when he first arrived on campus: “Princeton inspired in me the feeling that my life was a film in which I was the star and everything was possible.” I must have felt the same way during my first week in Oxford but I’ve never been able to put it quite so succinctly.
To quote Proust again:
“If we read the new masterpiece of a man of genius, we are delighted to find in it those reflections of ours that we despised, joys and sorrows which we had repressed, a whole world of feeling we had scorned and whose value the book in which we discover them suddenly teaches us."
Have you been recently affected by a novel? Leave a comment below