Bildungsromans From Around the World

By Spencer Quong

By SJ Sindu
329 pp. Soho. $26.

Kalki’s life as a blue-skinned child deity at first seems rather romantic. Raised to believe he is the “10th incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu,” he heals the sick at his family’s ashram in Tamil Nadu, India, with a god-energy that he imagines as “fluffy cotton” inside his body. In his free time, he roams the land around the ashram with his younger cousin, Lakshman. Ten and 9 years old, they are each other’s “shadows”; Lakshman will often sneak at night into Kalki’s room, where they fall asleep “fit like two crescents.” It is impossible not to be hypnotized by the tenderness of these opening scenes.

But relatively early in the novel Kalki, narrating in adulthood as a university lecturer in Toronto, breaks the illusion of his own divinity — and any illusion that his childhood had been blessed. It becomes clear Kalki’s father led the deception, but Sindu strategically withholds how exactly things fell apart, as she weaves Kalki’s adult hindsight into only a few chapters and in brief asides, allowing the reader to remain primarily inside the immersive world of his childhood. For instance, when Lakshman’s family must suddenly leave the ashram, Kalki’s young mind reorients around the loss. His cousin’s name becomes a time stamp; everything is “after Lakshman” or “without Lakshman.”

In attending to the fine aftershocks of this loss and many others to come, Sindu masterfully renders how our environments bake into our skin. Even after he becomes fully aware that his healing power was a scam, Kalki still thinks like a god. He cannot bring himself to hate his domineering father: “Ayya had done so many terrible things, but I’d always been taught that hate wasn’t an emotion gods should have.”

Long before Kalki escapes the ashram, he secretly borrows a literary novel from one of its guests, and is surprised to discover that “this book held no miracles. No gods, no heroes. It told of nothing but quiet human problems.” Likewise, it turns out there are no miracles in “Blue-Skinned Gods.” Even after the ashram, Kalki finds new illusions in the outside world — some nearly as potent as those he left behind.

By Elif Shafak
353 pp. Bloomsbury. $27.

Ada’s parents rarely spoke to her about their suffering as a taboo Greek-Turkish couple in 1970s Cyprus, but the 16-year-old has nonetheless inherited their melancholia. As a high school student in London, she is asked about family heirlooms, and struggles to answer in front of her gawking classmates. “Was it also possible to inherit something as intangible and immeasurable as sorrow?” she wonders, unable to sit down. Then she screams for 52 seconds. An arresting set piece that spans two chapters, the scene raises an urgent question: How does one contend with a sadness that is “not quite her own”?

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    A quintessential teenager, Ada vacillates between wanting to know more about her past, including her mother’s recent death due to alcoholism, and refusing to engage at all. Yet with its complex structure — the setting jumps from contemporary London to Cyprus in 1974 and the early 2000s, and many chapters are told from the perspective of a fig tree — Shafak’s novel conveys how our ancestors’ stories can reach us obliquely, unconsciously. For instance, when Ada’s aunt gives her a delicate wooden music box, the reader will recognize it from 1974: a token Ada’s father, Kostas, gave her mother. Ada only knows the item once belonged to her mom, but the reader knows it carries the promise of a longer narrative.

    The fig tree, who lives in Ada’s yard, proves an unusual ally. Born in Cyprus but transplanted by Kostas in the early 2000s, she shares detailed memories of the Cypriot ecology, while mourning the decimation of the natural world at the hands of humans. But far more than a vessel of facts, the tree, an immigrant herself, lovingly watches out for Ada. Hearing Ada crying, she reflects: “I was filled with immense sadness then. For I felt connected to her, even if she might not think much of me. We had grown together in this house, a baby and a sapling.”

    If Shafak’s prose is occasionally cloying, leaning heavily into nature metaphors, “The Island of Missing Trees” is not overly sentimental. Shafak is cleareyed about how difficult it is to reach across the gulfs within our families: At the end of the novel, Ada is only beginning to learn about her history, and her grief.

    By Bisi Adjapon
    341 pp. HarperVia. $26.99.

    After she is berated by her father, stepmother and half sisters for experimenting with a boy, 11-year-old Esi decides to lie down in the mud, having heard that “if a frog jumps on you, you’ll turn into a man.” But nothing happens; she is still a girl, only now “stinging from the welts and bumps insects left on my skin after feasting on me.”

    A bildungsroman set in Ghana and Nigeria in the 1970s and ’80s, Adjapon’s debut begins with a handful of such heart-rending but comic episodes so characteristic of early childhood. But the novel quickly falters as it progresses further into Esi’s adolescence and heavier material.

    At a very young age, before the novel begins, Esi was separated from her birth mother in Nigeria, living with her father in Ghana. Between this absence and the deaths and abortions she experiences over the course of the novel, Esi suffers a great deal, recognizing relatively early that: “I’m getting good at this, creating cupboards in my mind where I lock up scenes that threaten to shred me to pieces.” So the reader anticipates that Esi will not always dwell in her emotions. Still, Adjapon’s treatment of her protagonist’s traumas can feel so hurried that the scenes fail to leave an impression. Notably, when Esi learns her birth mother has been dead for many years — her father and extended family hid the truth, even sending fake letters in her mother’s name — Adjapon only dwells in Esi’s immediate shock and rage. The chapter ends the day after her father’s confession, and then the novel catapults a year forward, when the pain has “subsided into a dull ache I can live with.” Later mentions of her mother don’t stir much emotion, given the reader’s scant impression of what Esi’s grief looked like.

    Adjapon also oversimplifies the language of adolescence. Esi’s narration sometimes reads like an imitation of a child’s voice — “Think, Esi, think!” — and remains stilted even into her 20s. In the penultimate chapter, she realizes once and for all that she, not her father, has the right to decide her future. She shares a series of revelations with a new friend, including, “I am the queen of my body.” The friend, a too-convenient interlocutor only recently introduced, replies with variations of, “That’s it, Esi!” The chapter is one more episode that feels overly tidy for a subject as unwieldy as youth: The pair race into the ocean, supposedly but impossibly washed clean.

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