I'm Still Here (Je Suis Là)
By Clélie Avit, translated from the French by Lucy Foster. (Grand Central Publishing, 246 pages, $25.)
Elsa was in a coma for five months after tumbling into an icy crevasse while mountain climbing. No one knows this, but now she has awoken. She can hear but remains unable to move or even open her eyes.
A stranger named Thibault enters her room. Thibault's brother, just a few doors away, is recovering from a car wreck in which he killed two teenage girls while driving drunk. Too angry to face him, Thibault seeks refuge behind a random door — Elsa's door — while his mother visits.
This debut novel, translated from French, has a provocative premise: How would it feel to be Elsa, trapped in a body that can neither feel nor move, listening to her doctors talk crassly of removing her life support, friends sweetly celebrate her 30th birthday and her parents' agony as they brace for her death.
Billed as a love story, "I'm Still Here" alternates chapters between the two characters. Author Clélie Avit is at her best when writing from Elsa's point of view, creating an inner world with lyrical descriptions that are utterly believable.
With Thibault, the author may be asking too much of readers.
Elsa, alone and vulnerable, has no fear as Thibault comes in, removes his shoes and sweater and takes a nap. The following week, in need of a more comfortable place to slumber, he climbs into bed with her. Next, he briefly removes her breathing tubes to see her face. Each visit ends with a kiss — which Elsa, who pines for Thibault between visits, only hears.
This self-absorbed and creepy intruder has fallen in love, becoming a champion for a woman who has never so much as looked at him.
Never Look an American in the Eye: Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts, and the Making of a Nigerian American
By Okey Ndibe. (Soho Press, 224 pages, $25.)
This memoir by one of a raft of talented Nigerian writers who worked sometimes in exile, sometimes just abroad, evokes the rawness of setting up in a new world, and illuminates how distance of time and space helped a restless man appreciate his origins anew.
Okey Ndibe's language is charmingly elaborate. Describing his puzzlement over Americans' relationships with their pets, he writes: "I have adjusted a little bit to dogs, calibrated my relationship with those brave and complex citizens of the canine republic, but I still flinch when they are pegged as man's and woman's best friends."
It's among his observations about U.S. life that make an American perhaps take a fresh look around.
He writes movingly of his father's complex and rare friendship with his former British officer, forged during World War II and kept alive with 50 years of letters and postcards from a town on the Niger River to a village in Somerset County, England.
In their friendship, Ndibe saw "how two ordinary men had done extraordinary things; how they had salvaged something beautiful from the ravages of history."
His recounting of his relationships with literary greats like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka at times feels long and inside-baseball, though it's interesting to hear about the generosity of such luminaries with an up-and-coming young writer.
Ndibe's commentary about Americans' general ignorance of Africa, and a tale of being wrongfully picked up by a cop because he "fit the description" of a bank robber, induce cringing. But his candor and sense of humor make this an enjoyable read.