Welcome to our weekly Books Digest where we round up the new books you should, and shouldn’t, be reading. This week features Trespasses by Louise Kennedy, Africa Is Not A Country: Breaking Stereotypes of Modern Africa by Dipo Faloyin and Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus.

For more books take a look through our Books Digest Archive.

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy (Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, £12.59).

John Miers

From Derry Girls to Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, Northern Ireland is a hot topic these days, so Louise Kennedy’s book comes at the perfect time. This is Kennedy’s first novel and her second published work after a critically acclaimed collection of short stories. In Trespasses, she taps into her Irish heritage; her personal experiences of the period enhance her writing and add an air of authenticity.

Set just outside early 1970s Belfast, Trespasses follows catholic teacher Cushla as she juggles looking after her alcoholic mother, helping one of her protestant pupils after his dad is brutally attacked and pursuing her one real escape from the whole mess, her affair with Michael. Cushla falls for Michael, a suave, chivalrous and married barrister after he rescues her from a handsy soldier and the encounter changes the course of the pair’s life forever.

This is a story of finding hope in a hopeless world, and Kennedy’s literary eye for detail and intricate plotlines elevate the narrative above normal chick-lit. If you’re a fan of romance, this is well-worth picking up.

Africa Is Not A Country: Breaking Stereotypes of Modern Africa by Dipo Faloyin (Vintage Publishing, £11.99).

Caitlin Allen

Africa is a continent of 54 countries, more than two thousand languages, and 1.4 billion people. Yet so often, it is treated and spoken of as if it were a single country, devoid of nuance, defined, as Dipo Faloyin puts it, by “safari or poverty, nothing in between.” In this long and varied exploration of the world’s second-largest continent, Faloyin, who was raised in Nigeria, challenges many lazy, reductive depictions of African life. Of course, while Africa is far from just an expanse of arid red soil where nothing but misery grows, to ignore the very real challenges that exist on the continent would be “a grave distortion”, as Faloyin argues.

The book is damning in parts. It traces the links between modern conflicts on the continent and deficient colonial borders – which ripped existing tribes apart to create nations consisting of ethnic groups that shared no common language, deity or belief system. In his chapter on the dangers of white saviours, he also takes issue with the portrayal of Africa as functionally helpless in battling its own problems. The Kony 2012 campaign, which aimed to capture a cruel Ugandan warlord, is a salient example. While well-intentioned, the US-made charity video failed to grasp the complex dynamics of deeply entrenched local conflict and proposed solutions entirely at odds with those of many Ugandan initiatives on the ground.

Though political — and scathing — in places, this is also an intimate book filled with stories about life in Nigeria’s bustling city of Lagos. In these more personal chapters, Faloyin touches on themes including the cultural significance of Aunties and tells humorous tales about West African Jollof Rice rivalry.

Not everyone is allowed a complex identity, he tells us. “Throughout history, individuals and entire communities have been systematically stripped of their personhood and idiosyncrasies.” Often, “to make them easier to demean, denigrate and subjugate.” This book challenges us to recognise the complexity of Africa’s vast ecosystem of cultures and identities.

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus (Transworld Publishers, £10.49).

Lily Pagano

Lessons in Chemistry tells the story of Elizabeth Zott —  a bright, opinionated and no-nonsense research chemist living in early 1960s California. Determined to live on her own terms, Elizabeth refuses to conform to the role of an “ideal woman”; a quiet, obedient and passive housewife.

As a result, Elizabeth finds herself estranged from her peers, undermined by male colleagues and treated with suspicion by other women. That is until she meets Calvin Evans, a lonely and misunderstood Nobel-prize nominated scientist: True chemistry follows. Some years later, Elizabeth is a single mother, out of work and desperate to make ends meet. She finds herself the unlikely and reluctant star of America’s new evening cooking show. 

Whilst Garmus has a clear vision, she chooses to beat the reader over the head with it. Themes of feminism are over-exaggerated to the point where they feel disingenuous. It felt hard to champion Zott, her bold and brazen disposition coming across as off-putting rather than inspiring. The cast of quirky supporting characters also falls short. From Zott’s “precocious” 4-year-old to her grudge-holding boyfriend, eccentricities are emphasised enough for them to become caricatures of themselves.

A pleasant enough debut novel, what Garmus lacks in depth she makes up for in enthusiasm and the book has already been snapped up by Apple for a television adaptation.