Review 1471: Homegoing

Writers seem to be experimenting with the form of the novel these days, not always successfully. Yaa Gyasi uses the form of linked short stories to good effect, however.

In paired stories, the novel follows two half sisters and their descendants through 300 years of history. In 18th century Gold Coast, Effia is being courted by the son of a king, but her mother, Baaba, tells her to hide the fact that she has reached womanhood. Her suitor eventually marries someone else, and Effia is married to a white man, James Collins, the governor of Cape Coast Castle. The Castle is where slaves are kept before being shipped to the colonies.

Esi is the daughter of Big Man and Maame, a former slave to Effia’s family. In her attempts to befriend Abronoma, her family’s slave, she sends a message to Abronoma’s family to tell them where she is. Thus, she herself becomes a slave when her slave’s family attacks and captures her village.

The novel checks in with each of eight characters of the girls’ descendants, sometimes telling the entire stories of characters’ lives, other times dealing with significant moments. Both families are affected by this great evil in their lives, slavery and its aftereffects. This structure allows Gyasi to explore some of the key events in the histories of Ghana and the United States.

At first, I thought I might get frustrated with the format, because I often want more from short stories. But because the stories are about two families, some of the characters are present in more than one, and you can at least find out what happened to them. Many of the stories are grim, but the novel ends hopefully. Gyasi’s voice is a fresh one, and I found this novel captivating.

Related Posts

Sugar Money

Washington Black

Beloved

Review 1465: Sugar Money

In 1765 Martinique, Father Cléophas sends two of the monks’ slaves, Emile and Lucien, on an astoundingly ill-advised mission to Grenada. The two brothers are to gather the monks’ hospital and field slaves from the island, which has been taken by the British, and bring them to Martinique. Cléophas presents them with a notarized document and tries to convince them that the British have agreed to this, but in the next breath, he tells them to do it secretly, on Christmas Day, when the British will be drunk.

Emile, who is 28, tries to convince Cléophas to leave Lucien, who is 13, home, but Cléophas insists that Lucien go, because he can speak English. Then he gives them a package of medicinal herbs to convey to a doctor, their excuse for going to the island.

The slaves have no choice but to do as they are bidden. Lucien relates this story in his quirky mix of English, French, and patois. In the guise of an adventure, with humor and a likable, inimitable narrator, Jane Harris tells us the horrifying details of life in the 18th century Caribbean.

This is an excellent novel that I read for my Walter Scott Prize project. I have recently read more than one novel set on a Caribbean sugar plantation, but this one seems the most authentic.

Related Posts

Washington Black

The Quality of Mercy

The Long Song

Review 1460: The Story Keeper

Audrey Hart arrives on the Isle of Skye to take up a position as an assistant to a folklorist in 1857. She has fled her family because of a situation that occurred during her volunteer work and because her father doesn’t believe a girl of her upbringing should work. She has taken a job on Skye because her mother, who died when she was a child, loved it there.

Upon her arrival in Skye, Audrey notices a croft girl who appears to be ill. The local people believe she was taken by fairies. The Buchanans, her employers, aren’t interested in what happens to a girl of her class. The minister thinks even Miss Buchanan’s story-collecting activities encourage superstition.

Audrey is worried, because she hasn’t been able to get the locals to tell her any stories so can’t do her job. But then she begins hearing about other young girls who have disappeared. No one seems to want to listen to her ideas that the disappearances may be related, not even the kind nephew of Miss Buchanan, Alec. While all this is going on, Alec’s father is enclosing his land and evicting tenants.

This is an atmospheric novel that nicely blends the folklore of the area with more sinister themes. Although I almost immediately figured out what was going on, if not the motive, I enjoyed the journey. This is an entertaining historical suspense novel.

Related Posts

The Good People

The Sea House

At the Water’s Edge

Review 1457: The Alice Network

I would estimate that 90% of the recent historical novels I’ve read in the last two years—and I’ve read a lot of them—are dual timeframe novels. Although I have read some excellent ones (The Weight of Ink comes to mind), I’m beginning to feel that they often indicate laziness on the author’s part. Why write a carefully researched novel about one period when you can write two hastily researched ones?

In post-World War II England, Charlie is on her way to Switzerland to a clinic for unmarried pregnant women when she ditches her mother to try to search out what became of her cousin Rose during the war. This all sounds very well, but the flippant first-person narrative style undermines everything serious about this section, turning it into, well, a historical romance.

She finds Eve, whose name as a preparer was on the reports her father received about Rose. And what are the odds that Eve is going to handle a report that mentions a name important to both her and Rose’s fates? Not too likely, I’m guessing, but that’s what happens.

In any case, then we plunge into the story of Eve, a spy during World War I, and back and forth we go for a book that is about 100 pages longer than it should be and very repetitive.

Worse, some of the detail and conversations, especially in the spy section, seem unlikely. I felt as if the characters were being put through their paces in benefit of the plot rather than evolving more organically. Characters are given traits to round them out, but these traits are just sort of thrown into the mix. For example, Charlie is supposedly a math whiz, but the most complicated thing she does is figure a tip or quote the Pythagorean Theorum (which I learned in 7th grade, and I think kids learn even earlier now). Neither is exactly high mathematics.

I know this book was very popular, and I think the subject matter is interesting, but I am not a fan of the execution of this novel. I wasn’t that drawn in by Manhattan Beach, but compared to this and some of the other World War II-based novels I’ve read lately, it was a masterpiece.

Related Posts

Lilac Girls

Salt to the Sea

Manhattan Beach

Review 1455: City of Girls

So far, it’s hard to predict what Elizabeth Gilbert will write from one novel to the next. I read Eat, Pray, Love reluctantly, because it was so popular and I resisted reading a memoir by someone so young. But I loved it for its style and humor. The Signature of All Things was an enthralling 19th century story about the life of an unusual woman.

In City of Girls, Gilbert re-creates 20th century Manhattan, beginning in 1940. Vivian Morris is a heedless Vassar dropout with no idea what she wants to do and no inclination to do anything. Her status-conscious parents finally ship her off to her Aunt Peg in New York. Peg is the owner of a crumbling old theater in Hell’s Kitchen that puts on brainless entertainment for working class clientele.

Vivian begins a life of drunken nights running around town with the theater’s chorus girls and sleeping with just about anyone and days making costumes for the shows. For Vivian’s talent is sewing.

In the four-story building where the theater is located live Aunt Peg and her partner Olive as well as a motley crew of chorus girls, musicians, and others from the shows. Vivian is delighted to be given the apartment of Aunt Peg’s husband, the debonair Billy Buell, who hasn’t lived there in years. But things change after Peg offers a home to the famous British actress, Edna Parker Watson, whose home was destroyed in the Blitz. Peg decides to stage a good production for Edna, and Billy arrives to help write it.

The show is a success, but shortly thereafter, Vivian takes a fall because of her own foolishness. She ends up returning to her parents’ home in disgrace.

So far, the book was of a piece, even if I didn’t find Vivian a particularly interesting or sympathetic character. But that’s just the first half of the book. During the second half, when a wiser Vivian returns to New York to help out her aunt during the war and proceeding for the next 30 years, I began to wonder what the heck the book was about. It just seems to meander around a lot before coming to an admittedly poignant point.

The conceit employed by the novel is that the entire long novel is a letter to a woman answering her long-ago question of how Vivian knew her father. I think this first-person narrative is a weakness, because I can’t imagine someone writing some of this stuff to anyone, let alone a near stranger. Further, the second half of the novel seems like a different, less purposeful book.

It sounds like I disliked this book. I didn’t, I just feel it has problems, and I never warmed to Vivian.

Related Posts

The Signature of All Things

Lucky Us

Manhattan Beach

Review 1428: The Children’s Book

I have an inconsistent reaction to Byatt. I find her novels either completely absorbing, as I did Possession, or perplexing, as I did A Whistling Woman. The very long novel, The Children’s Book, nevertheless falls into the first category.

Byatt’s novel takes on the late Victorian and early Edwardian periods, a time when, she says, adults seemed to be trying to prolong childhood, when, for example, Peter Pan made its appearance. Fittingly then, a major character is Olive Wellwood, a writer of children’s tales. She has many children, and aside from her authorly output, she writes a continuing story for each one of them. It’s her oldest son, Tom’s, misfortune that she confuses fiction with reality.

The novel begins when, on a visit to a museum with his mother, Tom notices a ragged boy and follows him to find he is living in a closet in the museum. This boy is Philip Warren, a worker in a pottery factory who has run away because he wants to make pottery, not feed fires and do other mundane tasks. Major Prosper Cain, the museum keeper Olive is visiting to consult, thinks he may be able to find a place for Philip, and Philip ends up working at Prospect House for the brilliant but disturbed potter Benedict Fludd.

But first we have the Wellwood’s elaborate Midsummer play, where we meet all of the important characters of the novel. The Wellwood’s guests are artists, anarchists, socialists, fellow Fabianists, and even a banker in the person of Basil Wellwood, the host Humphry’s brother. Of course, other guests are these people’s children, who eventually become important characters in their own right.

The novel covers the time from 1895 to the end of World War I, although the war is covered only briefly. Over this time period, Byatt not only tells us the stories of her many characters but also checks in to events in the lives of actual figures of the time, for example, Oscar Wilde, Emma Pankhurst, H. G. Wells, and Rupert Brooke.

This novel is interesting both on an intimate level, as the children discover their parents’ secrets and have their own, and on the broader, more ambitious level of a portrait of the age. There are casualties in this novel, and it is at times very dark, the way Olive likes her stories.

Related Posts

A Whistling Woman

C

Mrs. Engels

Review 1426: The Wardrobe Mistress

In post-World War II London during a cold winter, the famous actor Charlie Grice, called Gricey, has died. His widow, Joan, a wardrobe mistress, is bereft. When a young actor, Daniel Francis, takes over Gricey’s role as Malvolio and plays it exactly the same, Joan comes to believe that he has become Gricey.

As Joan is beginning to befriend Daniel Francis, or Frank Stone, his real name, she makes a horrible discovery about Gricey. Behind the lapel of one of his coats she finds a badge, the emblem of Britain’s fascist party. This is doubly horrible because Joan is Jewish. Asking around discreetly, she finds what everyone else knows—Gricey was indeed a fascist.

The stress on Joan becomes even worse as her friend Frank begins working with her daughter Vera on The Duchess of Malfi. Vera’s husband and his friend Gustl ask her to help them fight the fascists by infiltrating them.

This novel is written from an omniscient viewpoint with a first person plural accompaniment by the ladies of the chorus. This technique lends it a certain ironic tone. It’s a creepy and atmospheric novel that chills to the bone.

I read this novel for my Walter Scott Prize project.

Related Posts

Munich

Midnight in Europe

The Spoilt City