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.
Best Book of the Week!
Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America is a fictional riff upon Alexis de Tocqueville’s trip to America in the early 19th century, from which resulted the classic Democracy in America. Olivier de Garmont is the character meant to be Tocqueville, an aristocrat with liberal leanings who is nevertheless an elitist snob.
Parrot is his servant, a man who has lived a colorful but frustrating life. An Englishman, he has had his life disrupted since he was a boy by another French aristocrat, the Marquis de Tilbot, who spirited him away from England after his father, a typesetter, was arrested as an accomplice to forgery.
In dangerous post-revolutionary France, Olivier’s mother has decided it would be wise for Olivier to leave the country, as his liberal leanings have offended the conservatives, but he is unacceptable to the liberals because of his aristocratic birth. She ends up shipping him off to America with Parrot as his secretary, on loan from Tilbot and instructed to report back Olivier’s movements.
But America inflames Parrot’s own democratic leanings. He believes himself to have a talent for engraving that he has never been able to develop while working as Tilbot’s servant, and he resents his status as a “vassal.” While Olivier feels that their rocky start has developed into a relationship that is almost love, Parrot affectionately? calls him “Lord Migraine.”
This novel is narrated in alternating chapters by Olivier and Parrot. It is entertaining–wittily and robustly written–although sometimes we seem to have stumbled into a Dickens novel, especially when reading about Parrot’s early life. In fact, I read recently that Carey wrote an earlier book, Jack Maggs, based on Magwich of Great Expectations, so that feeling is probably not too far off.