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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Summer is the final book in Ali Smith‘s seasons quartet. I have enjoyed each one (here are my posts on Autumn, Winter, and Spring). Now that I’ve read the whole series (and, I admit, looked at some other reviews) I’m aware that Smith mentions a different Shakespeare play, a different Dickens novel, and a different woman artist in each book. Summer opens with a sort of prelude about a film by Lorenza Mazzetti about “a man carrying two suitcases” “balanced on a very narrow brick ledge which runs round the edge of a high building.”

Just before Smith tells us about this film, she describes how “millions and millions” of people protested “lying, and the mistreatments of people and the planet” but “the people who knew the power of saying so? said, on the radio on TV, on social media, tweet after tweet, page after page: so?” We who are alive in this moment in time are the man, balanced on the precipice, carrying the baggage of partisanship and selfishness.

This sets us up to meet Grace, mother of two teens, Sacha and Robert, who link the people in this novel together. Grace is a Gen X mom, painfully self absorbed, and a leaver (in terms of Brexit). Sacha and Robert are slightly stereotypical as a teen worried about climate change and a younger bullied teen who kind of admires fascism, but really loves Einstein.

Sacha can’t understand why Charlotte (Arthur’s fellow blogger and missing girlfriend in Winter) is taking the siblings to see where Einstein stayed in rural England before emigrating to America. She warns Charlotte that Robert really likes her. Charlotte replies:

“If people think you like them . . . it can go either way. There’s a lot of powerplay in liking and being liked. Such powerful connection. It’s a chance to make the world bigger for someone else. Or smaller. That’s always a choice we’ve got.”

Throughout the seasons novels, Smith shows us characters who are making the world bigger or smaller for others. Sacha writes to a refugee she calls Hero. Robert reveals his admiration for Einstein to Charlotte. That was one of my favorite chapters, when Charlotte and Arthur stumble onto helping Sacha and meet her family. Charlotte’s chapter, where she is stuck in a huge old house with Iris, Arthur’s aunt, while Arthur goes to be with Elizabeth from Autumn, is also excellent.

Iris, ever practical, plans to have a bigger septic tank put in so she can take in refugees let loose from detention camps because of COVID (including Hero). And leaves soup outside Charlotte’s door when she is unable to deal with the world and Arthur’s betrayal all at once. I also loved hearing more from Daniel, the old man from Autumn, and learning about his sister’s work with the Resistance during WWII. Smith captures perfectly the pain, anxiety, and fear of our times, and of humanity generally.

This book, and the whole series, is about Brexit, and COVID, and fascism, and art, but also most of all, about humanity. Charlotte notes, “What art does is exist . . . . And then because we encounter it, we remember we exist too. And that one day we won’t.” Smith’s series does that — reminds us we exist in this dysfunctional world, that we’re connected to each other, as her characters are.

What Smith does is manage to write about the worst of human nature, all the ways we harm each other and the planet, all the ways power is corrupted, all the ways we twist love to suit our purposes, take nature for granted, and yet still somehow manage to get through, to carry each other, resist, and overcome. Charlotte, Iris, and Sacha, Daniel and Elizabeth, even bumbling Grace and damaged Robert and fickle Arthur, we’re all in this together. Somehow, as we stumble towards grace (the state, not the character), leaving our imprint on the world in the form of literature, music, and art. We come closer to what’s possible.

I thoroughly enjoyed these books and imagine I’ll re-read them in years to come.

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Another month of COVID, another Barbara Pym novel. I’m working my way through as much of her work as is easily accessible in library eBook platforms. Less Than Angels is another book with a spinster protagonist, Catherine Oliphant (did Gail Honeyman know this book when she chose to name her heroine Eleanor Oliphant? I don’t know), now one of my favorites of Pym’s many woman protagonists. And Less Than Angels is set partly in academia (where I work) as it is concerned with a group of anthropology students, from the nineteen year old Deirdre to Tom Mallow, minor gentry turned anthropologist, and Alaric Lydgate, whose years of field notes languish in his attic while he cranks out acerbic reviews of others’ work. Pym being Pym, she still pokes a little fun at the Anglican church but the main target of her gentle humor in this book is the world of seminars, grants, notes and theses.

It’s a remarkably melancholy book. Maybe because Deirdre’s inexperienced and heartfelt emotion are painfully reminiscent of my late teens. Catherine is also a more nuanced character than the sisters in Some Tame Gazelle or even Wilmet in A Glass of Blessings. She writes “women’s” stories and articles for magazines, has no living relatives, and manages to befriend her ex-lover’s new girlfriend. You get the sense there is much more to Catherine than “how to give an ‘inexpensive’ cocktail party,” which she is writing towards the end of the book.

She manages to befriend everyone from Deirdre’s aunt and mother to the young anthropology students Mark and Digby who visit her at both the start and the end of the book, to the eccentric Lydgate.Catherine is such sympathetic character, the kind of person that others lean on in good times and bad, that when she slips into a church and lights a candle for the absent Tom, off to study an African tribe, a priest mistakes her for one of the regular volunteers. She’s forever caring for people, but she’s no pushover; Pym makes it clear that she is taking care of herself as well.

I’ve discussed before that Pym is offering me some respite these days. I am appreciating what an astute observer she is, as in this observation about Dierdre, who is taken aback by Catherine’s frank assessment of Tom’s struggle to finish his thesis, “She was as yet too young and inexperienced to be quite sure that one can love and criticize at the same time.” And even though her characters are of a certain time and place* and social structure, we can still recognize their ambition, feelings, frustrations and limitations. It comforting in a way, even though nothing is really comforting right now.

*I should add that there is a very colonialist attitude towards anthropology in this book; studies are done to benefit British administrators even as the anthropologists may be interested in obscure languages or cultural practices.

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Over the summer I read Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel about the legacy of slavery that ranges over several generations. Last night I finished her new novel, Transcendent Kingdom, which is the story of one family, and focuses mainly on one character, Gifty, and to a lesser extent her older brother Nana and their parents. Much of the story is told through Gifty’s recollections of her childhood, and snippets of the the diary she kept. Because it’s a novel that takes place in Gifty’s thoughts, it isn’t a narrative tale; although Gifty eventually fills in much of her life’s story, her thoughts, like anyone’s, jump around.

As in Homegoing (and in Gyasi’s own life), Gifty’s family story begins in Ghana. But the book opens with Gifty’s childhood visit to Ghana to stay with her aunt. Even though we eventually learn that there is so much more to her mother, Gifty tells us in the first sentence, “Whenever I think of my mother, I picture a queen-size bed with her lying in it, a practiced stillness filling the room. For months on end, she colonized that bed like a virus, the first time when I was a child and then again when I was a graduate student.”

Gifty then recalls what led to the overpowering depression her mother experienced, the losses she faced, the ways America did not live up to the dreams her mother had when she entered a lottery to emigrate, causing her father, embarrassed and unsettled by racism and poverty, to visit Ghana and never return. “For a long time, most of my life, in fact, it had been just me and her, but this pairing was unnatural. She knew it and I knew it, and we both tried to ignore what we knew to be true – there used to be four of us, then three, two.”

Gifty’s athletic brother Nana, several years older than she is, is the next to go, when he gets hooked on OxyContin after an injury and cannot overcome his addiction. His overdose changes Gifty’s life even more tangibly than her father’s abandonment. Always an achiever, a child who yearns to be good by her mother’s and her evangelical church’s standards, she finds solace in math and science because of their certainty. As a graduate student, she has returned to a less certain world. What makes the brain work as it does? How much is science and how much is will? And what can science do to shape that will? Her experiments with mice and pleasure-seeking regions of the brain, she hopes, will prevent other little girls’ brothers from dying of an overdose, but shame and fear of being taken less seriously prevent her from sharing.

Gifty recalls,

“In the book of Matthew, Jesus says,”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Here is separation. Your heart, the part of you that feels. Your mind, the part of you that thinks. Your soul, the part of you that is. I almost never hear neuroscientists speak about the soul. Because of our work, we are often given to thinking about that part of humans that is the vital, inexplicable essence of ourselves, as the workings of our brains . . . . There is no separation. Our brains are our hearts that feel and our minds that think and our souls that are.”

Her work, she sees, is the same thing she was concerned with as a child: how much control we have over ourselves. “I am looking for new names for old feelings,” Gifty thinks. But her heart, in childhood and in adulthood, is the last thing she thinks about; it’s almost as if the trauma of her shattered family, compounded by racism’s psychological and economic tolls, piles up like bricks around Gifty’s heart. But the work she is doing gives her a kind of peace from the tensions of heart and mind, soul peace:

“The collaboration that the mice and I have going in this lab is, if not holy, then at least sacrosanct. I have never, will never, tell anyone that I sometimes think this way, because I’m aware that the Christians in my life would find it blasphemous and the scientists would find it embarrassing, but the more I do this work the more I believe in a kind of holiness in our connection to everything on Earth. Holy is the mouse. Holy is the grain the mouse eats. Holy is the seed. Holy are we.”

This deep thinking about mind and soul, neuroscience and faith, permeate Gifty’s story and make her who she is. And make this novel so much more than just the story of an immigrant family. It’s also beautiful — Gyasi’s writing is just a pleasure to read.

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After telling a friend about This is Happiness by Niall Williams, she told me that one of her favorite novels, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins, also featured a storyline about electricity coming to a rural area, and was also lyrical. She reads a great deal and spoke so highly of this book that I knew I needed to read it, too.

It’s a novel about love, as well as humankind’s desire to harness science for our purposes. When the story begins, Ray Foster (Fos) has returned to coastal North Carolina where he was raised, to watch the Perseid meteor shower and observe the bioluminescence on the sea. He’s has a theory that there’s a connection between light-emitting creatures and “celestial lights.” He runs out of gas and meets Opal, a bookkeeper, when his truck stops and he asks her father for some gas. They fall in love, get married and travel back to Knoxville, where Fos’s friend and fellow WWI veteran Flash and he run a photography studio.

For a good while the story is about Fos and Opal’s relationship, about Flash’s wildness, his estrangement from his prominent family. Ordinary things. Fos and Opal travel around Tennessee going to fairs where Fos puts on shows as a “phenomenologist,” demonstrating an x ray machine and other scientific phenomena. They long for a child, meet Opal’s cousins in a rural county, learn that she has inherited some land adjacent to her cousin’s farm. Flash takes them fishing, and introduces Opal to his favorite books, including Moby Dick. Opal reads most of them, but not that one (she tries, like many of us, and gives up). They follow along with the Scopes trial, Calvin Coolidge’s election.

This goes on, and Wiggins beautifully spins out the story of these three people, living and working and longing — Flash, to escape his family history, which we get a glimpse of, and live his own life, Fos and Opal to have a family of their own. After almost 200 pages, there is a plot twist that shatters the three friends’ lives.

From there the story focuses on Fos and Opal, how they pick up the pieces and make a new life (in a rural place where the Tennessee Valley Authority promises electricity soon). At long last they become parents to a son, Lightfoot. Fos goes from demonstrating x rays to showing people the toasters and other appliances they will soon be able to use — just as in This is Happiness. Opal gets a New Deal job as a rural librarian. There are a few more plot twists that lead Fos back into photography and ultimately, to Oak Ridge, one of the sites of the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb. (A few years ago I reviewed The Girls of Atomic City about women at Oak Ridge).

And there, another plot twist is so shattering that I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning first reading, and then thinking about what was going to happen next. By the end of the book, Lightfoot is nearly twenty, meets “Uncle Flash” and the two of them take an epic road trip. A young man full of questions and an older one who tells him, “Life is a series of collisions . . . it’s not a narrative experience. My advice to you is to stop trying to make it one.”

I guess Evidence of Things Unseen is a series of collisions. It’s not a beginning, middle, and end kind of story; we catch the characters in the act of living and we don’t know, when the novel comes to a close, what will happen to them. I said it’s about love, and as I reflect I think it’s really a book about Opal’s love, a steadfast love that transforms Fos’s life and sustains her friend Flash and her son Lightfoot, and touches several other people. And I said it’s about our desire to harness science — Wiggins shines a light on the consequences when the pursuit of that desire, and the belief that science is our salvation, overpowers our natural instinct to love one another and care for each other.

A powerful read, that I am still mulling over.

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Some Tame Gazelle was Barbara Pym‘s debut novel, published in 1950. I thought it was a postwar book, because there are a number of unmarried women, but she started writing it in the 1930s, when she was still very young. It’s about two unmarried sisters, Harriet and Belinda, in their 50s but still hoping for love. Belinda has been in love with a man for thirty years, Archdeacon Henry Hoccleve (who had a cameo appearance in A Glass of Blessings), but he married someone else. He also happens to be the priest at their village church and a rather vain and self-important man. Harriet fusses over every curate that comes to work with Henry. She receives regular marriage proposals from an Italian count who lives in the village, a kind man who loves to garden and is working on a collection of letters written by his late friend, a gentleman diplomat well known to all in the village who died in the Balkans.

Belinda and Harriet, and several other unmarried women in the village, lead quiet lives that revolve around church, books, knitting, and what to have for luncheon, tea, and supper. Belinda, despite her thwarted love, is a dependable friend to the Archdeacon and his wife, Agatha. While Pym is clearly commenting on gender roles, and on the differences among high and low church Anglicans (including a moment when Belinda muses that it’s easier in the city where clergy can move in theri favorite circles, whereas in their country village the Archdeacon and his neighboring Anglo Catholic colleague make subtle digs at each other), her social commentary is understated.

Pym’s humor is also gentle — her characters are decent people even when they act in humorous ways, and she makes no one ridiculous. And some of what I found funny might not have been as she was writing it. Harriet has to hide the corsets she’s mending when someone comes to the door, Belinda worries over whether “cauliflower cheese” is a fine luncheon for the woman seamstress who makes and then after taking so much care, faces the fact that it goes uneaten because a caterpillar has stowed away in the cauliflower. There are also some archly funny bits about Belinda’s friend Nicholas Parnell, now librarian at their old University. Reading a letter from him:

“Belinda sighed. Dead Nicholas was really quite obsessed with the Library and its extensions. She wished he would remember that the two things which bound them together were the memory of their undergraduate days and our greater English poets.”

If it seems frivolous to read this kind of thing while our world is falling apart — while people are dying of COVID, black people are dying at the hands of police because legislators’ promises about change have faded away once again, our President is trying to prevent a free and fair election and our government systematically lies to us, well, maybe it is. I think it’s more of a defense mechanism. There are more Barbara Pym novels on Hoopla so I look forward to continuing to seek refuge in them.

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It had been years since I’ve read Niall Williams. I own the series of nonfiction books he and Christine Breen wrote about moving from New York to County Clare. We went through a serious phase in our thirties of wanting to live radically differently than we do. We researched various alternatives, and that was how I found the Kiltumper books.

I knew that Williams went on to write fiction (and so has Breen, I learned this evening), but I hadn’t read any of his novels until now. This is Happiness caught my eye in the spring when I still thought I’d be ordering new fiction sometime this year for the library. I put a hold on the eBook and just got to check it out last week.

It’s the story of Noe, a seventeen year old who has left seminary in the early 70s and comes from Dublin to Clare to visit his grandparents, Ganga, a perennially happy but not very productive small farmer and Doady, his long suffering wife. While Noe is staying with them, their Faha, is being connected to the electrical grid. Not long after he arrives, Christy comes to board. He works for the electrical company and is there to assure the various property holders have signed off on the paperwork necessary to install the poles and lines.

But as Noe learns, Christy is really in Faha on a mission. He jilted a woman fifty years before, and is there to gain her forgiveness. In the meantime, he rides bicycles around the countryside with Noe, seeking a particular fiddle player. An unlikely friendship, this older man who is trying to walk back his regrets and a young one, unsure of his future? Perhaps, but it makes sense. In a way they are both trying to understand how best to live.

Noe is recalling all of this as an old man. Williams weaves the stories through a spring and summer when miraculously, it stops raining. Noe’s and Christy’s stories unspool slowly, and maybe because I read this book during a week when it was hot and mostly dry, that seemed fitting. At one point, Noe explains his long, winding digressions:

“The known world was not so circumscribed then nor knowledge equated with facts. Story was a kind of human binding. I can’t explain it any better than that. There was telling everywhere. Because there were fewer sources of where to find out anything, there was more listening.”

Sounds delightful, doesn’t it?

The details are so vivid in this book you’ll see the “car” Doady and Ganga take to church, pulled by an aging horse, smell the turf smoke, feel the heat that induces naps and the people bumping close together in St. Cecelia’s where everyone just moves down the pew and makes space. Williams’ musical, witty turns of phrase can help you picture expressions. For example, describing a neighbor:

“Bat was a man who tried in vain to make himself believable. He often looked like he was in mid-sum and realising he had forgotten to carry the one.”

And, when Noe develops a truly crushing crush on a young woman:

“I said her name, and, like the first man to eat the egg of a bird, felt a little ascension, and like him wouldn’t have been surprised to find feathers at my back.”

While we actually never learn whether Noe decides his future, Williams does bring Christy’s story to a tidy conclusion. And we learn that it’s his philosophy that “this is happiness” — meaning we can be content in the moment, even when things aren’t going our way (as they frequently don’t, in Faha). Ganga also ascribes to this, as he tells Rushe, and engineer from the electric company, that he and Doady aren’t “taking” the electricity which Rushe tells them contains, “In one switch, all the cures for loneliness.”

“Aren’t we happy as we are?” Ganga asks.

Imagine that. a lovely book about life and love, and yes, happiness.

 

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Ever since I read Lolly Willowes a few years ago I wanted to read more Sylvia Townsend Warner. Recently, I was looking for an escape, and picked up The Corner That Held Them. It fascinated me that the same author who wrote a book in which the devil appears as a sympathetic character would write another — considered a masterpiece — about a convent in the English countryside in the 1300s.

Although some people include this on plague novel lists, the Black Death plays a small (albeit pivotal) role in the book. It’s really about the human drama of a close-knit community, and about the management of a small convent in the Middle Ages, when such places got by on the dowries rich families paid for their daughters to become novices. And on the rents paid by by nearby tenants, and the manors on which they were founded. Which are some topics I’m a bit hazy on, and I plan to look into further.

The novel tells the story of the nuns’ lives — as a community, without dwelling too long on individuals —  their ambitions and fears, the way the convent’s well being depends on the bishop as well as the bailiff. Which near as I can tell is the property manager or overseer, who manages things like firewood and harvests and livestock. The prioress has some power but must manage up — the bishop, his custos (another kind of overseer, who reports on the management of the convent itself), the nuns’ priest (Sir Ralph, who is quite a fascinating character), the families who would place their daughters as novices.

There are a number of dramas of varying impact — a building project that goes awry, some personality clashes that even become violent, and endless financial issues. And towards the end of the novel, an uprising of poor people who are tired of being sent to the king’s wars, and tired of the church’s wealth. In fact, the pivotal events that lead to a surprise ending are triggered by the uprising, and by a visit from a beggar woman, Annis, who has fallen in with a thief who was raised at the convent.

Annis is working out what to do with a silly nun who wants to sell something (that isn’t hers to sell) “for the relief of the poor” when she has a thought that could probably sum up the novel’s theme:

“It is not hunger or nakedness that worst afflict the poor, for a very little thieving or a small alms can remedy that. No, the wretchedness of the poor lies below hunger and nakedness. It consists of their incessant incertitude and fear, the drudging succession of shift and scheme and subterfuge, the labouring in the quicksand where every step that takes hold of the firm ground is also a step into the danger of condemnation. Not cold and hunger but Law and Justice are the bitterest affliction of the poor.”

Townsend Warner wrote this in the 1940s about the 1300s . . . and it’s still an accurate description of systemic poverty.

And the writing took me away. Here’s a bit about the family members of Dame Matilda, come to see her installed as prioress in 1368: “Even with one’s eyes shut one could tell what manner of folk they were by the smells that came from their garments: an uncle’s lined boots, a grandfather’s hat, the velvet gown a great-great-grandmother had bequeathed.”

Or this description of Sir Ralph, ensconced in his role as nuns’ priest: “Now, in his dusty chamber or walking his accustomed rounds, a mere thinking could pierce his heart with pleasure.” Townsend Warner lists a number of these pleasurable ordinary thoughts, including, “. . . Saint Paul’s transfigured faith suddenly bursting out amid his polished arguments as the face of a satyr looks out from the laurel bush.” As vivid a simile of Paul’s letters as you’ll read.

An entrancing read, as forthright about the problematic power structures of the church as about human nature, entertaining and beautiful and strange. I’ll be thinking about this book for a while.

 

 

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On a whim, I checked one of my public library’s eBook apps on the day Kelli Jo Ford‘s debut novel, Crooked Hallelujah, was released last week and lucked into checking it out the same day. Ford tells the stories of Granny, her daughter Lula, granddaughter Janice and great granddaughter Reney, four Cherokee women living in Oklahoma (Ford is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation herself). The stories range from the 1970s to a time in the 2000s that isn’t specified but seems to be in the future.

Granny’s son, Janice’s Uncle Thorpe, is a preacher in a Holiness church, a Pentecostal denomination where people speak in tongues, and Lula, after her husband leaves her with three little girls, embraces church life wholeheartedly. She raises the girls to wear “modest” clothes for the Lord; Justine is the youngest, and she rebels against the long skirts, preferring bell bottoms that she hides from her mother. She’s just a kid, trying her best to live in the world and navigate her family’s world as well, and then suddenly she’s sixteen and a single mom, working in factories and trying to provide a better life for Reney than she had.

There is a sense of loss throughout the book, not least because all four women have broken marriages and violence is everywhere — between men and women, mothers and daughters, and in the harsh elements of the dry Oklahoma and Texas settings, where fires and tornados are regular threats. As the stories unfold, we learn more about the trauma that winds through the generations.

Beyond violence loss of culture, language, and tradition are part of the pattern as well. Like other books I’ve read recently, Crooked Hallelujah is also about the systemic racism in our country, and how people live through it. Granny grew up in boarding schools, sent away to unlearn her native culture, but she is the only one who speaks Cherokee well. Justine at one point is cleaning out the junk at Lula’s house and imagines the boxes of language tapes warping in the heat in her own house in Texas. Reney asks her mother, after she moves away to Oregon, about their family history, about being Cherokee. Readers don’t really learn what Justine tells her. Like Reney, we get snippets.

Speaking of snippets, this is described as a novel in stories, but mostly reads like a novel. But there is one story that didn’t seem to me to fit — Then Sings My Soul. It appears more or less in the middle of the book and although Justine is mentioned, it isn’t about any of the women who are the book’s main characters. In fact the characters who feature in this story don’t come up again. It’s also a brutal story, almost unbelievably so. I’m still not sure exactly why it is there.

Perhaps it belongs somehow because it’s a story about love and identity and belonging and the way family makes us who we are. The rest of the book is definitely about those things. In one chapter towards the end of the book, Justine is driving back to Texas after a visit home to Oklahoma where Lula, in her eighties, is ailing. As she drives, she thinks,

“For a long time I thought harmony was just people using air and vibrations at the same time. I thought that once the singing stopped it might as well have never even started. But when the heavy hospital doors close behind me, there is a ringing in my chest like a song. When I close the door to my truck and later when I cross the state line, I can still feel the voices. They carry me home.”

I don’t want to give away too much, but this scene — a daughter driving away, but feeling her family is still with her somehow — is repeated throughout the book. It’s a book about sorrow that is deep in the characters’ beings, even when they are happy. I’m glad I read it.

 

 

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I’d wanted to read Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi for some time; there were holds on it, I forgot about it. Then this summer book group I’m in at work selected it (that was also why I read Honour), and I remembered. I’m so glad. I found it to be an absorbing read. Interestingly this is two books in a row with a narrative that shifts from character to character and to different times and places — something I thought I didn’t like — that I’ve really enjoyed. Maybe I don’t enjoy when it’s not done well, but this book was wonderful.

In Homegoing, there are characters whose lives span a few centuries, in Ghana first, then later, in America and Ghana. As the stories unfold, you see the ways the different characters relate to those who came before. Right from the start, slavery impacts all of them, directly or indirectly. Readers meet people involved in the capture and sale of other people, and their descendants. As Gyasi winds through the generations, it’s easy to see how the tendrils of trauma wind along as well, wrapping around each family. More than once, I was reading before bed, and instead of getting sleepy, couldn’t put the book down. There are so many good stories, and so many interesting people, in this novel.

The writing is lovely, too. Here is a passage from a section about Yaw, a bachelor teacher who has hired a younger woman to care for his house:

“He pretended to be annoyed when she rolled off her list of endless questions, but since that first day, he always answered them all, each and every one. When it was not raining, he would sit outside under the shade of a big, bushy mango tree while she drew water from the well. She carried it back to the house in two buckets, and the swollen muscles of her arms would flex, and the sheen of sweat would appear on them, and when she passed him she would smile, the gap so lovely it made him want to cry.”

And like HonourHomegoing, incredibly, is a hopeful book. There is plenty of heartbreak and greed, bigotry and hypocrisy, violence and degradation. But there is so much love. And as the book comes to a close, with people who are perhaps of Gyasi’s generation, there is a sense of transcendence. After generations of seeing people beaten down by systems they cannot overcome, these two young people seem like they are able to be themselves. And you feel hopeful because if their ancestors (mostly) survived, even better for these two whose circumstances are finally better.

Which makes even clearer the urgent need currently felt around the world, and especially in America, to end systemic racism. Because what if all the people in this long line down through the generations had been able to be themselves?

I’m excited to read Yaa Gyasi’s forthcoming book — out in September!

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I read Honour, by Elif Shafak, for a discussion group at work. it’s a complicated novel about Adem and Pembe Toprak, Kurdish Turks who have emigrated to London in the 1970s with their children, Iskander (whose English friends call him Alex) and Esma. In England they have a second son, Yunus. While the family has a decent life in London, both Adem and Pembe bear the scars of their childhoods in Turkey, where rules about propriety, violence, and shame deeply impact them and their families.

Shafak changes point of view and time period frequently, which is something I don’t usually like and often find confusing. But I managed to follow what was happening in Honour, and the shifting narrative works well in this story. Different perspectives remind the reader that the same event, viewed through a different lens, might appear differently. And she is telling different generations’ stories, so the shifting comes naturally.

We learn early — right in the first chapter, from Esma, that she has a brother who is a murderer. The rest of the book marches steadily towards that moment. But it also veers back into the past, into Pembe’s childhood, where she and her twin sister, Jamila, grew up in village, in a family of eight daughters, and where their mother died trying to bear a son. And into Adem’s childhood, where he grew up with an alcoholic and abusive father, whose actions destroyed his family, even though his wife, Adem’s mother, is the one who brought them shame.

This is one of the book’s themes: men do plenty of dishonourable things, but women are the ones who bring shame to the family. And yet, there are a few kindly or wise men, and a few women who judge things shameful or enable or mete out the punishment to those who have brought shame; Shafak doesn’t oversimplify the moral universe of her book. She touches on extremism, nationalism, the pressures to conform to western standards of beauty, the dangers of forcing men and women into set gender roles, and the painful consequences of capitalism, all without forcing any of these things on readers — they unfold in the novel naturally.

Religion and belief play a strong role, but Shafak is once again skillful and nonjudgemental; even the most extreme beliefs appear within their contexts to be part of the lives she portrays. She doesn’t over-dramatize or make the God the culprit when humans act outside their own interest, but she also doesn’t belittle the strongly held beliefs some of her characters have. Love is also a central theme, and the relationships between family members, friends, and lovers. There wasn’t a relationship in the book that felt forced for the plot or unrealistic, and that’s saying something in a story this complex.

Shafak manages to write a book that doesn’t feel heavy or brutal, but empathetic and somewhat hopeful, even as she tells the story of people burdened by heartbreaking circumstances. A very interesting read, that took me into other people’s lives. I always love a book that transports me and this one did that, whether to Istanbul, a Kurdish village or remote areas of Turkey, London, or a jail cell in Shrewsbury. Oddly, there is even a brief outbreak of a deadly virus.

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