The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

I had a feeling John Boyne may have put his heart and soul into this book, though I had little idea how so. The blurb is intentionally vague, we know Cyril has been adopted and that the book is about his struggle with coming to terms with his identity.

The last novel of his that I read was The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, a moving story set during WW2, seen through the innocent eyes of Bruno, the eight-year-old son of the commandant at a German concentration camp.

In The Heart’s Invisible Furies, a title taken from a quote by Hannah Arendt, the German-born American political theorist:

“A line came into my mind, something that Hannah Arendt once said about the poet Auden: that life had manifested the heart’s invisible furies on his face.”

we meet 16-year-old Catherine Goggin, sitting quietly in church in a small Irish village of Goleen in County Cork, as she is about to be denounced and humiliated in front of the entire congregation, then thrown out of, not only the church, but her home and the village, for bringing shame on the community.

The story is narrated through the voice of her not-yet born son, the boy that we come to know as Cyril Avery; he will be adopted and raised by Charles and Maude Avery, after Catherine travels to Dublin and takes up employment in the tea room of the Dáil Éireann (House of Representatives), where she is given a chance by the manageress, and eventually becoming that herself.

The book is divided into different parts, each covering a significant chunk of Cyril’s life, initially in Ireland, then a period in Amsterdam, time in New York and finally coming back to Ireland.

Cyril finds it extremely difficult within his family, his school and his culture to be himself. Through his inability to be and express himself, we see how oppressive a culture can be against anything or anyone who dares to step outside the acceptable norm,  highlighting the extreme hypocrisy that therefore must exist, as humans by their very nature are not clones of each other, they are born and exist in more than just binary variations.

Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, Parish of Goleen, West Cork

In this first part, as Cyril is growing up, John Boyne makes something of a parody of his life, in particular in relation to his adoptive parents, who continually insist on reminding him that he is not a real Avery, and Cyril himself, so used to hearing this, will correct every person who uses the word mother or father, by inserting the word ‘adoptive’ to be sure they too understand.

“I always called them Charles and Maude, never ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’. This was on Charles’s insistence as I wasn’t a real Avery. It didn’t bother me particularly but I know it made other people uncomfortable and once, in school, when I referred to them thus, a priest punched me around the ears and told me off for being modern.”

The first time we read this, it seems sad, but the continual repetition makes it comic, and it is a tool that Boyne uses, perhaps to soften the effect of what must have been quite a soul-searching book to write, as he reaches deep into his own life experiences to create the life of Cyril.

At the age of seven, he meets Julian, the son of a lawyer who is helping his father stay out of prison for tax evasion, they will become best friends.

But for all that we had, for all the luxury to which we were accustomed, we were both denied love, and this deficiency would be scorched into our future lives like an ill-considered tattoo inscribed on the buttocks after a drunken night out, leading each of us inevitably towards isolation and disaster.

Leinster House, where Dáil Éireann Irish parliment sits

While the novel focuses on Cyril’s attempts to survive in a world hostile to his natural inclinations, his experiences highlight the struggle that so many people encounter, unable to live their lives openly and honestly without the fear of rejection and violence.

Boyne peels back the layers of Irish inclinations and attitudes in the 20th century and shows how destructive this closed mindedness is on the lives of anyone who crosses an imaginary line of acceptable ‘being’. The contrast with how Cyril is able to live his life in the Netherlands, shown through the carefree Bastiaan, who has known no such bigotry in his life experience is revealing.

It’s hard to say too much about the novel without giving away spoilers, except to say that this astonishing novel is a courageous, honest attempt to show how the way we conform to society and culture’s expectations, against our own nature’s can be so harmful to so many and it makes us wonder how life might be, if we lived in a more utopian world, where tolerance reigned supreme.

Boyne admits the comic form isn’t one he’s indulged in before and he has deliberately avoided writing anything personal in his novels until now.

“Perhaps Cyril Avery is everyone I might have been, that I am, that I amn’t, and that I might be yet. The desire to fall in love and to share one’s life with someone is neither a homosexual nor a heterosexual conceit. It’s human. We’re all suckers for a pretty face or a kind heart. What else can we do but keep hoping that the right person will show up?” John Boyne

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Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

In 2017, I read Jesmyn Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones, it was hurricane season in the US, and the news was full of the fearful anticipation of the destruction they would bring and we were already seeing how many small islands in the Caribbean had been devastated.

Salvage the Bones was set during the period just before and during Hurricane Katrina, one that would claim lives and livelihoods, wreaking havoc on New Orleans and the surrounding area. The family within which that story was set were already suffering poverty and the loss of the mother; they had little, yet what they had meant so much, creating a foreboding sense of much being at stake, it was thrilling and terrifying reading. You can read my review of it here.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is set in the same Southern US community,  putting us amidst a struggling mixed race family, a young black woman Leonie, who fell in love with Michael from a racist white family implicated in a tragedy that affected her family. In its telling, it traverses love,  grief, terminal illness, addiction, prejudice, dysfunctional parenting, hope and survival, the effect this mix has on everyone touched by it, the painful and the poignant.

Leonie falls so quickly for Michael, she is blind to the bind she must endure, that of premature motherhood when she has barely experienced or indulged sufficiently the early infatuation of young love. As a result, she is forever seeking those moments, she is trapped in hedonistic romanticism, she has eyes only for Michael and is unable to embrace, and often rejects motherhood – or as her mother feared, perhaps she never had a maternal instinct at all.

 …from the first moment I saw him walking across the grass to where I sat in the shadow of the school sign, he saw me. Saw past skin the colour of unmilked coffee, eyes black, lips the colour of plums, and saw me. Saw the walking wound I was, and came to be my balm.

She and her 13-year-old son Jojo and toddler Kayla, live with her parents, as Michael is in jail. Leonie gets word he is to be released and takes the children on a nightmare road trip to pick him up. Throughout most of the story Kayla is unwell, she is always in the arms of her brother, it is he that calms and reassures her.

When Leonie puts herself in danger, the apparition of her brother ‘Given’ appears. He is her conscience. He is not the only apparition hanging around the family. Jojo sees a boy who calls himself Richie, and Kayla can see him too. He wants Jojo to ask his grandfather to tell him the rest of the story he has partially told about him, of this boy Richie.

Restless unburied souls.

I want to tell the boy in the car this. Want to tell him how his pop tried to save me again and again, but he couldn’t.

The novel is narrated from three different points of view, Jojo, his mother Leonie and briefly the spectre of the young man  Richie. Jojo is the most reliable and frequent narrator, even while he does have visions of this ghost-like figure. He is the quiet observer of everything, he adapts, he is responsible, he knows they are better off with his grandfather, he is loyal to his mother. He needs to take care of his sister, he has become both parents.

“Sometimes, late at night, when I’m listening to Pop search the dark, and Kayla’s snoring beside me, I think I understand Leonie. I think I now something about what she feels. That maybe I know a little bit about why she left after Mam died, why she slapped me, why she ran. I feel it in me, too. An itching in my hands. A kicking in my feet. A fluttering in the middle of my chest. An unsettling. Deeper. It turns me awake every time I feel myself slipping. It tosses me like a ball through the air. Around three a.m., it lets me drop, and I sleep.”

He accepts the presence of the ghost-like boy Richie, he is aware that it has some need to be fulfilled, though he is wary due to the role he has assumed, to protect his sister. Is it because their grandmother is dying that these restless souls are hanging around? It becomes one of the questions readers will ask themselves, and I found it interesting that I at no point interpreted this as a psychological problem for those who were able to see or sense these apparitions, they were like a puzzle to be solved, or a problem to be ignored, the fact that Jojo hears Richie validated their presence, while Leonie’s visions are easily attributed to her altered state.

Leonie is like a little girl lost, she has some awareness of what she should be doing, but little ability to push herself to do it. Her grief over her brother, her disappointment at her ability to have a connection with Michael’s racist family, her disappointment in herself lead to apathy, to knowing, but lacking the will to act on her better judgement, of which we see glimmers. She isn’t horrid or badly intentioned, she is seeking escape and Michael both reminds her of her pain and is where, and with whom she wishes to bury herself, to flee it.

There is a reference to her novel Salvage The Bones, as the family return from their road trip, they pass a young couple walking a dog, it is the brother and sister, Skeetah and Eschelle, from the neighbourhood, protagonists of that earlier novel. I was curious to know if the dog was related to China, an unresolved thread left hanging from her earlier novel. I was delighted to encounter them.

In many ways Salvage The Bones was the more straight forward story, Esch (in Salvage) and Jojo (in Sing) are similar characters, coming-of-age and surviving a dysfunctional family.  Jojo has the stability and wisdom of his grandfather to ground him, and the care of his sister prevents him from becoming too focused on his own situation. There is hope. However, the supernatural element, which is a lot more than a mere splash of magic realism, makes this a more complex narrative that stretches the reader’s imagination much further to make sense of what is happening, a reminder of dangers, of threats, of the precariousness of young, black lives.

It’s challenging to spend the week there, navigating the lives of this family that seems to have little hope and while Jojo seems to be a sensible child, his interactions with the dead suggest life will continue to challenge him.

It reminded me a little of the magical presence used by some Caribbean authors I enjoy, where ancestors often bring a message or wisdom to the one who is able to sense their presence.

It’s a book that is often uncomfortable to read, but challenges the reader to think deeper than what they encounter on the surface, to ponder the meaning of some of those scenes, especially the end. I think it is a book that is all the more enjoyable for the thoughts it provokes on finishing it, for the discussion it invites you to have with other readers, and this for me is where its brilliance lies, it normalises the mystical, using it to make the reader think beyond the actual events of the story, to question how the lives of others continue to impact the lives of their descendants.

It demonstrates the effect on the young of the tragedies of the past and the need for resolution, for those unburied,  restless souls to be freed from their pain, so that the living can be free of and unencumbered by it too.

Both Jesmyn Ward’s books Salvage the Bones (2011) and Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) won the prestigious National Book Award in the US, an award that always highlights excellent fiction and nonfiction being published in the US and they have just announced this year that they will now include a fifth National Book Award for translated works of fiction and nonfiction published in the U.S.

Listen below to Jesmyn reading her acceptance speech and speaking to those who question why they should read her books, about the universality of the stories she writes.

“As a lifelong reader, I fell in love with classic “odyssey” novels early on—especially As I Lay Dying, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Yet I always felt somehow outside these books. This novel responds to that tradition, reflecting the realities of being black and poor in the South, the realities of my people and my community. …My characters face the terrible consequences of racism and poverty wherever they go, but they also have an incredible, tender, transformative love for each other. I wanted to acknowledge all of the forces that work against us and our ability to survive despite all.” Jesmyn Ward

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via Netgalley.

Purchase a copy via Book Depository

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

Donal Ryan is the Irish author many of us remember for his debut The Spinning Heart, long listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2013 (won that year by Eleanor Catton’s, The Luminaries) and noted for perseverance in pursuing his dream to become a published author – his manuscript was rejected 47 times – before becoming a word of mouth sensation and setting him firmly on the track he knew he was destined for.

Since then he has published The Thing About December and A Slanting of the Sun: Stories and now this riveting novel, which was easily a five star read for me. I liked his debut, but this I loved and did not want to put down.

Similar in style to his earlier work, in which he zooms in on the minutiae of life and thoughts of a character(s) in the wake of a pivotal event, here he focuses on one character, Melody, a thirty-three-year woman, whose marriage has become like a habit she wants to kick, but rather than seek help to heal the cracks, she gives in to an impulse and finds herself pregnant to her 17-year-old private student, Martin Toppy, from a Traveller community.

Courageously, Ryan assumes the first person narrative voice of a pregnant woman, the first chapter labelled week twelve, finishing with Post-partum, though this is not a woman obsessed with what is going on inside her body, it’s a woman in the throes of needing to build nest.  Alone with her thoughts, she thinks back over how she came to be where she is now, interrupted often by memories of her best friend Breedie.

“I’d look at Breedie’s long bare arms, and long legs, and I’d feel a fizzing mixture of admiration and love and terrible envy, that she could make my mother smile and wish she had a daughter like a swan.”

Into this isolation comes another Traveller, partially rejected by her family and community, whom Melody befriends and becomes attached to, picking up her teaching with Mary, where she left off with Martin. Here’s their encounter when they first meet:

You can come into town with me now, if you want.

I can’t. There’d be murder. I’m been watched ever single second.

Why did your sisters leave you out?

I’m a shame to the family.

And she told me a story, and I listened, and I didn’t interrupt her once. Her name is Mary Crothery, and she’s nineteen years old.

The language, their way of speaking, the dialogue is raw, visceral and puts the reader right inside the story, it easily evokes a sense of place, you can sense the attitude of the characters around Melody as soon as they rap their knuckles on the door. Mostly they’re angry, except her father, he’s sad and in fear of disappointing him further, Melody stays away from where she’d be most welcome.

“Thinking now about the way I thought about things then, about how I let my mother’s anger towards him seep into me, I feel a desperate need to apologise, to mitigate the hurt I must have caused him as I drew away from him, as I let my perfect love for him be sullied, and eroded, and disintegrated, by the coldness of a woman I didn’t even really like, but whom I wanted more than anything to be like.”

The weeks pass leading to a crisis point as Melody’s life and that of the Traveller community intersects, highlighting family grudges, betrayals, their battles for redemption and overcoming guilt.

Irish Travellers

It is interesting that Donal Ryan chose to highlight characters from within the Irish Traveller community, as 2017 was a significant year in terms of identity for them. There are estimated to be between 29,000 – 40,000 Travellers in Ireland, representing 0.6% of the population. Recent DNA research has proven they are as genetically different from the settled Irish as they are from the Spanish and that this difference may have emerged up to 12 generations ago, as far back as 1657.

Irish Travellers, sometimes pejoratively referred to as tinkers or gypsies are a traditionally itinerant ethnic group who maintain a set of traditions, who after years of lobbying, finally gained recognition of their ethnic status from the government. It is seen as a momentous victory for the thousands of Traveller children who have long suffered from  exclusion and discrimination.

It’s an engaging story, beautifully rendered and while it doesn’t promise to address all the issues it raises, it does what for me the best novels do, puts the readers in the shoes of another in an attempt to see things from multiple perspectives.

Highly Recommended!

Further Reading

Article in Irish Times, Travellers as ‘genetically different’ from settled Irish as Spanish

Article in Irish Times, Historic Recognition of Ethnic Status for Irish Travellers

Buy a Copy of All We Shall Know via Book Depository

The Mountain In My Shoe by Louise Beech

Louise Beech is a unique author who I feel like I have a personal connection with, after the incredible experience of reading her debut novel How To Be Brave in October 2016, which for me included communicating with her as I endured a hellish experience on the 9th floor of Timone Hospital in Marseille. Twitter hashtags truly can bring incredible people into your lives at pivotal moments, both the living and those that have passed on. #LouiseBeech

I originally bought her book because it was an intriguing fictional response, written by a mother whose daughter at the age of nine was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes, as my daughter had been. Curious, I read that she had used fiction as a conduit for channelling her experience as a distraught mother and the roller coaster journey the two of them went through during those early months of the diagnosis, as it would change them irreversibly.

What made it all the more appealing was the difficulty they had endured, I’d been exposed to too many “good” stories, examples of where children had so readily adapted to this new routine of four injections a day for life, and gone on to do great things, I wanted to read about the opposite, I wanted to hear from those who had found it tough, those who’d rejected it, fought against it, mothers who’d almost been broken by it, and had found a way through; Louise Beech was that mother for me, she still is; an incredible role model, a fabulous writer, unique storyteller and a woman with a great sense of humour.

It was also the story of her grandfather who had been lost at sea for over 50 days when he was a young man.  Both the diagnosis and the story of the grandfather are true stories, however she used her creativity and imagination to write a novel that blends fact and fiction, taking the reader on an emotionally charged, high sea journey towards healing.

If you haven’t already read How To Be Brave, do read my review (linked) and better still buy the book, it is a courageous story and it coincided with a personal experience I will never forget.

But I digress, for this is a review of her second novel The Mountain in My Shoe beautifully prefaced by the wonderful Muhammad Ali quote displayed below.

The novel begins with a chapter entitled The Book and from then on each consecutive chapter is an extract from this book, which we learn is something called ‘A Life Book’ and as one of the inserts in the book explains:

Lifebook – Principles and Aims

Every Looked-After Child is entitled to an accurate and chronological account of his or her early life. It should have enduring value and can be given to them when they reach adulthood, or sooner if preferable.

It is a book that social workers and foster carers write notes and memories in, and can place mementos and/or photos of important people in their lives.

In chapter two a woman named Bernadette tells us that the book is missing. It is the day she has finally summoned the courage to leave her husband, she’s spent all day preparing and fretting about it, he is a man who values impeccable timing, expecting others to meet his standards, especially his wife Bernadette. She is waiting for him to walk through the door at 6pm like he does every evening before she intends to leave. Only he is late, more than late, he doesn’t come home at all.

Neither does Conor, the ten-year-old boy she has officially befriended for the past five years, whose Life Book she had hidden on the bookshelf, that document that should be preserved until he comes of age. And much to Bernadette’s horror, the book is missing too.

As the narrative progresses we follow Bernadette and Conor’s foster carer Anne on their journey to try to find Conor, we learn more about him from the pages of his Life Book that unfold between each chapter. It is a sad depiction of the inability to nurture, and the damage caused by those who think they can but are incapable, the yearning created by absence and neglect and the profound ability of unconditional love to heal and bring joy.

It’s a compelling, hair-raising read as we get closer to finding Conor and try to ignore that terrible feeling that somehow grows inside of being a little too late. In that respect, it reads like a psychological thriller as Beech cleverly leads the reader to a few false conclusions before the facts are revealed.

While nothing can match the experience of reading her debut How to Be Brave, The Mountain in My Shoe is equally compelling, a heart-felt read that I loved. Fortunately there is a third novel recently published called Maria in the Moon, I can’t wait to read that one too.

Click here to buy one of Louise Beech’s books at Book Depository

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

Salt Houses is a novel that eventually comes full circle, as it follows the female members of a Palestinian family as they flee, move, marry and cope with constantly being and feeling outside where they belong, including between generations and even between siblings.

Each chapter is titled with the name of one of the family, beginning with Salma, the mother of Alia, in Nablus, Palestine, the town she and her husband Hussam and their children fled to in 1948, following the Nakba (catastrophe). Alia is a child of war, barely three years old when they had to flee.

The opening lines are an indication of what is to come and intrigue us to want to know more, they remind me of a visit to Palestine where I first heard about this cultural divination practice, Tasseography, the art of reading coffee grinds, a ritual that dates back thousands of years.

“When Salma peers into her daughter’s coffee cup, she knows instantly she must lie.”

Alia’s older sister is married and lives in Kuwait, a land Alia is reluctant to visit, but when she does in 1967, finds she is unable to return to Palestine due to “the Setback” (the Six-Day-War), thus her children will know a home and culture, even though connected to her heritage, very different from her own.

As each generation makes a move, Hala Alyan takes the reader on an emotional journey of perseverance and loss, against a background of political manoeuvring. While the narrative avoids the conflict and brutality of war and deplacement, we become witness to the separation of a family from its roots, its culture, its land, and in particular the effect on a Palestinian family of the founding of Israel and the conflicts that followed that caused them to become refugees, firstly in their own country and latterly in neighbouring countries.

The separation is not just from their land and traditions, but between perceptions, as family members find it difficult to understand the yearnings of their elders and parents find it difficult to understand the foreigners their have become to them. Fortunately, like with many families, solace can sometimes be found for a child with their grandparent, those who have seen too much to be surprised by anything anymore, who have arrived at acceptance without judgement.

Salt is referred to throughout, invoking memories of family living near the sea displaced inland; fathers who “salted everything after that, even his water,” houses lost, eroded like salt; lives soothed by and almost taken by immersion in salt water. It is everpresent.

“The porcelain surface of the teacup is white as salt; the landscape of dregs, violent.”

Through it all Alia’s husband harbours a secret that torments him, one that he lives with by regularly writing letters that are never sent, seeking atonement.

The novel traverses with diligence a difficult period in the history of Palestine and the Middle East, demonstrating the resilience of humanity to survive, the sacrifices that are made and the cultural poverty that is experienced giving rise to the insatiable desire for families to remain connected, not just to each other but to the small yet important things, the traditional rice dishes, the olive, the orange tree, the desire to keep flowers blooming, no matter where they find themselves.

Their homes may crumble, but their spirits continue to reignite and flourish, wherever their heads may lie.

Hala Alyan is a Palestinian-American author, poet and practicing clinical psychologist living in Brooklyn, who spent her childhood moving between the Middle East and the US.  Salt Houses is her debut novel and is inspired by some of her own extended family experiences.

“I definitely think there was an intergenerational trauma that went along with losing a homeland that you see trickle down through the different generations”  Hala Alyan, NPR interview.

Further Reading:

Dreams, Displacement & DNA: Talking With Hala Alyan About ‘Salt Houses’ What happens when displacement enters your DNA? by Kristin Iversen · May 9, 2017

Note: This book was an ARC (advance reader copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley. I originally reviewed this book for Bookbrowse.

 

 

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo #BaileysPrize

Stay With Me is the meaning of the Yoruba, Nigerian first name Rotimi, which in itself is the short version of Oluwarotimi.

“Still they named her Rotimi, a name that implied she was an Abiku child who had come into the world intending to die as soon as she could. Rotimi – stay with me.”

I’m guessing that Ayobami Adebayo uses it as the title to her novel, because it relates to the twin desires of the main characters in the book, Yejide in her yearning to become pregnant and to keep a child, to be the mother she was denied, having been raised by less than kind stepmothers after her mother died in childbirth; and her husband Akin, in his desire to try to keep his wife happy and with him, despite succumbing to the pressures of the stepmothers and his own family, he being the first-born son of the first wife, to produce a son and heir.

“Before I got married I believed love could do anything. I learned soon enough it couldn’t bear the weight of four years without children. If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But even when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.”

Torn between the love of his wife and meeting the expectations of his family, for two years he would resist their suggestions, until the day they came knocking at his door, to inform Yejide that matters had been taken into their hands, that there was nothing she could do but accept it, suggesting it may even help.

“For a while, I did not accept the fact that I had become a first wife, an iyale. Iya Martha was my father’s first wife. When I was a child, I believed she was the unhappiest wife in the family. My opinion did not change as I grew older. At my father’s funeral, she stood beside the freshly dug grave with her narrow eyes narrowed even further and showered curses on every woman my father had made his wife after he had married her. She had begun as always with my long-dead mother, since she was the second woman he had married, the one who had made Iya Martha a first among not-so-equals.”

The narrative is split into five parts and moves between a present in 2008 when Yejide is returning to her husbands hometown for the funeral of his father, and the past which traverses the various stages of their marriage and their attempts to create a family and the effect of the secrets, lies, interferences and silences on their relationship.

The narrative voice moves from first person accounts of both Yejide and Akin, ensuring the reader gains twin perspectives on what is happening (and making us a little unsure of reality) and the more intimate second person narrative in the present day, as each character addresses the other with that more personal “you” voice, they are not in each other’s presence, but they carry on a conversation in their minds, addressing each other, asking questions that will not be answered, wondering what the coming together after all these years will reveal.

The portrayal of the pressures on this couple to meet expectations and the effect of the past on the present are brilliantly conveyed in this engaging novel, which provides a rare insight into a culture and people who live simultaneously in a modern world that hasn’t yet let go of its patriarchal traditions. Denial plays a lead part and when the knowledge it suppresses is at risk of being exposed, violence erupts.

Simultaneously the country is in the midst of a military coup, which also threatens to destabilise the country and puts its citizens in fear for their lives.

The novel also addresses the significant presence of the sickle-cell gene on people’s lives, something that is perhaps little known in the West, but in Nigeria with a population of 112 million people, 25% of adults have or carry the sickle-cell trait, which can cause high infant mortality and problems in later life. It is a genetic blood disorder that affects the haemoglobin within the red blood cells and the recurring pain and complications caused by the disease (for which there is no cure) can interfere with many aspects of a person’s life.

Stay With Me has been longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017, a worthy contender in my opinion and a unique social perspective on issues that are both universal to us all illustrating how in particular they impact the Nigerian culture.

Buy A Copy of Stay With Me via Book Depository

 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

homegoing-yaa-gyasiAstonishing, a work of art, an interwoven tapestry of stories that weave across the generations to create something so beautiful, so heartfelt, the thing that connects them is so strong, even when it isn’t known by its characters, somehow Yaa Gyasi conveys that to the reader, so that by the end when something quite magical happens, there is a feeling of grieving for all that has passed and of relief that something new has been found.

I love, love, loved this novel and I am in awe of its structure and storytelling, the authenticity of the stories, the three-dimensional characters, the inheritance and reinvention of trauma, and the rounding of all those stories into the healing return. I never saw that ending coming and the build up of sadness from the stories of the last few characters made the last story all the more moving, I couldn’t stop the tears rolling down my face.

How to give it justice in a review, it is so much more than story, we are so much more than our own personal experience and the place(s) we have lived.

Just as Han Kang, the South Korean author of the novel Human Acts wrote in consideration of two fundamental questions about humanity, Yaa Gyasi tells us in an article for the New York Times (referenced below) that she too began to write with a vague but important question that she put at the top of her blank screen: What does it mean to be black in America?

She further explains her inspiration in an article for the Observer (also below)

I began Homegoing in 2009 after a trip to Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle [where slaves were incarcerated]. The tour guide told us that British soldiers who lived and worked in the castle often married local women – something I didn’t know. I wanted to juxtapose two women – a soldier’s wife with a slave. I thought the novel would be traditionally structured, set in the present, with flashbacks to the 18th century. But the longer I worked, the more interested I became in being able to watch time as it moved, watch slavery and colonialism and their effects – I wanted to see the through-line.

Homegoing begins with the image of a partial family tree, with two strands and the novel will follow just one family member down each strand, the first two characters who begin these family lines are the daughters of Maame, Effia and Esi.

Effia, whom the villagers said was a baby born of the fire, believed she would marry the village chief, but would be married to a British slave trader and live upstairs in the Cape Coast Castle.

‘The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound. It moved quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in caves and hid in trees; it burned, up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind, until it reached an Asante village. There, it disappeared, becoming one with the night.’

Effia’s father, Cobbe would lose his crop of yams that night, a precious crop known to sustain families far and wide and with it, through his mind would flit a premonition that would reverberate through subsequent generations:

He knew then that the memory of the fire that burned, then fled, would haunt him, his children, and his children’s children for as long as the line continued.’

Cape Coast Castle (a slave trading castle), Ghana

Cape Coast Castle (a slave trading castle), Ghana

Esi, whose father was a Big Man, in expressing her empathy for their house girl, would precipitate events that lead her to be captured and chained in the dungeons beneath that same castle, awaiting the slave trading ships that would transport them to their slave masters in America.

‘They took them out into the light. The scent of ocean water hit her nose. The taste of salt clung to her throat. The soldiers marched them down to an open door that led to sand and water, and they all began to walk out on to it.’

In these first two chapters of Effia and Esi, the recurring twin symbols of fire and water are introduced, something that each generation subconsciously carries with them and passes on, they will reappear through fears, dreams, experiences, a kind of deep primal scar they don’t even know requires healing, its origins so far back, so removed from anything that can be easily articulated.

Fire (yang) is like the curse of the slave trade, raging through the lives of each generation, even when they appear to have escaped it, as with Kojo’s story, a baby passed to the arms of a woman who helped slaves escape, whose parents are captured, but he will live freely, only to have one member of the family cruelly snatched, perpetuating the cycle yet again, orphaning another child, who must start over and scrape together a life from nothing.

‘They didn’t now about Jo’s fear of people in uniform, didn’t know what it was like to lie silent and barely breathing under the floorboards of a Quaker house, listening to the sound of a catcher’s boot heel stomp above you. Jo had worked so hard so his children wouldn’t have to inherit his fear, but now he wished they had just the tiniest morsel of it.’

Water (yin) to me is the endless expanse, the rootlessness, floating on the surface, feet never able to get a grip, efforts floundering. This symbol is carried throughout Essi’s family line, a cast of characters whose wheels are turning, who work hard, but suffer one setback after another.

The novel is structured around one chapter for each character, alternately between the twin sides of the family, the narrative perspective changing to focus on the new generation, through whom we learn something of what happened to the character in the previous generation, who’ve we left two chapters ago. Importantly, because Yaa Gyasi decides not to write in the present with flashbacks, but writes from the perspective of each character in their present, the novel never falters, it doesn’t suffer from the idling effect of flashbacks, it keeps up the pace by putting the reader at the centre of the drama in every chapter. We must live all of it.

The irony of the structure is that we read an entire family history and see how the events of the past affect the future, how patterns repeat, how fears are carried forward, how strong feelings are connected to roots and origins, we see it, while they experience the loss, the frustration, the inability to comprehend that it is not just the actions of one life that affect that life’s outcome.

This book is like a legacy, a long legacy that revolves between the sadness of loss and the human struggle to move forward, to survive, to do better, to improve. And also a legacy of the feeling of not belonging that is carried within those who have been uprooted, who no longer belong to one place or another, who if they are lucky might find someone to whom they can ignite or perhaps even extinguish that yearning ‘to belong’.

‘We can’t go back to something we ain’t never been to in the first place. It ain’t ours anymore. This is.’ She swept her hand in front of her, as though she were trying to catch all of Harlem in it, all of New York, all of America.’

And in writing this novel, Yaa Gyasi perhaps achieves something of what her final character Marcus is unable to articulate to Marjorie as to why his research feels futile, spurning his grandmother’s suggestion that he perhaps had the gift of visions, trying to find answers in a more tangible way, through research and study.

“What is the point Marcus?”
She stopped walking. For all they knew, they were standing on top of what used to be a coal mine for all the black convicts who had been conscripted to work there. It was one thing to research something, another thing entirely to have lived it. To have felt it. How could he explain to Marjorie that what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else, existed in it – not apart from it, but inside it.

Yes, she achieves it through literature, through fiction. And this is literature at its most powerful and best.

This novel is going to win awards in 2017, undoubtedly.

*****

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana in 1989 and raised in the US, moving around in early childhood but living in Huntsville, Alabama from the age of 10. She is the daughter of a francophone African literature professor and a nurse and completed her MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, University of Iowa. She wrote this, her debut novel at the age of 26.

Further Reading

New York Times, Sunday Review – Opinion, June 18, 2016 – I’m Ghanaian-American. Am I Black?

Review, The Observer, January 8, 2017 – Yaa Gyasi: ‘Slavery is on people’s minds. It affects us still’

 

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