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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

What I’m Reading: Homegoing and The Mothers-- Two Amazing Debut Novels

Today I have my last two reviews of books I read in 2016 that will be making my year end best list [which is why they need full reviews and don’t just get comments in my Goodreads account.  Sorry Wangs vs the World. I loved you, but you just missed the cut, but only because of a fifth grade book club. Confused? It will all become clear in tomorrow’s post.]

Here we go....

The best audiobook I listened to this year was Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Plot summary from Goodreads:
The unforgettable New York Times best seller begins with the story of two half-sisters, separated by forces beyond their control: one sold into slavery, the other married to a British slaver. Written with tremendous sweep and power, Homegoing traces the generations of family who follow, as their destinies lead them through two continents and three hundred years of history, each life indeliably drawn, as the legacy of slavery is fully revealed in light of the present day.

Effia and Esi are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.
Appeal: First and foremost this is an original, engaging, and epic historical saga. Anyone who loves broad scoped stories of a family over centuries will LOVE this novel. The historical, family saga in general is hugely popular and Homegoing will be enjoyed by all fans of this subgenre.

The way Gyasi tells the story was also part of the enjoyment.  We begin with the two half sisters’ stories, one and then the other. Told entirely separate from each other, but paired in tandem. And then each chapter alternates in the same order with two specific people in the next generation. Each time, the person we follow in the next generation, is about to be born in the generation before. And then it repeats, over and over again until we get to the present.

The effect of this frame has a ripple effect. First, it increases the pacing. You want to keep reading to see what happens next. But also, each protagonist has a short turn at the helm of the story, so the entire book reads like a series of connected short stories which significantly speeds up what is an epic tale.  It also helps the pacing that each “story” ends in a cliff-hanger.

Second, the characters are enhanced by this frame. Now that may seem counter intuitive at first since we only get to see each quickly and for a specific moment in their lives as the protagonist, but because the generations pile upon each other, and people reappear in the next generation, the resulting effect is that all of the characters we meet get more detailed, more well rounded, and more real with each story.

Third, the huge scope of centuries is brought under control because we are taking the generations and the story in bit by bit, two people at a time. The scope of this novel is broad enough that other novelists tell similar tales in hundreds if not a thousand pages, but because of Gyasi’s unique  narrative choice, she can tell a story with as much depth of character and emotion as others do in triple the page count.

I do need to comment on the ending. Yes it is kinda obvious and a little “set up” but that doesn’t matter. It is a beautiful reuniting of the characters and their stories, stories that divided early, moved back and forth, gaining in strength in our hearts, and pulling us in, and then in the end, it all goes back home. [But you knew that from the title, right?]

You do not need to know anything about the slave trade or Africa in order to enjoy this book. All you need to be is someone who loves a compelling story of a family across centuries and oceans. All you need know is that this is a historically framed story about home, love, and family.  All you need is to sit back and let Gyasi tell you the story of two half sisters and where the generations took them.

Audio Narration: Over on Audible there are a wide range of opinions about Dominic Hoffman’s narration. I for one enjoyed it. Yes it was only 1 person and he did the male and female voices, but I liked how the character’s voices were done by one person because all of the characters are related in some way, even if the relation gets fairly distant by the end. Having a man for the male voices and a woman for the female voices would add a layer of separation between the characters that would be in direct contradiction to the way the tale is written. Keeping the same narrator, even if some chapters are better narrated than others, keeps the tenuous thread connecting all of the characters across time and space taut. That is why I think the narration is perfect.

Three Words That Describe This Book: historical saga, connected stories, engaging 

Readalike: Let’s start with the obvious readalikes here, other African American historical family sagas like Roots by Alex Haley. A newer book that fits this bill is Grace by Natashia Deon. But also don’t forget one of my all time favorites, The Known World by Edward P. Jones.

Now let’s take the readalikes options out of the box a bit more. Another one of my all time favorites tells a story over centuries beginning in the 1700s in Ireland, goes aboard a slave ship, and ends up in New York up through 9/11, but this epic historical saga has a magical element and our narrator is alive throughout these centuries. He is our only narrator. It’s Forever by Pete Hamil and it is a backlist gem I still hand out all of the time. People who enjoyed Homegoing and are okay with the magical realism element should give Forever a try.

Also a bot outside the box because it is Science Fiction, I would also suggest Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. It spans 5,000 years of 7 families and tackles the issue of racism head on. It was one of my favorite reads last year too.

Back to more traditional epic, family sagas that are not only African American based. As I mentioned above, this is a popular type of book, one that transcends the character’s country of origin. Here are some suggestions, but there are literally thousands of options:

Some readers may want to know more about the slave trade. To them I recommend, The Door of No Return: The History of Cape Cast Castle and the Atlantic Slave Trade by William St. Clair as a good place to start.

Now onto The Mothers by Brit Bennett for which I read the ARC passed on to me by my friend, Magan Szwarek, after she turned in her star review for Booklist. Here is the plot summary from Goodreads:

A dazzling debut novel from an exciting new voice, The Mothersis a surprising story about young love, a big secret in a small community—and the things that ultimately haunt us most. Set within a contemporary black community in Southern California, Brit Bennett’s mesmerizing first novel is an emotionally perceptive story about community, love, and ambition. It begins with a secret. 
“All good secrets have a taste before you tell them, and if we’d taken a moment to swish this one around our mouths, we might have noticed the sourness of an unripe secret, plucked too soon, stolen and passed around before its season.” 
It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty. Mourning her own mother’s recent suicide, she takes up with the local pastor’s son. Luke Sheppard is twenty-one, a former football star whose injury has reduced him to waiting tables at a diner. They are young; it’s not serious. But the pregnancy that results from this teen romance—and the subsequent cover-up—will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth. As Nadia hides her secret from everyone, including Aubrey, her God-fearing best friend, the years move quickly. Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults and still living in debt to the choices they made that one seaside summer, caught in a love triangle they must carefully maneuver, and dogged by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently? The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt. 
In entrancing, lyrical prose, The Mothers asks whether a “what if” can be more powerful than an experience itself. If, as time passes, we must always live in servitude to the decisions of our younger selves, to the communities that have parented us, and to the decisions we make that shape our lives forever. 
Appeal: The coolest things about this novel is how Bennett uses “The Mothers,” the older woman of the church, as a Greek Chorus. They comment on the actions and the choices of the characters and lead us through the story, for example, telling us when time passes and what we have missed. It is an ancient storytelling tradition, but one that is not used much anymore. It was refreshing but it also worked; it was not simply a “look at how smart I am author trick.” It enhanced the novel.

This is a short book (under 300 pages), but beware, it moves at a leisurely pace. It is not slow. It is reflective and lyrical. You are supposed to sit and savor the characters, their actions, and the language here. It is not a book you read for plot.  In fact, I noticed that the description I posted above basically tells you everything that happens in this novel, but it does not give away any of the joy of the experience of reading this book.

The novel is all about the characters and our reflection on their choices. The reader must be an active participant if he or she wants to enjoy this book. There is no judgment or preaching here (despite the fact that the church plays a huge part in the novel). As a result, we delve deeply into every character. We see things the other characters do not. And not every question we have about each of them is answered fully, just like in real life. How intensely the reader interacts with the prose and reacts to the characters will determine whether or not he or she enjoys this book.

This focus on characters over plot also allows for the development of a handful of solid secondary characters; more than you would normally find in a book this length. I especially liked Nadia’s father and the solider Aubrey befriends.

I also love that the fact that all of the characters are African American is not the main point of the novel. It is just who they are and the world they live in. This is the story of people. Their race is there and it does inform the story and the characters decisions, but it is not why you read this novel. This is a universal story about a community and three specific young people at its center. 

The Mothers surpassed me in that it was the most honest, nonjudgemental, nonpolitical, and fair discussions of abortion and its ramifications that I have ever read. Nadia has the abortion and then we see what happens. Again, we watch and reflect. Nothing catastrophic happens, but her life is also not infinitely better because of it either. It is just one among the many decisions made in a collection of lives. That was very refreshing. With such a divisive issue, it was nice to see it handled without judgment. [Although very passionate pro-life people may not agree with my statement.]

As much as I enjoyed reading Homegoing and was impressed with the storytelling for a debut, The Mothers possesses a maturity and sense of restraint that shocked me. Debuts are not normally this complex and well crafted.

Three Words That Describe This Book: lyrical, thoughtful, coming of age

Readalikes: I see that NoveList lists Marilynne Robinson’s classic Housekeeping as a readalike saying:
"After their mothers commit suicide, the girls in these lyrical coming-of-age novels adapt to their newly broken existence with the help of surrogate mothers while simultaneously longing to leave their claustrophobic small towns. Both character-driven stories are moving and reflective
I read that novel years ago [pre blog] but I agree.

I also thought of a few other lyrical, character centered, coming of age stories. Please click on the titles to see more detail and readalike options.

Interestingly, a bunch of these books I listed are also debuts. Hmmm.

Finally, to wrap up this entire post, I want to mention another debut novel I read this year that just missed my “best of” cut-- Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn. You can see what I had to say about that book here. It would be a good readalike for either book in this post, but for different reasons.

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