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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Review: 'Homegoing"

By Yaa Gyasi
Literary fiction
June 2016
William Morrow
ISBN: 978-110194713

Many who read do so in search of something, whether it's information, entertainment, affirmation or curiosity. The characters in Yaa Gyasi's novel Homegoing are searching for something as well. Most often, it is themselves or a sense of how they fit into the world.

The story begins in the 1700s, on Ghana's Gold Coast, with two half-sisters. One is claimed by the commander of the Castle, where kidnapped Africans lay in squalor before they die or are transported across the ocean. The other is one of those women down in those dungeons of despair.

Across the centuries to the present, each chapter is the story of one of the progeny of those women, with each line of descent taking alternating turns. The reader learns about lives in both Ghana and America as the years and tears roll by.

The way the narrative is built shows several of Gyasi's writing strengths. The reader is immersed in what a life might be like for someone in each time period, in each place. But the focus is not a treatise on politics, economics, race relations or slavery.

Instead, the focus is on how all of these things, in all of these times and places, could affect a person without defining who that person is. Each character is fully realized within the space of a short story, setting out on a journey whether it is what he or she seeks or not.

What each character seeks is to be his or herself within the strictures of their lives. They suffer heartbreak, find love and sometimes find a fulfilling niche. Each story deserves its own space -- I could have easily read a whole novel about H, whose free mother was taken in Baltimore and who grew up in slavery.

But each chapter also fits well within the overall narrative arc, which is best described by the title of the novel, Homegoing, rather than homecoming. Gyasi tells their stories with a lovely, engaging style. One of the characters is a dreamer, a seeker who isn't quite certain what she is after. Here's how Gyasi describes her days:

But she wasn't just staring into space; she was listening to all the sounds the world had to offer, to all the people who inhabited those spaces the others could not see. She was wandering.

Whether each character realizes it, she or he is wandering toward something. Gyasi's fulfillment of that search is a moving tribute to the different parts of herself, a person born in Ghana who is now a writer living in the United States, and someone as interested in history as she is in literature.

That interest in history is, for the most part, something that is shown rather than told in the book. But one of the characters, a teacher in Ghana, has a way of engaging his students on the first day and making an important point for every reader as well:

"Whose story is correct?" Yaw asked them. ...

"We cannot know which story is correct because we were not there." ...

"This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely on the words of others. Those who were there in the olden days, they told stories to the children so that the children would know, so that the children could tell stories and so on. But now we come upon the problem of conflicting stories. ... Whose story do we believe, then? ...

"We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study ask yourself, Whose story am I missing?"

Whether each character finds what she or he is searching for, there is an arch to the search within the novel, to give us stories of those that have been missing.

©2016 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted by permission

Monday, August 1, 2016

Review: 'The Serpent King'

The Serpent King
By Jeff Zentner
YA Contemporary
March 2016
Crown Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 978-0553524024

You know those books that are so good you don't want them to end? Add The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner.

The book covers the senior years of three friends -- Dill, whose father is a serpent-handling minister now in prison for having kiddie porn on his computer; Lydia, a force of nature with a fashion blog that has caught the attention of the big city fashionistas; and Travis, a big lug of a man-child who loves his fantasy books, wears a dragon pendant and carries a wooden staff.

The story takes turns with its centering on the three characters, but none of them are ever really left out. They are outcasts at school and their interactions with the bullies are documented, but thanks to Lydia the outcomes are not the usual slink-and-go-hide-in-the-bathroom.

Zentner also includes the home life of each friend. Dill's mother works long, menial hours and is broken in spirit and body. The few scenes with his father in prison show a wicked man who twists words to make everything all about him.

Travis's mother stays home and is still getting over the loss of his older brother, a Marine who died in service. His father also hasn't gotten over it and takes it out on both of them, especially after he's been drinking.

Lydia's parents are amazing. He's a dentist who decided to stay in his family's small town to protect his beloved daughter from the evils of a big-city life, and who helps the boys. Her mother would be the kindest woman in any suburb. They're the kind of parents who sip wine and read their books out on the enclosed porch while the three friends have their usual Friday movie night.

Dill, who loves music, does fear his family's heritage. He not only carries his father's name, and all the weight that carries in a small town, but also knows his grandfather went mad and died of grief after a snake killed his beloved daughter.  The sins of the father are a genuine burden. Both Lydia and Travis have online friends; one is honest and the other keeps major parts of everyday life hidden.

One of the highlights is when the three friends climb a railroad trestle to inscribe words important to them to commemorate their senior year. They know Lydia will go off to college and that the boys will stay in town to work and help their parents.

But life doesn't always turn out the way one thinks.

One of the great things about the novel is that there are events that make a reader think the worst is going to happen. Bad things do happen, but so do good things. And they feel real.  Zentner's characters are complex human beings with hopes, dreams and sorrows. They are well worth knowing.