All my Antics, Mostly Reviews

Tag: historical fiction

a landscape and sunset, three trees in the foreground, 2 mountain ranges in the background

Two Strands

A Review of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing

Cover of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

When I picked up this book, I wasn’t aware of the journey this book would take me. Now almost two years later, now that I’ve read it from start to finish, I’m saddened I hadn’t picked this up earlier. I started reading Homegoing by Ghanaian-American author Yaa Gyasi, last month at the height of Black Lives Matter Protests against police brutality in the US and around the world. I couldn’t bear to use my usual random method to select books to read next from my to-be-read list, and so I deliberately picked a book by a woman of colour from my bookshelf.

Not that it should need an explicit occasion to do so, but sometimes it needs a jolt to recognise the privilege and exclusion that is prevalent in publishing. I’m aware that as a white reader, especially in Germany, I will encounter books predominantly written by white authors in any book shop I patronise. And it takes conscious effort to break simple habits and to seek out the voices of authors with less privilege.

That said, there’s no point in putting up with bad books. So this review will serve as a recommendation for an enthralling novel written by a woman of colour.

The Physical Book

a wooden stool

I own the 2016 Vintage paperback edition of this book, and it’s a very floppy book. Holding it out horizontally by its spine, the far edge of the book drops down to a 45°-angle. The cover is soft and somewhat coarse, and the same extends to the paper it’s printed on. The only high-gloss page is an insert of blurbs that juts out as a yellow stripe behind the shortened front cover at the right edge of the book.

And while the physical qualities of my edition don’t leave a particularly solid impression, the cover art is just something I fell in love with. The colour choices are impeccable, and I regularly strive but fail to recreate this kind of texture in my own art.

The Setting

Cape Coast Castle with a sunset

Homegoing is set in our world. The plot sets out in the late 18th or early 19th century in what we, nowadays, would call Ghana around the city of Cape Coast. But with history and slavery, one plotline at least moves to the US and there with historical events through different parts of the country.

Gyasi manages to describe, notably the Ghanaian settings, with enough care to make them feel lively and lived in. I think, for places in the US, she is more reliant on a shared understanding, of what these places look like. Nevertheless, these descriptions feel vivid enough for me to supply the right backdrop to the characters of this novel.

The Characters

Intergenerational as it is, Homegoing follows two Asante lineages, starting with two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, the daughters of a woman called Maame. Effia and Esi grow up in separate families. Their paths cross without their knowledge when Effia marries the new commander of Cape Coast Castle and Esi is held in that very same castle for transport to the Americas as a slave. From there, two separate family histories develop.

Portrait of an Unnamed Woman

Every main character gets their chapter in chronological order, alternating between one side of the family tree and the other. Since they are all part of family history, one of the side characters in each chapter becomes the point-of-view character in a subsequent chapter. This allows each point-of-view character an exceptional depth and roundedness. We learn about their whole life, not only what they did during their adulthood. We get to know them during their formative age, and we learn how they imprinted on the next generation in their old age.

To me, this emotional depth to each character makes this novel solid. You rarely get this many different people in one novel without losing depth to each of them. In some regard, this feels as if every character got their own short story, but each short story provides the context for the next. Even if especially the American chapters, make their characters into the messengers of a history lesson a bit too often.

And these characters, surely, are varied in their outlook in life and their emotional struggles. We find women and men who hold together families, but also women and men who pull them apart. On top of that, there’s something hidden in James’ chapter, that made me happy or at least look up in curiosity. James seems to feel love for his best friend, that goes beyond platonic love. And I’m definitely up for covert homoromantic representation.

The Plot

Stone necklace and chained shackles

Considering this is a debut novel, bringing the format, the characters and the plot together into one book, seems like a gargantuan task. And I’m quite sure a more distinguished reader than me, would find more fault with it than I do. Nevertheless, I think a more experienced writer could have given this book a more consistent throughline overall.

For me, much of the tension of this novel came from the spoiling glance at the family tree, printed in front of the first chapter, and my anticipation that the youngest family members with chapters of their own, Marcus and Majorie, would meet eventually.

As such, this novel is held together by a pull of symbolism that caries through the generations on the African side of the story. And a particular current of demographics and history, especially on the American side of the story, where characters exist somewhat driven only by historical events and not by their independent plotline.

For the Ghanaian characters, that is much less true. Their struggle and is guilt and blame more than anything else, in the words of Laura Miller:

“Homegoing”—the title is taken from an old African-American belief that death allowed an enslaved person’s spirit to travel back to Africa—is rooted, like the Bible, in original sin. Unlike the Biblical transgression, however, the source of the curse that dogs an Asante woman’s descendants through seven generations defies pinpointing and straightforward assessments of blame; you might as well shun your own hand. 

Laura Miller (2016): Descendants, in The New Yorker

The Writing

To me, the writing was mostly unremarkable. A better writer could have maybe pulled the plotline together more coherently or elevated the story with more elaborate prose. But after all, this was Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel with considerable scope, so I can forgive non-remarkable writing without much trouble. Especially, as I think there is much potential in Gyasi’s writing, that will and could improve with more experience and maybe a less sprawling topic.

Summary

For me, this debut novel is without a doubt worth a recommendation. While its sprawling nature and largely unremarkable writing might make it fall flat for some readers, it presented an interesting, captivating story for me. Of course, this book isn’t worthy of a Nobel prize in literature, but that is an overly pretentious expectation for a writer. This book has its special pull for me, even if that didn’t come from the plot itself, but from my expectations and a collection of great characters.

As a whole, I enjoyed the depth, the unique structure of this book gave its characters, especially the strand of the family that remained in Ghana. And I enjoyed the look into Ghanaian history, that gave me the appetite to look into it more. The same unfortunately can’t be said for the view into US history. Though it certainly offers a unique perspective of slavery founded in the loss of family history, that is stark in contrast to the other strand of the family.

My last book review was Where the Terrors Keep. My next review is probably going to touch on Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography.

If you liked my review, you can as always support me on ko-fi. Or you can get prints, stickers and other items with some of my designs on redbubble, at chwiggy.redbubble.com

A Gritty World

A Review of Benjamin Myers’ The Gallows Pole

It took me quite a while to finish this one. It’s probably the book I read in the longest without giving up. Well, excluding reference works naturally. I bought this in a Waterstones on my first trip to London in July 2018. And it’s always had a bookmark in it somewhere. However, for the longest time, it remained my secondary read. Only after I had finished Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon, I picked it up again and found it to be an actually enjoyable read, even though I had long since forgotten the introductory pages. Nevertheless, after that long hiatus this book grabbed me, and enthralled me into a world I’ve never once before considered.

The Physical Book

This is definitely not an especially well-crafted physical book, but it’s also not sloppy. The most striking thing about this relatively sturdy paperback is the striking colour palette of its cover design. One with which I really enjoyed working with for the artwork accompanying this review.

The Setting

The Gallows Pole is set in the last years of the 1760s around Halifax in the West Riding of Yorkshire, mostly in Cragg Vale and Mytholmyord in the Upper Calder Valley. And Benjamin Myers manages to paint a thoroughly engulfing picture of the Yorkshire moors and the villages, farmsteads, and towns within it. Without ever having been there, my mind could form a picture of the surrounding landscape and feel myself into a striking description balancing between the broad strokes and the little details.

The world Myers paints is a gritty and unforgiving one, but also one filled with glorious detail and thoroughly enticing descriptions especially of food, but also of the seasonal changes rolling over the moor. It’s the writing of a writer who is fundamentally familiar with the landscape they are describing and has done their research to form a vivid picture of life in a long-ago time, right before the onset of the industrial revolution finding its way into the small valleys of northern England.

The Characters

The Book in my hands

In The Gallows Pole, Myers tells, as the epigraph reminds us, The True Story of King David Hartley and the Cragg Vale Coiners. The story told centres around two groups of people, one one hand the Coiners i.e. farmers and workers in the Upper Calder Valley, on the other hand, the exciseman William Deighton and the Solicitor Robert Parker of Halifax working to bring the coiners to justice for defacing the currency of the land.

These two groups are a great contrast, both morally questionable at times, both morally upright in other times. As a reader, my sympathy often changed sides. Sometimes fevering with the Coiners or Clippers and their families, sometimes with those coiners around James Broadbent, who chose to become turncoats, and sometimes with the exciseman William Deighton himself. Myers really did a great job of moving the narrative focus from one to the other.

The most striking downfall of the characters of this book is their lack of diversity. And yes I know, especially with writing based on historical sources, getting a picture of for example women’s lives is often a hard task, fraught with its own trappings, but I don’t think this book would really pass the Bechdel Test.

The Plot

Several years and seasons elapse during the unfolding of the story of the Turvin clippers, as the Cragg Vale Coiners are also called. As such the book is divided into seven parts each detailing the happenings within a season from spring 1767 to 1770, with the epilogue jumping forward to 1775. It’s a varied plot, with turns and climaxes, with sexual abuse and murder, but also with harvest feasts and drinking bouts. Detailed descriptions of food follow similarly detailed descriptions of death.

The book is slow to start and even with a year to forget the first few pages of this book, I didn’t really miss them, nor can I in hindsight really figure out how they fit into the general plot except possibly as setting the mood. After that slow start, however, I found the plot thoroughly captivating and felt the cold of the night giving me cover as I travelled through the moor in the hope of securing a better future for myself as James Broadbent did.

The Writing

I think the writing of The Gallows Pole is its most striking asset. Rarely, have I felt as drawn in into an environment, rarely have I felt my mouth watering as much at the descriptions of food and drink, and rarely have I felt the cold wind of the night so intensely on my skin as when I read this book. I could go on, but suffice it to say, the descriptions are just very enthralling.

Noteworthy is how the narration of the book is interspersed with King David Hartley’s own account of events, often disagreeing with the narration on details of his nefarious dealings. I don’t exactly know how much of these accounts is fiction. I presume most of them are, but they are held in a very different style to the rest of the narration, imitating the local dialect and sociolect of the Cragg Vale Coiners. Sometimes that makes them challenging to decipher, but especially if you’ve found your way into them, they offer a great contrast to the normal narration of this book.

Additionally, ever so often especially as the noose tightens around the neck of the Turvin Clippers, Myers adds a quotation or an excerpt of source material into his writing, even more so, breaking up the flow of narration with contrasts.

Summary

I don’t know to whom I should recommend this book. It’s definitely a captivating read, well at least after the first few pages, but it’s also a heavy read, and dark at times. If you’re interested, be warned. This book isn’t always easy to stomach, but it rewards the reader with a lush landscape of fascinating descriptions and at least I am a sucker for detail. I just love the power with which the details of this story enveloped me, but I understand that such a level of detail might not be for everyone, and is often a point of contention if I discuss books with other readers.

I think if I had to finish this review with a sentence, I would just repeat the advice of the bookseller I bought this book from almost two years ago in London, “It’s a good choice.”

For my other book reviews, feel free to browse the book category. My last review was of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Next up, a review of Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén