24 Hour Library

A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

Tag: contemporary classics

Abby Reads: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Knopf, 2016, 320 pages
Fiction

Two sisters separated by social conventions and later by slavery and marriage open this long line of family stories that travel between Africa and North America in Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. Alternating between the two lines of the family, Homegoing transcends time and space as it moves through the ages, encountering culture and politics. With each chapter featuring a new small plot, the work as a whole focuses on the impact of slavery and colonialism.

Gyasi’s careful planning and mapping of her characters and plots is evident throughout the book. Though not strictly a novel, Homegoing reads like one, even with each chapter and element tied so loosely together. It is largely the attention to detail Gyasi bestows that transforms the work from simply a collection of stories to what feels and reads like a novel. At the same time, readers who prefer small bites rather than sweeping epics will see the opportunity to get the best of both worlds.

What’s interesting about seeing the generations over the years is how each family has a personality, making each line a sort of character of their own. In our own lives it can be a challenge to see beyond one or two generations, but watching personality traits and traditions get passed on is fascinating. There is not necessarily a single thread that runs through either family, but there’s a clear cause-and-effect between parents and children that appears in key ways. Gyasi knows her fictional families well, showing once again her attention to detail and planning.

In including so many individuals for such a lengthy story, however, Gyasi does fall into the trap of losing momentum. Earlier characters are much more defined than later characters are. This may be a symptom of simply getting tired of the story and losing energy or it may be the nearness. With less historical separation, Gyasi perhaps loses her ability to see characters as separate from herself. Because they are not living in such a different world than she is, she’s more able to rely on things she already knows to inform her characters, which then causes her to include fewer personal details to illustrate them. But this is only a theory.

Meanwhile, her writing style leans heavily toward the story-telling tradition, which is fitting for the African backdrop. This style also softens some of the more brutal aspects of the story — the slavery, rape, and racism that is present on both sides of the Atlantic is rarely graphic, yet Gyasi still achieves a powerful narrative. While she’s under no obligation to make these horrendous aspects of black life over history and in present, Gyasi’s prose style has that affect. Whether this is a positive or negative thing is up to the reader, and likely differs for each reader. Some may feel it was a disservice to omit the reality of these horrors, while others might feel a taste of the horror is enough to get the point across without turning readers off. I’m inclined to feel it’s somewhat a disservice, but recognize that Gyasi’s priorities may have been elsewhere.

If you’re a reader who prefers short stories or novellas to whole novels, Homegoing is a good alternative. It’s slow-moving at points, but overall captivating and an achievement in research and self-introspection. Gyasi has certainly done her ancestors proud in representing them here, as not just victims of their circumstances, but as people.

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
W. Norton & Company, 1966, 176 pages
Fiction (Published Fan-Fiction)

Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea takes a famous secondary (tertiary, really) character of a classic and fleshes her out to full person-hood. As a prequel to Jane Eyre, the novel explores the life of the woman in the attic before she was driven to madness. Her childhood in the Caribbean, her marriage to Edward Rochester, and her imprisonment in his manor are all examined in Rhys’s narrative, supplemented by chapters about Rochester as a young man and his struggles with his unwanted marriage and a wife he perceives as insane. Whether Bertha Mason, known as Antoinette Cosway in Sargasso, is in fact mad in earlier chapters is unclear, though her insanity by the end is clear. The path to that point is muddy, though, resulting in a text that is thought-provoking if confused.

Rhys provides no context for her story, even opting to use an alternative name for Bertha/Antoinette for much of the story and hardly ever naming Rochester. Without the knowledge that Sargasso is, in fact, intended as a prequel to Jane Eyre, readers will find few clues to the connection and may be therefore lost for the purpose of the novel and its implications. This issue of vagueness is exacerbated by a prose style that utilizes dialect (both in pronunciation and grammar) which, while perhaps accurate to the location and helpful in characterization, serves to further obscure the content of the novel in a text that is already confusing.

While Antoinette’s plight is certainly one for pity (at least from what I could tell), it’s difficult to feel sympathy for her when readers are left feeling so uncertain of the events and circumstances. The novel is full of maybes — maybe Rhys’s depiction of people of color who live on the island (generally in a service capacity, as is accurate to history) is racist, but it’s hard to tell when the overall text isn’t clear; maybe the novel gives Antoinette more agency and calls into question her insanity, but it’s hard to tell when the overall text isn’t clear; maybe Rhys layers a newer generation of feminism onto what is generally considered to be an early feminist novel (Jane Eyre), but it’s hard to tell when the overall text isn’t clear.

Maybe I’m missing something or was choosing to read this as a leisure read rather than as an academic one. Maybe this book is better suited for the classroom, where discussion around the maybes and professor-provided context can shift the focus to pieces that I overlooked. Wide Sargasso Sea is, no doubt, a great opportunity for scholarly work. But ultimately, it’s not something to read for fun, even for fans of Jane Eyre.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #11, “Read a book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location,” and I happily leave it behind with two hearts.

❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Vintage Contemporaries, 2003, 226 pages
Fiction

I generally dislike reviewing books that have seen huge success or are New York Times Bestsellers or award winners or what have you. Anything that could be said of such a book has probably already been said and multiple times. I can’t promise this review will be any different, but I can say that I knew nothing about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time before I read it, other than it was a Big Deal.

Written by Mark Haddon, the novel is told from the perspective of Christopher, a fifteen-year-old with autism. When he finds his neighbor’s dog dead of a gardening tool to the torso, Christopher feels compelled to discover who killed the dog. Interviewing his neighbors, thinking through the events and the facts, and fighting his father all along, Christopher eventually comes to a realization that shakes his world. Now, his mother dead for some years, has found a way back into his life in a way Christopher can hardly believe.IMG_0344

The pace of The Curious Incident makes for an interesting novel. With Christopher’s straight and matter-of-fact narration style, the book reads more like a series of events than a traditional novel. Haddon masterfully weaves in his character’s personality and traits through the narration style, such as Christopher’s decision to number the chapters using only prime numbers. It is this level of detail as Haddon brings his readers into Christopher’s mind that makes this such a success.

Christopher’s reliance on objective detail helps to paint vivid imagery. Sounds, tastes, smells, and textures are shot out, round after round, to give the reader a full picture of Christopher’s world. When anxiety builds for Christopher, it builds for the reader, too. Haddon handles these sensory details so adeptly that they convey more than just the surroundings, but Christopher’s mental and emotional states. This is never truer than when Christopher tries to take a train and encounters the overwhelming aspects of buying a ticket, finding the right train, being on the train, and the volume of people in both trains and stations.

What made this book all the more interesting is that it is set in England. The cultural differences become especially apparent with Christopher as a more objective observer of cultural nuances. As Christopher inhabits a world seemingly designed against his preferences, he asks why over and over, leading the reader to ask whythemselves. Haddon achieves this without appearing overly philosophical or pretentious, which makes The Curious Incident so popular and successful.

For all its high-literary features, The Curious Incident is a very readable book. Its language is simple and offers a variety of topics that will likely reach out to its readers in one way or another. Though perhaps a bit unrealistic, the plot falls through Christopher’s eyes, making the novel a unique journey.

 

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

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