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Yaa Gyasi – Homegoing

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Homegoing was on the British Book Award shortlist for the Debut Book of the Year 2018.

History is not always confined.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 298
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-97523-7
First Published: 7th June 2016
Date Reviewed: 14th May 2018
Rating: 5/5

Effia’s mother tells her to keep the beginning of her menstruation a secret. It’s long been known that Effia would marry the man next in line to be Chief but Baaba has something else in mind and Effia is traded in marriage to the white governor of the Castle. As she moves away with James, Baaba tells her daughter that she is not related to her and that her mother abandoned them. As Effia’s new life begins, her unknown half-sister is taken prisoner, held with hundreds of other women, about to be sold into slavery overseas. The sisters’ situations will reverberate down the ages.

Homegoing is a superb mainly-historical novel that starts in 1700s Ghana and continues into our present century. Spanning many generations, it spends a number of pages on each character in turn, nevertheless retaining the sense that it is a novel of one story.

Gyasi has created something rather remarkable. Within moments she sucks you into the story, her use of history in all contexts – the writing of it, the knowledge included, the bringing to life – starts it off, and then her masterful characterisation ensures you don’t let go. In terms of the history, there’s a fair amount of information that often gets looked over, as well as the horrors that continue.

The writing is wonderfully descriptive and Gyasi creates the perfect balance of narrative and dialogue. It flows very well; indeed the only negative aspect of the book is the use of ‘off of’, the only thing that stunts the flow.

But at its heart, beyond the subject matter that we’ll go on to in a minute, is that characterisation. There are few books in which multiple narratives are considered to be equally fine. Gyasi’s is one of those few. No matter how invested you are in any one story (which read almost as vignettes despite the time they span; there are no complete endings within a character’s chapter, the only closure is in the descendant’s chapter) you never once feel that sense of loss so often caused by other multi-narrative novels. Would it be nice if there was more of each character’s story? Of course. But the novel does not suffer for the lack of it. The progression is natural and easy to follow; Gyasi includes hints early on and you soon get used to the flicking back and forth between bloodlines. If you do fall behind – and you will when it comes to working out which generation you’re on to – there’s a family tree in the opening pages.

As it’s pretty obvious from the start – or at least from the moment you realise how Gyasi has plotted the book – that somewhere it’s highly likely the two bloodlines will meet in some way, it’s pertinent here to say that the book isn’t predictable on that count. This isn’t your usual ‘and magic happened and they found out who each other was’. There is indeed ‘magic’ in the book – to use the phrase that people down the ages start to refer to traditional spirituality as – and yes there is a meeting of the bloodlines, but there are no unbelieveable discoveries.

On the subject of symbolism is Gyasi’s use of fire and water, with fire particularly pronounced because water is more obviously associated with the beginning. It’s a gentle, weaving sort of symbolism, that takes you through the various generations, creating an impact – the history of a people on their descendants – as well as a sort of coming-of-age, cycling, taking back ownership.

Apart from symbolism, Gyasi explores the slave trade, particularly, as said, in terms of the beginnings and early impact in Ghana. She explores the affects of the difference between the Northern and Southern states and the impact of Southern laws on free men of the North. She explores segregation, the concept of passing, and tensions and social and political problems still occurring today. These explorations are interlaced with the chapters so that black history in America as a whole is explored in depth. Again, Gyasi’s writing makes everything flow together, showing how they are both separate subjects and part of a whole, and as with everything else the author does it with aplomb.

Homegoing is the sort of novel that stays with you, that you want to return to. In the second to last chapter, Marjorie is asked by her teacher if she feels the book she is reading inside of her. I think we all know that feeling, the one that makes reading so worth it.

You may well find it in this book.

I received this book for review.

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Charlotte Smith – Emmeline

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Previous posts refer to the author as Charlotte Turner Smith. For this review I have left out the middle name, matching the original edition of the book.

How my poor heart aches with every step you take.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1788
Date Reviewed: 13th April 2018
Rating: 3.5/5

When orphaned Emmeline’s nursemaid dies, she moves away from the castle she called home. Her rich uncle, who has paid for her upkeep but not bothered to visit her, finally arrives with his son, Delamere, who becomes instantly infatuated with her. Angry at this, the uncle and aunt try to keep Emmeline away from him – and Emmeline would be happy if he did stay away – but he follows her in her travels and harasses her for marriage. All Emmeline wants is to return to her castle, perhaps with her new friends, but her choices are not her own.

Despite the fact of Emmeline‘s success when published and the great historical value it presents to us today, in the context of the here and now the things it includes are difficult; whilst what it shows could be said to show further evidence of why society has changed in the way it treats women, the scenes and characters in the book, particularly when added to the stereotypical fainting, literary devices, and padding, make for a book that is difficult to read.

Chief in this is the role a good half of the male characters play; Emmeline’s beauty – her personality is of little consequence to most – creates, at the instant of meeting, an obsession in the minds of many she meets and the vast majority go on to pursue her in earnest. What we would now consider harassment, narcissism, and emotional abuse, are major features of this book, with Emmeline and her friends travelling extensively in their quest to outrun various suitors, an effort which nevertheless fails to endear her to her uncle; it takes a long time for Lord Montreville to see Delamere’s entitlement and childish temper tantrums, which involve hitting his head against walls.

So the problem isn’t so much that it happens, because in fact it shows well the issue of Emmeline being controlled by her uncle; the issue is the way Emmeline’s friends handle it and how Smith – perhaps because her goal is to illustrate a woman’s lack of choice rather than any sort of commentary on how things are reached – often writes without commentary on it, leaving Emmeline to truly fend for herself. The times when the author is blunt, and these do increase about halfway through, make the novel palatable again, with Emmeline granted authorial leave to stop painting and singing for Delamere, things that give him the idea she likes him, that it seems the author has instructed her to do.

‘The regard she was sensible of for Delamere did not make her blind to his faults; and she saw, with pain, that the ungovernable violence of his temper frequently obscured all his good qualities, and gave his character an appearance of ferocity, which offered no very flattering prospect to whosoever should be his wife.’

And, later:

“His love, too ardent perhaps to last, will decline; while the inconveniences of a narrow fortune will encrease [sic]; and I, who shall be the cause of these conveniences, shall also be the victim.”

On the subject of a women’s choice to live how she wishes, comparisons can be made between Smith and Mrs Stafford. Smith’s husband lost them a lot of money and the author ended up living in jail with him for a time before they separated; Mrs Stafford, mother of a few children, spends more time with Emmeline than she does her husband but her life is necessarily entangled with his so that his lack of care for his family and career of gambling away his money means she must go back to him and try and work things out. In life, Smith left her husband, and died ill and with little money. In fiction her friendships enable her to have a happier, healthier, wealthier family despite him. Even Mary Wollstonecraft, who otherwise hated the book, liked Mrs Stafford.

Otherwise, Emmeline fits every stereotype of novels from the period. If a woman does not carry smelling salts she is very much out of luck, for a great deal of fainting and, on some occasions, actual dying, occurs for relatively minor reasons such as the appearance of one’s lover, the realisation that a person isn’t the golden perfect child they were molded to be and, in what is a particularly unsatisfying literary device, the jealousy of one for another who is also obsessed with a lady no longer available.

One unfortunate drawback to the usage of characters from the 1780s with extreme personality traits is that the hero of the book isn’t all that much of a hero. In comparison to others he is a knight in shining armour, and Smith uses him as a device in order to insert poetry that history tells us was more her sort of thing, but he himself can get quite angry on occasion, jealous, and, whilst historically considered the right thing to do, his enforcement of a woman’s estrangement from her lover when few relatives seem to care – including the woman’s husband – means that he doesn’t come across nearly as well as he perhaps should… particularly as Smith resorts to deus ex machina to continually put him in Emmeline’s path… which, given the rest of the novel, effectively becomes a pursuit.

Smith does acknowledge this:

‘…who seemed providentially to have been thrown in her way on purpose to elucidate her history.’

The lead-up to the ending promises a great future for Emmeline but Smith draws out the last few chapters with filler material before tying everything up very quickly in the last few pages. After almost 500 turns, or 500 swipes of the screen, it’s a big disappointment.

Given the way this review darts back and forth between saying that things are bad and then that they make sense and are good, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the reviewer – referring to herself in a fashion she has come to find synonymous with 1700s and 1800s writing – is utterly confused as to the merit of this book. But – and this might be an ‘alas!’ – she is not. Seen entirely in the context of its history, society at the time, and the life of the author, Emmeline is quite a feat. Thus, seen as a subject of study for whichever element it is chosen, it is rather good even if, as its declining fame aptly shows, it’s far from the best. But in terms of the reading experience for escape or pleasure, it is not a good one and the general, public, success of the novel is long gone.

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Edith Wharton – The Age Of Innocence

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Everything is awesome (caveat: when you’re part of the team)1.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: (Vintage’s is 978-0-099-51128-1)
First Published: 1920
Date Reviewed: 23rd February 2018
Rating: 5/5

1870s New York and young Newland Archer is excited at the prospect of marrying May Welland, looking forward to making their engagement official. But as he watches the opera in his club box, he spies a newcomer with his fiancée’s family; May’s cousin Countess Ellen Olenska has separated from her European husband and has come to stay in America. Ellen is rather different to the rest, her European ways at odds with New York society and everyone hopes she’ll reunite with her husband… everyone except Newland who is strangely attracted to her.

The Age Of Innocence is a marvellous novel with a highly ironic title. Set at a time of change, it looks at the way a society that does not favour the arts, or anything even one step away from their etiquette and mores, responds when they are confronted with a person who is slightly associated with it.

Wharton speaks of a society she was a member of and uses Newland to examine it as well. There is a lot of characterisation in the book but most of it is by rights and by design set aside for Newland. As the main character (the book is written in the third person) Wharton spends most of her time in his head. Her relative lack of characterisation of the other characters, barring Madame Olenska, is almost a theme in itself, with the society members effectively rendered as stereotypes as befitting Newland’s opinions of them, which, let’s just say, aren’t always correct (and can be frustrating at times). It’s an interesting sort of character-driven novel – there’s actually more plot than characterisation aside from Newland yet it remains character-driven.

In many ways everyone is a device for Wharton but none more so than the unsuspecting Newland who is used by Wharton to look at the perceived lack of female agency in society, as well as his own thoughts as to teaching his wife what he deems appropriate for her to know.

His own exclamation: “Women should be free – as free as we are,” struck to the root of a problem that it was agreed in his world to regard as non-existent. “Nice” women, however wronged, would never claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous-minded men like himself were therefore – in the heat of arguement – the more chivalrously ready to concede it to them.

The young man was sincerely but placidly in love. He delighted in the radiant good looks of his bethrothed, in her health, her horsemanship, her grace and quickness at games, and the shy interest in books and ideas that she was beginning to develop under his guidence. (She had advanced far enough to join him in ridiculing the Idyls of the King, but not to feel the beauty of Ulysses and the Lotus Eaters.)… But when he had gone the brief round of her he returned discouraged by the thought that all this frankness and innocence were only an artificial product.

So the story is very clever. It’s a man’s world – is it? (You might expect a woman writer in those years to question that – Wharton and Kate Chopin would have got on well – but Wharton’s craftiness will have you wondering what’s on the next page constantly and she is a master of red herrings, nay, pre red herrings.) The author gives a lot of time to Ellen Olenska, ensuring that the woman shines in characterisation away from her role as Newland’s social interest, and allows a second interpretation to take hold in Ellen’s story. The execution of the story is flawless and the ending an absolute triumph.

At once a simple story with little embellishment, The Age Of Innocence is well worth the fairly short investment of time it requires, both for enjoyment and because it’s a worthy classic. You will not regret reading this book.

1 The main line of The Lego Movie theme song seemed too appropriate not to use, however irrelevant it is otherwise.

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J Courtney Sullivan – The Engagements

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Diamonds are forever.

Publisher: Virago (Little, Brown)
Pages: 515
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-844-08937-6
First Published: 11th June 2013
Date Reviewed: 31st January 2018
Rating: 3/5

Copywriter Frances Gerety creates the famous DeBeers slogan, ‘A diamond is forever’, and the company sees a massive hike in sales of engagement rings. A couple of decades later, Evelyn and Gerald are preparing for the unwanted visit of their son – Evelyn does not want him splitting up the family. Another decade and James laments his failed career as a musician as he works as an EMT (paramedic), saving lives. Later still, Delphine jumps ship when a younger man comes on the scene, leaving her husband and their antique shop. And in recent years, happily unmarried Kate tries to stay calm in the face of her dysfunctional family as they prepare for the wedding of cousin Jeff.

The Engagements is a multi-plotline novel with five narratives loosely based on the theme of rings.

Most of the stories in this book are pretty bog standard, nice enough to read but not compelling, however the story of Frances Gerety and the accompanying general information about DeBeers and diamond mining is fascinating. It’s not apparent until a little while into the book, but Sullivan takes time to explore every aspect of the industry; whilst most of this time is spent on the way diamonds have been advertised, the author also looks into the relations between the American company and the countries from which the diamonds are taken; she looks at the way the engagement ring is acquired – bought or passed down the generations; she looks at those who have decided not to marry or fall into any of the associated trappings. And whilst the narratives are average (though the stories are far more about relationships in general than engagements), the use of five stories over the course of several decades allows Sullivan to inform you of the way things have changed over the years.

This all sounds great, and it is, but after a while the stories take their toll. The problem here is that the book is simply too long. There is a great amount of info-dumping – after a couple of rounds of it you start to see the warning signs for when a block of irreverent text is on the way; Sullivan will introduce a minor character and give you a lengthy back story or provide a history of a main character you don’t need. The book is to a large extent a series of flashbacks. And it’s not at all aided by the writing. General sentence structure, grammar, older characters speaking as though they are much younger; often the writing is clunky enough that it’s difficult to work out in which country a character is living.

You’d be forgiven for wondering throughout the book why Sullivan has collected these particular narratives together. They bear no relation to each other apart from the loose engagement ring connection – in big part loose because of the sheer numbers of people who can relate to it. Towards the end, the reasoning for these tales becomes clear as Sullivan forms a circle of relation but it’s rather forced, almost a deus ex machina situation. Tying them all together has the effect of showing you what Sullivan may have been trying to do the entire time – spoilers ahead and for the rest of this paragraph because it needs to be said to be explained: show the passing of a single ring down the ages. This concept as used in the book is actually fascinating due to its execution – Sullivan shows the different ways people go about acquiring their rings and the way the diamond industry exploits people whether they have the money or not. It starts as an heirloom, becomes stolen by someone who hasn’t the money to buy a big ring, gets given to this person’s prospective daughter-in-law by his wife who never liked the big diamond, gets left in a taxi by the prospective daughter-in-law when she leaves her relationship, and is lastly bought from a collector/jeweler by a same-sex couple. Through the use of a single ring, Sullivan makes her way through socioeconomic issues and changes in culture. It’s great; it’s just that it’s a bit too late in the proceedings to be able to say that the prior 500 odd pages were all worth it.

The Engagements offers insight into the creation of a monopoly and the politics surrounding it – DeBeers is of course a real-life company and whilst we haven’t lots of information on Frances Gerety, she did indeed write the slogan; and the book offers a great look at the effects of the industry on reality. But it is a big investment for something with relatively little pay off. Rather like, some would say, engagement rings themselves.

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Sarah MacLean – A Rogue By Any Other Name

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Or name(s) – he has two already.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: 386
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-062-06852-1
First Published: 2012
Date Reviewed: 15th January 2016
Rating: 2.5/5

Michael, Lord Bourne, has been gone for a decade; he left after his guardian, Langford, lured him into gambling away his land and fortune. Michael’s childhood friend, Penelope, is swiftly aging away from eligibility in the marriage market; her father adds to her dowry Bourne’s old lands, which the family have since gained. Now part owner in a casino, Michael is a very different man, but he remains determined to get back his heritage. And if marrying Penelope is the way to do it then so be it.

A Rogue By Any Other Name is a book that begins very well. The set up works; the characterisation is good, the use of a casino different, the writing strong – everything holds a lot of promise. Penelope and Michael are great characters – Penelope’s wanting to have a different, more interesting, life than that which is usual means she’s adventurous and generally not afraid to say what she thinks and whilst Michael has changed a great deal since she knew him, the way they interact indicates a good book ahead.

At this stage the romantic element of the book is easy to read and enjoyable, and the inclusion of letters the younger Penelope sent to Michael is a nice touch. In terms of relationship content, it quickly becomes apparent that Michael will be taking the lead but it’s of a type that is supposed to be alluring and will be to some readers and just not alluring but likely readable for others. (Mostly – I should point out that there are a couple of things that could be called either way depending on personal preferences.)

However as the book continues, the promise of the beginning first flies out of the window, then comes back to not only shut it but lock it several times over. The story and development is ever more manipulated, the angst overdone to the point of becoming boring. The characters continue to believe things can never be good between them, which works whilst they are having problems but as the relationship takes a turn for the better – as you knew it would because this is a romance – still this ‘it won’t work’ carries on. It’s a constant refrain from both even when they’re in each others arms and giddy with love, an obvious device to keep the book going.

Change too does Michael’s nature – he becomes domineering to the extent you might wonder whether Christian Grey was the inspiration in terms of control, the problems here being similar in their effect, if not their content (though there are some minor similarities), to E L James’ series.

And the writing takes a turn. Anachronisms, historical errors, and the constant use of repetitive thoughts.

Had the angst been curtailed and literary devices limited, A Rogue By Any Other Name may have kept its promise, but by the end of the book, when the love is fully established and known by both, and yet the angst is still going on, you’ll be wondering if another name might indeed have made a difference.

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