Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Ghana: Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

I resisted this book as my choice for Ghana for quite a while. Even though the author, Yaa Gyasi, was born in Ghana, she was raised in Alabama. Furthermore, the publicity material describes the book as "an intense, heartbreaking story of one family and through their lives the very story of America itself". I didn't want to read an American story, I wanted to read an African story. But I did want to read this book after seeing a lot of positive reviews, and when I did, I found that it is in fact an African story as much as it is an American story - I guess that it is not described that way for marketing reasons - the publishers thought that calling it "the story of America" would sell more books.

Effia and Esi are two sisters - half sisters, in fact - in Ghana in the late eighteenth century. One of them marries a white man, a slave trader in Cape Coast. The other is sold into slavery. The novel follows seven generations of their descendants and all the twists and turns of their lives. It is a stunning novel. There is nothing stereotypical about any of the characters. In America, after escaping via the underground railroad, Esi's grandson Kojo marries a free woman, Anna. And yet heartbreakingly, she is captured by those hunting runaway slaves in the north, and her son H is born into slavery again. After slavery ends, he is convicted for, as far as I could tell, looking at a white woman, and sent as a convict to labour in coal mines. Eventually his descendants return to the north, to New York, but their struggles do not end there.

Effia's son becomes an heir to his uncle, a "Big Man"in his tribe. But her grandson James Richard wants nothing more than to marry the girl he has set his heart on, and manages to disappear in a tribal war to contrive this. So his descendants, too, know struggles and poverty. Furthermore, they are haunted by dreams of the "fire woman" who is deeply connected with their family history.

Eventually the two branches of the family come together, without realising their connection. The ending could have seemed contrived, but didn't. It is a thoroughly satisfying story, and one that revealed as much to me about the colonial history of Ghana as about the history of African Americans.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Finland: The Winter War, by Philip Teir

After I brought this home from the library, I wondered at my choice when I saw Philip Teir described as a "Finland Swede" on the dust jacket. But it turns out that he was indeed born in Finland and grew up there - there is a considerable Swedish speaking community in parts of western Finland, something that I had not previously realised (but which makes perfect sense, given the proximity of the two countries).

The first sentence is attention grabbing: "The first mistake that Max and Katriina made that winter - and they would make many mistakes before their divorce - was to deep-freeze their grandchildren's hamster." The book then jumps back in time a few months, and chronicles the lives of Max and Katriina, their daughters Helen and Eva, and other family members. Eva is an art student trying to find her way at art school in London. Eva is married to Christian and has two children. Max's mother is elderly and frail. Max is a sociology professor writing a book which has been a long time coming to fruition. He meets one of his former students, Laura, in a chance encounter and invites her to his sixtieth birthday part where his publisher suggest she help Max with his book. This leads to his having an affair with her.

Actually I'm not sure that it should be called an affair. It doesn't seem to mean all that much to Laura, more just casual sex than a real relationship. By the time I finished the book I didn't really have a lot of sympathy for Max, who seemed to be the author of his own downfall. It's a genre of book that I don't read much - stories of modern life with not much of the weird or unusual about it (despite the opening sentence) but it was well written enough that I found it more absorbing than I expected. The epigraph is a quote by August Stridberg: "And yet those trivial matters were not without significance in life, because life consists of trivial matters", which seemed a very apposite choice, after reading the book.

The Winter War was translated from Swedish by Tiina Nunnally and published by Serpent's Tail, an imprint of Profile Books Ltd (London) in 2015.