Saturday, May 27, 2017

My take on: Homegoing

Two half-sisters, born at the dawn of slavery in Ghana. One is "married" off to an Englishman, living a life of luxury. The other sold into slavery, and shipped off to America. In alternating chapters, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, tells the tale of their descendants, over the course of 300 years.

Effia grew up loved by her father, but hated by the woman she thought was her mother. The woman Effia believed to be her mother hates her with a passion and takes her anger out on Effia. Nothing Effia does is right. Rather than remain with the family, her mother sees to it that Effia is taken away from the family. Effia is "married" off to British soldier James Collins. She's not really his wife, but his wench. The woman he gets to have sex with while his real wife and kids live in England. Effia goes to live with James in a castle on Africa's Gold Coast, eventually giving birth to their son, Quey.

Several floors below Effia's new family, the slave dungeons are filled to the brim with African men and women who have been stripped of not just their clothes but their dignity. One of those women, Esi, is Effia's half-sister. Effia and Esi don't know each other, but their paths in life and their descendants are full of strife and heartache. Despite being chained to multiple women in a dark dungeon, Esi tries to remember happier times. She was on the verge of getting married before being captured. She holds onto those memories. She tries to forget the stench of human waste. She tries to forget the stench of death. While she can occasionally escape mentally, physically there is no escape for Esi as she is shipped to America landing on a plantation in the South.

Effia's descendants live through war in Ghana, between the Fantes and the Assantes, and the booming slave trade. Esi's descendants live through slavery in the American South, the Great Migration, and the jazz era in Harlem. Both narratives leading to the present day. To me, each chapter has a different degree of sadness. Ness, Esi's daughter, endures such severe beatings that her skin often cracks open and bleeds. She and her husband, Sam, risk everything to get their son out of slavery and on the path to freedom but it comes at a high price. Akua, one of Effia's descendants, is driven to bouts of madness. Almost everyone on both sides of the family tree has some degree of tragedy in their lives. Each character truly could have filled an entire book on their own.

How did this book land on my radar? This month I got to pick the book for our office book club, and I chose Homegoing. With such a broad scope, I thought this was a good choice. I still think it was a good choice...even though I had issues with it. The front cover says "a novel" but that word has a certain meaning for me. When I read a novel I expect it to draw me in, to connect with the characters. For me, it was hard to find that connection when every chapter is about a different character. In my opinion this wasn't novel, but a series of connected short stories. I have never been into short stories. Because each chapter begins with a different character I found the timeline hard to follow. Problems aside, the writing is very well-done and engaging. I would definitely read another book from this author!

Rating: Give it a try

Saturday, May 6, 2017

My take on: The Mothers

I have seen nothing but great reviews for The Mothers by Brit Bennett. When my co-workers picked it for our book club, I thought it was a great choice. After reading it, I feel a bit indifferent about the book. There were some parts of it that were really good, but the rest......

The premise, the lives of three young people, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey, as seen through the eyes of a group of mothers. The mothers are a group of women who worship at the same church. At times they take great pride in Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey. But in my opinion all the mothers are a bunch of gossiping, judgmental woman. Which I'm sure is par for the course at a lot of churches. In the eyes of the mothers, Nadia is the bad one. Luke is the pastor's son, and can do no wrong. Aubrey is the sweet, virginal one and must stay away from bad influences like Nadia. All three play right into those roles, but the decisions they make as teenagers will impact them forever.

In the eyes of the mothers, Nadia never had a chance. After her mother committed suicide, Nadia "lacked" the proper maternal guidance. Her father, Robert, is physically in her life, but emotionally he's long gone. Instead of turning all of his attention and love to his daughter, he focuses on helping the church. Helping the church is what feels normal to him. Her father just let her run "wild." She ran right into the arms of Luke, getting pregnant just months before she starts college. Her decision to have an abortion is the turning point in everyone's life. Would life have turned out differently if she had the baby? Perhaps. But she didn't. After the abortion, Luke treats Nadia like she doesn't exist. He doesn't want to acknowledge her feelings because he's too busy wallowing in his own misery. Without Luke in her life, Nadia seeks friendship elsewhere. She finds it in Aubrey.

In the eyes of the mothers, Aubrey is everything Nadia isn't. Aubrey volunteers at the church. She's respectful and kind to everyone. Aubrey's mother is alive, but isn't an active participant in her life. Shouldn't that make the mothers question the type of person Aubrey is? But they don't. She has an air of purity that Nadia doesn't. That's why it's worrisome when Nadia and Aubrey become best friends. So close, they almost seem like sisters. But that all changes when Nadia finally leaves for college in Michigan. She still speaks to Aubrey regularly, but Nadia avoids coming home at all costs. Aubrey finds friendship and love in the most unlikely person, Luke.

It seems soooo wrong that Luke and Aubrey end up together. Aubrey is everything that Nadia wasn't, attentive, caring, and loving. In the years in between his relationship with Nadia and his relationship with Aubrey, Luke's life fell apart. He went from college football prospect to a reject. He had setback after setback. His life was aimless until he met Aubrey. But I found this relationship so cliche. He can only have a relationship with a good girl? Nadia is the one who really ruined his life by having an abortion? Why was it so easy for him to love Aubrey and not Nadia?

Telling Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey's stories through the eyes of a group of mothers was an interesting premise, but ultimately a total letdown. The chapters open with the mothers narrating, but for only a few paragraphs and then we don't hear from them again until the next chapter. Early on, I found this to be confusing because it took me a couple chapters to understand who the narrators were. Also problematic for me was the portrayal of abortion. Without going into too much detail, Nadia's abortion impacts not just Luke but the entire church. If you have one, well darn your life is going to suck afterward. Was this book supposed to be a cautionary tale on abortion? What kind of message is that? This book had potential, but by the end it was unfulfilled potential.

Rating: Meh