Ambitious in scope and impressive in execution, Homegoing (Knopf, $26.95) begins in eighteenth-century Ghana with the stories of Esi and Effia, half-sisters—though they don’t know that—whose lives take wildly different paths. Deftly charting parallel histories, debut novelist Yaa Gyasi follows Esi as she is captured by British slave-traders, taken across the Atlantic, and sold into bondage, and, without missing a beat, also traces Effia’s more materially comfortable fate as the wife of the white British governor in charge of overseeing operations related to the export of human chattel. The narrative chronicles both sides of the women’s sundered family, tracing their descendants through seven generations and three hundred years of American and Ghanaian history. In alternating perspectives, Gyasi introduces Esi’s and Effia’s many children, cousins, and spouses, narrating their various experiences and fortunes. These richly told episodes could stand alone as satisfying short stories; as parts of Gyasi’s colorful epic-scale project, they echo larger themes in telling and surprising ways. The combination of Gyasi’s often lyrical prose, the brutal events and lasting joys she recounts, and the diverse, personable characters, make this a haunting and powerful tale of African American life from the collapse of the ancient Ashanti Empire and the callousness of European colonialism to the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, and post-colonial Ghana.
Imagine Me Gone (Little, Brown, $26) is the chilling game a father proposes to his children. They’re on a boat. The father lies down, closes his eyes; can the ten- and seven-year old steer the craft to safety on their own? All too soon, the children really do lose their father, a man who has suffered from lifelong clinical depression. The legacy of this mental illness, which the father passes on in the form of severe anxiety to his oldest son, Michael, is the focus of Adam Haslett’s powerful, compassionate second novel. Told from the points of view of all five members of this British-American family, the narrative dramatizes how complicated an organism a family is, how very different the temperaments of its members, and how the suffering of one affects all. Michael’s monologues, in particular, challenge the received image of such disabilities as, well, downers. Michael has one of the sharpest, smartest senses of humor in recent fiction. He’s a wicked parodist. He’s also a brilliant amateur musicologist, analyzing and enthusing over everything from disco to house to ska and beyond. Haslett displays remarkable dexterity in conveying these five distinct voices, and his deep insight comes through in prose that sings, getting “down in words what doesn’t live in words.”
Eimear McBride’s debut, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, won the Baileys Women’s Prize, stunning readers and judges alike with its incandescent prose. What this bold author was trying to do with her Joycean explosion of sentence fragments and rhythms, McBride has explained, was to “draw in all the disparate experiences of the body and the mind and…..express them simultaneously.” She uses this Stanislavkian “method writing” to equally mesmerizing effect in her second novel, The Lesser Bohemians (Hogarth, $26), which focuses on a group of actors in 1990s London. Eighteen-year-old Eily tells most of the story. Fresh from Ireland to study drama, she’s dazzled by everything about her new life. “I have a heart that I hope art will burn,“ she declares. In fact, her heart is burned—and pummeled, coveted, spurned, and cherished—by Stephen, an established actor twenty years Eily’s senior. But age is the least of this turbulent relationship’s complicating factors, and as the secrets and regrets come out, McBride relentlessly conveys the full charge of their psychological and physical impact. Stephen, especially, with his “body all battle,” is a brilliant portrait of what passion can do; with Eily we watch as it forces him to the edge of self-destruction, then pulls him back—a life-giving force that ultimately enables survival.