Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips is a first novel set in the isolated Russian peninsular community of KamChatka, after the demise of the Soviet Union. It’s hard-scrabble living even in its principal city of Petropavlovsk. The story grabs you from the outset with the kidnapping of two little girls, ages eight and five. The novel moves through a series of seemingly disparate stories, including other disappearances, and sometimes the difficulty of keeping the names straight rivals that of War and Peace. But each story has thread of loss, and eventually we see how the characters in one story intersect in some way with those in other chapters. The intrigue is set against the backdrop of larger themes of dysfunctional families, sexual abuse, degradation of women, economic hardship, us-versus-them tensions between and among indigenous people and white Russians, immigrants and natives, college educated and scarcely literate. The writing is polished and often lovely. The author’s imaginative weave of the narrative is intriguing.
The Vanished Half by Brit Bennett is a multi-generational saga about race, family and deeply held secrets. Identical twin girls, very light-skinned Negroes, grew up in Mallard, Louisiana a tiny town full of people who shared pride in the lightness of their color. As children, the twins witnessed the lynching of their father, which colors the courses of their entire lives. They flee Mallard together, but eventually go their separate ways. Desiree, having had a failed marriage to an African-American, comes back with a daughter (Jude)whose skin was blue black. The other twin (Stella) got a job passing as white, married her white boss and moved to California, keeping secret her racial identity. Her daughter (Kennedy) was equally pale, golden and superficial. Eventually the story has the two cousins, Kennedy and Jude, meeting, and the unfolding drama of acceptance and rejection, love and indifference or hostility, makes for compelling reading. That Jude has a long-term loving relationship with a trans man and includes a drag queen as her close friend rounds out the tension and understanding of what it means to be the “other,” an outsider.
The Mothers by Brit Bennett was Bennett’s debut novel. It tackles one of the most complicated but universal themes in our lives: our relationships to our mothers. Protagonist Nadia Turner’s mother, with whom she was very close, committed suicide when Nadia was in high school. Her ex-Marine father isn’t into talking about feelings, much less raising a teenage girl on his own. She seeks emotional and sexual solace with Luke Sheppard, son of the minister of the Upper Room Church. Her best friend, Aubrey, a shy church-going girl pledged to virginity till marriage, is also in love with Luke. An unwanted pregnancy becomes a critical inflection point in the story, as Nadia manages to go off to university, stints in Europe and other career-focused activities. Throughout it all, the story is told by the “mothers” of the church, who stay in place, do the community work, exercise moral authority and dispense unlimited amounts of gossip in the town of Oceanside in California. This coming-of-age novel is about dealing with loss, fighting to shape one’s destiny, the role of church and congregation in a socially conservative black community, abortion, and secrets. Bennett wrote The Mothers at the age of 25, and it offers amazingly insightful, smoothly written storytelling.
Homegoing, a debut novel by Yaa Gyasi deals with the themes of race and slavery from a very different perspective. Each chapter is given the first name of a character in the evolving history of west African people, starting in the 18th century in what became Ghana. The reader is thrust into the lives of competing tribes, their superstitions, the privations of daily life, the abuse of women, and their wars. Both Fante and Asante tribes were involved at different points in the supply chain in the slave trade, typically selling to the British and Dutch their captured enemies or kidnapped villagers. The spine of the story is the lives of two half-sisters: Effia who is sold to the white British governor as a wife and lives in relative affluence in a fortress called “the castle,” and Esi, imprisoned in the dungeon below, with others to be sold off. The novel goes back and forth between members of six generations of their respective descendants, (Effia’s descendants staying in west Africa and Esi’s in America) recapitulating the history of the slave trade, ante-bellum South, the Great Migration north, Jim Crow laws and 21st century racism. The intercontinental leaps and intergenerational threads can be confusing, but Gyasi has captured a huge sweep of history, tackled monumental themes, while probing the minds and hearts of her often-interconnected subjects at a most intimate level. My thanks to blog reader Judy H., who recommended the read.