An excellent debut that finds layers of pathos within a troubled clan.

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THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE

The legacy of the Great Migration from the 1920s to the 1980s infuses this cutting, emotional collection of linked stories.

The central figure of Mathis’ debut is Hattie, who arrived in Philadelphia in the 1920s as a teenager, awed by the everyday freedoms afforded blacks outside of her native Georgia. But the opening story, “Philadelphia and Jubilee,” is pure heartbreak, as pride and poverty keep her from saving her infant twin children from pneumonia. Though Mathis has inherited some of Alice Walker’s sentimentality and Toni Morrison’s poetic intonation, her own prose is appealingly earthbound and plainspoken, and the book’s structure is ingenious: It moves across the bulk of the 20th century, with each chapter spotlighting one of Hattie’s nine surviving children. (The title’s “twelve tribes” are those nine children, plus the infant twins and a granddaughter who’s central to the closing story.) Each child's personal struggle is a function of the casual bigotry and economic challenges in the wake of Jim Crow. Floyd is a jazz trumpeter and serial philanderer who awakens to his homosexuality; Six is a tent-revival preacher who comes at his profession cynically, as a way to escape his family; Alice is the well-off wife of a doctor with a co-dependent relationship with her brother, Billups; and so on. The longest and most disarming story features Bell, who in 1975 starts a relationship with one of Hattie’s former boyfriends, highlighting the themes of illness and oppressiveness of family. Mathis will occasionally oversimplify dialogue to build drama, but she’s remarkably deft at many more things for a first-timer: She gracefully shifts her narratives back and forth in time; has an eye for simple but resonant details; and possesses a generous empathy for Hattie, who is unlikable on the surface but carries plenty of complexity.

An excellent debut that finds layers of pathos within a troubled clan.

Pub Date: Jan. 15, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-385-35028-0

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 11, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2012

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A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

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HOMEGOING

A novel of sharply drawn character studies immersed in more than 250 hard, transformative years in the African-American diaspora.

Gyasi’s debut novel opens in the mid-1700s in what is now Ghana, as tribal rivalries are exploited by British and Dutch colonists and slave traders. The daughter of one tribal leader marries a British man for financial expediency, then learns that the “castle” he governs is a holding dungeon for slaves. (When she asks what’s held there, she’s told “cargo.”) The narrative soon alternates chapters between the Ghanans and their American descendants up through the present day. On either side of the Atlantic, the tale is often one of racism, degradation, and loss: a slave on an Alabama plantation is whipped “until the blood on the ground is high enough to bathe a baby”; a freedman in Baltimore fears being sent back South with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act; a Ghanan woman is driven mad from the abuse of a missionary and her husband’s injury in a tribal war; a woman in Harlem is increasingly distanced from (and then humiliated by) her husband, who passes as white. Gyasi is a deeply empathetic writer, and each of the novel’s 14 chapters is a savvy character portrait that reveals the impact of racism from multiple perspectives. It lacks the sweep that its premise implies, though: while the characters share a bloodline, and a gold-flecked stone appears throughout the book as a symbolic connector, the novel is more a well-made linked story collection than a complex epic. Yet Gyasi plainly has the talent to pull that off: “I will be my own nation,” one woman tells a British suitor early on, and the author understands both the necessity of that defiance and how hard it is to follow through on it.

A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

Pub Date: June 7, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-94713-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2016

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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