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by Esi Edugyan

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-06-073603-8
Publisher: Amistad/HarperCollins

The Canadian-born Edugyan’s unrelenting debut finds life—first and second—somber and bleak.

Samuel Tyne is an émigré from Ghana (he prefers the old name, Gold Coast) whose midlife crisis is aggravated by a stifling civil service job in Calgary, under the thumb of two bureaucrats he aptly nicknames Dombey and Son. At home, the atmosphere is even more fraught. Samuel and his wife Maud display less mutual tolerance than their warring ancestral tribes. Their twin 12-year-old daughters, Yvette and Chloe (indistinguishable even to their parents), are bad-seed prodigies. A surprise inheritance from Samuel’s estranged uncle Jacob—a dilapidated farmhouse in the small Alberta town of Aster, once settled by African-Americans from Oklahoma—offers respite, but not for long. No sooner does Samuel reinvent himself as an electronics repair-shop owner and early computer hardware developer (it’s 1968) than the twins rev up the RPMs on their continuous destructive loop. The duo defies all civilizing influences, even the friendship of schoolmate Ama, whom their parents have brought to Aster for the summer. On the social front, neighbor Saul Porter, the last Oklahoman settler and a reputed warlock, is pushing Samuel’s boundaries in more than the real estate sense. Ray and Eudora Frank, the Tynes’ first allies in Aster, have divided loyalties and ulterior motives. Although Edugyan’s spare prose, visceral images, and unfussy dialogue create a suitably ominous atmosphere, the plot advances haltingly and predictably. The family turmoil at the core of the story is more often summarized than shown, and the twins’ berserk behavior is too robotic to impart true horror to their intended role as engineers of the fall of the house of Tyne. Ama takes on an importance unjustified by her wan presence because the novel needs an Ishmael, and she’s it. The close, however, stark in its avoidance of redemptive bromides, is astonishingly moving.

A talented author to watch as her narrative technique matures.