Every blue moon a book comes along that makes you incredibly sad when it’s over. This is one of them. Beautifully written, the book begins with two sisters born into 18th century Ghana. One becomes the consort of a white soldier and lives in relative comfort; the other is sold as a slave and makes the harrowing journey from Africa to America. Each succeeding generation must deal with historical forces such as tribal warfare, slavery, British colonization, inhumane imprisonment, drug addiction and racism. A man called H, for example, is freed from slavery only to find himself jailed for a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to hard labor in the coal mines of Alabama. Don’t let the subject matter scare you away. There are stories of horror, but also ones of hope and redemption. No matter which, the author writes in lyrical fashion impossible to put down. You know a book is great when you can’t wait to get back to it, and you’re still thinking about it well after it’s done.
This book isn’t perfect but excellent writing and fascinating insights make it well worth the read. Three narrators spin tales which eventually converge. Yongiu is a privileged élite in North Korea until the Dear Leader executes his father. Danny, an American Korean, runs away while visiting his mother in China. Jangmi, a poor North Korean, smuggles herself across the border to marry, but gets kicked out when her husband finds her already pregnant. It begins strongly at a party in Pyongyang where government officials toast with Chivas while watching girls in hot pants dance to forbidden pop. They’re protected from famine and deprivation, yet live in terror of their mercurial, all-powerful dictator. Of the three, Jangmi’s story is most compelling, adeptly exposing Chinese discrimination against North Korean exiles. With Yongiu, we never see a struggle between privilege and life on the edge. Danny’s story is unbelievable. Would an American adapt so easily to homelessness and hunger and not seek help? There are scenes in this book not for the faint of heart, yet insights into North Korean life and culture make it an important piece of work.
Trains carrying orphans ran routinely from the East Coast to the Midwest between 1854 and 1929 carrying abandoned children needing homes. Fate determined whether these kids got good families or were taken for more pragmatic, brutal reasons such as hard labor. In this marvelously written book of fiction, Irish immigrant Vivian is one such child. In chapters which move from the past to the present, we learn what happened to her; the good, the bad and the ugly. At the end of her life, Vivian is living peacefully and well in Maine when 17-year-old Molly shows up with community-service hours to fill. As Molly helps Vivian clean out her attic, she discovers she and the wealthy widow have much more in common than it seems. Molly has spent her childhood in and out of foster homes, and is currently living with another set of indifferent strangers. This well-crafted, emotional journey through loss and upheaval, still manages an ultimate message of resilience, hope and finding friendship when and where we least expect it.
If you enjoy character studies, this book by Italian writer Elena Ferrante is for you. Two girls from working class families, Lenu and Lila, are growing up in Post WW11 Italy. Everyone knows everyone’s business and poverty ensures violence is always a possibility. Lenu becomes obsessed with Lila early on because of her intelligence and fearlessness. Soon they’re best friends, although intense competition makes for a tumultuous relationship. Lila is more intelligent, but when her parents won’t allow her to go on to middle school, it’s hard-working Lenu who shines academically much to Lila’s dismay. Lenu is prettier, but as they mature, it’s obvious Lila is a rare beauty. In fact, Lila marries at 16, a seemingly glittering match which quickly turns sour. Lenu continues to study even though it may never pay off in a society where women have few options. Ferrante manages to capture the details of day-to-day life in Naples perfectly. This is the first book in a series which follows Lenu and Lila throughout their lives.