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The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, by Esi Edugyan.

June 27, 2014

The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, by Esi Edugyan.  Amistad (2004), Edition: 1ST, Hardcover, 304 pages.

An unusual novel about a Ghanaian/Canadian family that seeks a second chance for themselves in a small rural town in Alberta, Canada.

Esi Edugyan is the talented daughter of Ghanaian parents who grew up in Alberta, Canada. Samuel Tyne, the main character in her first book, is also from Ghana and has lived in Canada for years. His story is not that of a new immigrant, but he has been deeply shaped by his African childhood. Like immigrants in other stories, he believes in his own special destiny and is susceptible to shame and guilt over not doing right by the uncle who raised him or by his family back in Africa.   When he unexpectedly receives word that he has inherited a house from that uncle,  he quits his unfulfilling civil service job and moves his reluctant family to a tiny town in Alberta.  Rather than giving him a chance to live up to what he sees as his potential, the events that follow result in new shame and confusion for him.  Focusing on the little known experience of Africans coming to Canada, Edugyan tells a story that touches all of us who have failed to accomplish what others dreamed for us and have turned inward to avoid more immediate responsibilities.

The Second Life of Samuel Tyne is a complicated book, with numerous subplots and unresolved mysteries. I find it hard to review, unsure if the confusion is an intentional reflection of Tyne’s understanding or if it is the flaw of a new novelist trying to do too much. Either way, my view of the book fluctuated widely as I read.  At times Edugyan is a clear master of the written word.  The novel is full of perfect phrases and sentences that make a chill run up your back.  Her characters and plot are somewhat strange, but not in an alienating way. Tyne is a fully developed character, but one clearly intent on limiting what he is willing to see. Although the book is not written in first person, readers see everything from his perspective. He is a surprisingly insular person, closing himself off from his wife and twelve-year-old twin girls.  The result is that Tyne’s wife and daughters appear as flat annoyances, not real people with personal needs of their own. When the twins slip into sullen resistance and silence, we can only guess the causes. When they appear dangerous and evil, we have no way of knowing why, but their descent lies at the core of the story, expressed as: how can Ghanaians, brought up to value family, behave like this?

Aster, the town where Tyne brings his family, was originally founded by blacks from Oklahoma, but by the time the Tynes arrive, it had become largely a white community. A neighbor who was among the first settlers tells the story of the racist actions that lead to the failure of the black community.  From Oklahoma myself, I know something the story of how blacks came to Oklahoma from the deep south, hoping to make a place for themselves in the newly opened territory.  Squeezed out by racist whites in Oklahoma, I know how some of them tried again in Canada.  Like Samuel Tyne, their hopes and dreams lead to nothing.

Both Tyne and the world around him seem to share the blame for how the story develops. In the meantime, Edugyan gives us a moving, if perhaps flawed, account of how people keep living day by day with their limitations and failures.

I recommend this book for readers who like strange stories and are willing to think about what they read.  I only began to understand the book when I mulled over it in order to review it.  The more I thought about the book the more impressed with its author I became.  I also suggest this book for anyone wanting a fuller picture of Africans in North America and interested in the experience of African Canadians.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 28, 2014 3:32 am

    Sounds kind of sad, people the world over trying to find their place in exile.

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