REVIEWED HERE The Best Place on Earth, by Ayelet Tsabari (HarperCollins, 224 pages, $24.99); Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi (Hamish Hamilton, 336 pages, $30); The Lion Seeker, by Kenneth Bonert (Knopf Canada, 576 pages, $25)
If you’ve spent time with teenagers lately, you’ve probably noticed that nostalgia for the 1990s is in full effect. Kids on my bus wear ripped stockings and Doc Martens, Sharpie-scrawled Twin Peaks patches pinned to their army jackets.
I hope that this trend will saturate the literary world as well, if only to bring back that brief honeymoon period in the 1990s when debut fiction reigned. Hot young writers proffering their first attempts became a demographic of their own, and publishers acquired them hoping to hold on to writers for the duration of their careers.
Now it is difficult to get a first book signed, and gone are the days when edgy, sexy debuts were routinely seen as desirable evidence of a writer’s potential. The Random House New Face of Fiction series, which annually introduces new writers with a splash, began during this heyday, in 1996.
It launched Ann-Marie MacDonald, Yann Martel and countless others now firmly established in the literary canon. This was also the era when a book about young people in the club scene published by a small press (How Insensitive, a debut by Russell Smith) could actually be nominated for a Governor General’s Award, the day’s most prestigious literary prize.
This season, there’s only one official new face of fiction, perhaps a demonstration of how acquisition risks are increasingly rare, and it’s not a typical debut. It’s a South Africa-set historical epic called The Lion Seeker by Kenneth Bonert. Like two other notable debuts this season, Ayelet Tsabari’s story collection The Best Place on Earth, and Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, it proves that new authors are having to be more ambitious than ever before in their scope and range. Perhaps, these days, one has to go big to get noticed.
All three books connect on the topic of exile, both forced and chosen, in addition to the fierce yet ambiguous relationship to one’s home during times of political and social unrest. They are anything but simple immigration or war stories – each title focuses on the complicated effects of generational trauma on the family unit and the question of how one lives against the backdrop of constant danger.
The majority of stories in The Best Place on Earth are set in Israel, or feature Israelis who have immigrated to Canada, and most of the characters are Mizrahi (Jews with North African or Middle Eastern heritage). In the story Say It Again, Say Something Else, two teenaged girls, one just arrived from Canada, are waiting for a bus during a heat wave, and the new girl is told to watch out for anyone who looks “suspicious” or “Arab.”
They have the following conversation:
“… my grandparents came from Yemen, so we are Arabs in a way, Arab Jews.”
Lana laughs. “No, that’s impossible. You’re either an Arab or a Jew.”
“Yeah, but you’re a Belarusian Jew. Why can’t there be Arab Jews?”
“I’m Israeli now,” Lana says. “And so are you.”
The question of what it means to be from where you are from, especially in times of upheaval, comes up in all three titles. Do you hold on to your roots, or become a part of your new country? How does one find certainty when those boundaries are blurry to begin with, and you’re pressing wet towels under door frames and carrying a gas mask like a purse? Issues of assimilation and belonging are a theme in contemporary literature, but they are approached here in specific ways that both trouble the underlying cultural conversations and tell moving stories.
Ghana Must Go, the debut novel from the self-defined “Afropolitan” Taiye Selasi, follows the family of Kwewku Sai, a Ghana-born surgeon, and his Nigerian wife, Fola, whose parents died in the Biafran war. Fola reflects that “she’d stopped being Folasade Somayina Savage and had become instead the native of a generic War-Torn Nation. Without specifics … just some war-torn nation, hopeless and inhuman and as humid as any war-torn nations anywhere, all war-torn nations everywhere.”
When Gitelle, the mother of Isaac who narrates most of The Lion Seeker, arrives in pre-war Johannesburg after fleeing Lithuania, she notes that her husband had settled into “a squalid cottage in the self-made Jewish ghetto along Beit Street … it was as if a poor Lithuanian village had torn itself up from the cool forestlands of the north to root again in the baking dust of the deepest south.”
These same questions of identity and belonging provide a backdrop for the characters in all three books as they attempt to live the lives they want, in spite of their frequent and often violent encounters with racist, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic attitudes – and, it seems, in spite of the increasingly fractured reality of homeland.
The Lion Seeker shines a light on pre-war South Africa and the lives of one family struggling to get by in the Jewish ghetto of Doornfontein. Isaac, the scrappy young son, doesn’t know how his mother’s face was scarred before they fled Lithuania, and his efforts to solve the mystery drive the book.
The only historical novel in the bunch, Bonert’s prose is sharp and masterful, clipping along at a breathless pace while still managing to wow us with imagery, clever turns of phrase and believable dialogue peppered with several languages. The mystery at the heart of the novel is fairly easy to guess, but the tornado of events that lead us to its resolution is anything but.
Similarly, the family at the core of Ghana Must Go is also broken apart by secrets and a legacy of violence and war, and Selasi’s strengths as an author are in the microscopic image – a dewdrop, a flower – and the way she can pull the camera back on a specific moment to propel the story. Some events happen slowly – for example, the character who dies on page one is still dying on page 63 – but the novel spans decades, flashing expertly through time, and Selasi handles this challenge masterfully.
Her sentences are lengthy and ambitious, a style that may dissuade an impatient reader from keeping on, but the investment is one that pays off in an emotionally insightful story that updates the typical African immigrant narrative and refuses to simplify, moralize or exoticize a complicated history.
On every branch of the Sai family tree, siblings feel the impact of the traumas their parents faced, questioning their self-worth and where they belong.
We can’t bring back the glam life of the 1990s pre-digital publishing era – and many authors wouldn’t want to. But these books remind us that we should be investing more heavily in new voices who challenge the assumptions of what a debut should look like, be they weighty epic familial sagas that give voice to our voiceless ancestors, or formally inventive prose that speaks to the present and reflects our increasingly fractured reality.
Zoe Whittall’s latest novel is Holding Still for as Long as Possible.