Born on a Tuesday
By Elnathan John, Black Cat, 256 pages, $23.50
Nigerian lit is experiencing a renaissance right now, with a young generation of writers leading the way. Names like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chigozie Obioma, and Chinelo Okparanta are critically acclaimed. For a reviewer, it feels like every few months a new debut aches to add a name to that list. Astute readers will notice, however, that these stories almost exclusively concern the south of the country, with almost nothing about the predominantly Sunni Muslim Hausa people of the northwest. With his debut novel Elnathan John is out to change that. The story of Dantala, a naive though not entirely innocent boy navigating the region's agitated political and sectarian landscape in the aughts, Born on a Tuesday brings a journalist's eye to jihadi extremism's insidious creep into a place. Presenting a wide spectrum of religious interpretation and adherence, John's portrayal of northwestern Nigeria is both subtle and precise. Add Elnathan John to that list.
I Carried You Home
By Alan Gibney, Patrick Crean Editions/HarperCollins, 256 pages, $22.99
Often in novels with a teenage narrator – novels for adults, that is – the writer works in an assumed experiential imbalance: the reader, having been longer in this world, reads the narrative situation in a way the narrator cannot. The strategy means an extrapoignant punch for us, but it also makes the teenager the butt of a kind of narrative joke. Not so in Alan Gibney's debut. After losing his brother in a car crash, teenage Ashe loses his mother as well – she locks herself in her bedroom. When she does come out, it slowly dawns that her erratic behaviour goes beyond grief over Will's death. Something's not right with Nell: Ashe can sense it; readers can sense it too, though we couldn't tell Ashe what it is. Gibney shows admirable restraint in this moody, broody novel set in 1960s rural Ontario and Death Valley. The first half isn't quite as taut as the last, but over all, an assured debut.
By Yaa Gyasi, Knopf, 320 pages, $32
In a much-discussed 2014 Atlantic cover story, Ta-Nehisi Coates made a "Case for Reparations," in which he argued the United States must reckon with not only its legacy of slavery, but its long post-abolition history of discrimination. Coates wrote a blurb for Yaa Gyasi's debut novel, a double-barrelled family saga set in Ghana and the United States, but that's not the only reason his name comes to mind. Homegoing, the American sections at least, could be read as a fictional analogue to Coates's essay, though the novel is also much more than that. The story of two half-sisters and their descendants, Homegoing is also a history of slavery from two sides of the Atlantic, spanning four centuries – ambitious, but Gyasi pulls it off. In the epigraph, an Akan proverb compares a family to a forest: "If you are inside you see that each tree has its own position." Gyasi's characters are well-drawn, individual people, not types – that's what makes this such a powerful debut.