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Review: Debut novels from Andy Sinclair, Chigozie Obioma and Jessamyn Hope Add to ...

The Fishermen
By Chigozie Obioma, Little, Brown, 297 pages, $29

Chigozie Obioma’s first novel is a consummate tragedy on a personal scale, though it could also be read as a parable of Nigeria’s lost promise under military rule. Set in the town of Akure in the early 1990s, during the Sani Abacha junta, The Fishermen concerns four schoolboys, brothers, who one day become fishermen at the local river. The brothers love one another dearly, but when they come across the local madman, his prophecy will tear them apart. Told by Ben, the youngest, in thrall to his older siblings, the story is marked by a child’s innocence and idiosyncratic diction. Ultimately, it is a story about how we become the stories we tell. Obioma has mastered that tension essential to tragedy: In hindsight, the events seem inevitable, and yet you can’t help wondering if things could have turned out differently. Which is to say Obioma is a very good writer.

Safekeeping
By Jessamyn Hope, Fig Tree, 371 pages, $21.95

At the heart of Jessamyn Hope’s debut novel is an heirloom, a 14th-century brooch inlaid with pearls and uncut gems, its intricate gold filigree tracing the outlines of pomegranates, symbol of the Promised Land. At Safekeeping’s outset, it’s 1994 and Adam, a junkie, has fled to Kibbutz Sadot Hadar, where his late grandfather, Franz, once lived as a Holocaust refugee. Adam is on a mission: to return his grandfather’s treasured brooch to the woman Franz loved. This is where the brooch becomes emblematic of the novel as a whole, because from here Safekeeping spins out into seven narratives – Adam and six other flawed characters from the kibbutz – cut with pieces from the history of the brooch itself, beginning with a pogrom in 1347. Hope artfully pulls these storylines together in a book that is greater than the sum of its parts. A complex, beautiful story about the inheritance of Jewish history.

Breathing Lessons
By Andy Sinclair, Véhicule, 150 pages, $18

When Henry Moss, protagonist of Andy Sinclair’s Breathing Lessons, came out at 18, his mother cried. She loved Henry; she just worried he’d have a hard life. At the time, Henry dismissed her reaction as old-fashioned. Decades later, he wonders if his mother was right to worry. Despite growing up in an open-minded society, moving to the big city and hooking up regularly, Henry is lonely. You could argue whether Breathing Lessons is really a novel, as it’s being marketed – it reads more like a collection of stories closely linked by character and theme, less concerned with narrative progression than with describing the texture of Henry’s loneliness in various situations. That’s not a bad thing, but something the reader should know. Why it’s worthwhile: Breathing Lessons complicates the old trope of the lonely gay in a way that feels contemporary and real. That’s important to know, too.

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