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Category Archive for 'Epic Novel'

In a novel which is both emotionally intimate and broad in its scope and thematic impact, this debut novel by twenty-six-year-old Ya’a Gyasi, formerly of Ghana, truly deserves its description as an “epic.” The young recipient of NPR’s Debut Novel of the Year last year for Homegoing, the much lauded Gyasi was today awarded the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize for Best Debut Novel of 2016, for this same novel. Opening her novel in the mid-1700s, Gyasi recreates the tumult of what is now Ghana as the Fante tribes from the coastal area and the Asante (Ashanti) tribes from inland constantly battle each other for power, a task complicated by the fact that the British have occupied the coastal areas so that they can manage the lucrative shipping of slaves to America. Anyone captured by an enemy soldier, of either tribe, is destined to be sold to the British for export. The opening chapters introduce the first of eight generations as reflected in the lives of two families: the descendants of the beautiful Effia, born in Fanteland, and the descendants of Esi, her half-sister, an Asante royal whom she does not know. While Effia strikes the fancy of James Collins, governor of the colony, who marries her and brings her to the Cape Coast Castle where he lives and works, Esi is shipped to America, living out the sad history of slavery and its aftermath. Gyasi incorporates elements common to great, majestic novels within this highly compressed epic of black lives and struggles. Folk stories, legends which evolve about some characters, the fears created by dreams and vague family memories, and the persistent drive to be successful while lacking a true understanding of themselves and their past make this novel “speak” to a modern audience, regardless of race or color.

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In the Strandja Mountains, where Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece come together, a young graduate student, who left Bulgaria for the United States as a boy, reconnects with his grandfather, from whom the family has heard nothing for the past three years. Unsuccessful in his college studies and desperately in need of funds to pay off some loans, the youth has come to Klisura in southeast Bulgaria hoping to sell some family land and also to spend time with the grandfather he has not seen in fifteen years. Written by debut novelist Miroslav Penkov, who lived in Bulgaria until he was nineteen, the narrative breathes with the kind of exuberant realism which distinguishes the writing of someone who has actually lived through certain events, as opposed to the writing of someone who is “writing about” events which he may have observed but not fully lived. Specific, often charming, detail accompanies the descriptions of many events and cultural traditions, giving a new kind of liveliness to the story of the youth’s return to his homeland and to his meetings with the people who live there. Among them are the nestinari, men and women, often quite young, of priestly importance, who walk on red-hot coals without being burned during the once-a year religious celebration. The overwhelming presence of storks in the spring and summer also adds to the spiritual tone of everyday life in Klisura. An unusual – possibly unique – combination of coming-of-age novel and epic of Bulgarian history and culture, the narrative has the small focus of a young man with limited goals and the grand scope of a culture which has incorporated elements from its Christian, Muslim, and even pagan past over many centuries.

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Writing a novel based on four real murders (by poison) and their investigation, Nicaraguan author Sergio Ramirez recreates what has been described as “the most celebrated criminal trial in Nicaraguan history,” a case which author Sergio Ramirez uses to illustrate the conditions and social mores of the country as Anastasio Somoza Garcia is laying the groundwork for his eventual dictatorship in Nicaragua, beginning in 1936. Fellow author Carlos Fuentes declares that with this book “Sergio Ramirez has written the great novel of Central America,” which he says incorporates a “heart of darkness…the fullness of comedy, and the imminence of tragedy.” Fuentes compares Ramirez to Flaubert in technique, and calls this book “a true microcosm of Central America…[with] the action [also] reverberating in Costa Rica and Guatemala.” Ramirez (1942 – present) is not “just” the author of this novel, however. He has a history which gives him unique insights into the political situation in Nicaragua over the years, and this background shows in his literary attention to detail and his observations of the tensions and jealousies between the government, the police, and the army. The big questions is whether the person arrested for the crimes is, in fact, guilty, or whether he is being framed.

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It is 1963, as the novel opens, and the devastating Hurricane Flora, “bigger than all of Cuba,” is now lashing the island, having already caused devastation throughout Haiti, where it killed five thousand people. Main character Maria Sirena, age eighty-two, has been forcibly evacuated from her small seaside house by Ofelia, one of Castro’s soldiers, who takes her and seven other women to safety on the top floor of Casa Diego Velazquez, the sixteenth century home of the first governor of Cuba, now an historical museum. For the couple of days, Maria Sirena rides out the storm with the officer, Ofelia, and seven other women, keeping her companions occupied with stories from her own life and the lives of her parents and grandparents as they live through Cuba’s various wars for independence from the late nineteenth century up to 1963. She has much experience as a story-teller, having been for many years a lector, a reader hired by a cigar factory to read stories to the workers so that they will not become bored during their repetitious hand-work as they make cigars. Author Chantel Acevedo, a second-generation Cuban American, wisely keeps her focus on the lives of “ordinary” people like Maria Sirena and her fellow guests of the Casa – hardworking folks, often poor, who have struggled all their lives – showing how they survive and what they have to do to live. It is through this personal focus, rather than any detailed historical focus, that almost a hundred years of modern Cuban revolutionary history emerge for the reader.

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Thomas Keneally, an Australian National Treasure, winner of the Booker Prize for Schindler’s Ark in 1982, and the author of thirty-one novels and seventeen non-fiction books, has never limited himself to subject matter from Australia, however rich and compelling that might be. Only about a dozen of his novels are actually set in Australia. His other novels, many of them prize winners, have been set in places ranging from Antarctica to Yugoslavia, Eritrea, and the Middle East, so it should be no surprise that Keneally became fascinated enough by the issues involved in the American Civil War that he wrote Confederates in 1979, a dense, epic novel of American history written on a scale reminiscent of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and filled with similar themes, though it is only half as long. Unlike War and Peace, Confederates also spurns romanticism, employing instead the innate dignity of ordinary men and women and the mundane details of real life to convey the horrors of warfare with a realism almost unmatched in Civil War literature. With no comic relief, no hints at happy endings, and no escape from the inevitability of this nightmare, the cumulative effect of Keneally’s novel is staggering. The Confederate army we meet here consists of ragged and hungry teachers, musicians, small farmers, orphaned children, men in their 60’s, conscripts, and even the sorely ill and walking wounded, all people the reader comes to know well through the stories they share and the simple dreams they reveal as they trudge resignedly and painfully across Virginia toward their destiny – the Battle of Harper’s Ferry/Antietam.

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