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The Second Life of Samuel Tyne [Paperback]

Esi Edugyan
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

March 8 2005
Suspenseful and atmospheric, this extraordinary novel portrays both the hardship and grace in the life of a man struggling to realize his destiny.

When Samuel Tyne emigrated from the Gold Coast (now Ghana) in 1955, he was determined to accomplish great things. He excelled at Oxford and then came to Canada with the uncle who raised him, leaving the traditions and hard life of his homeland behind. Here, in this nation of immigrants, Samuel would surely be free to follow his destined path to success.

That new beginning didn’t live up to Samuel’s expectations. As the novel opens fifteen years later, he is working as an economic forecaster for the government in Calgary. It’s a stiflingly bureaucratic, dead-end job, where petty managerial types and lifeless co-workers make Samuel’s days almost unbearable.

Everything changes for Samuel when he finds out that his Uncle Jacob has died. Samuel and his uncle had grown apart. They had not spoken for a number of years, though Jacob had raised Samuel and, in a way, sacrificed himself for Samuel’s future. Jacob’s death weighs heavily on Samuel, yet his reaction seems more about having “a singular chance to get all his sadness out” than about familial love. Samuel is jolted out of his sadness and his workaday world when he receives a call telling him he has inherited Jacob’s old mansion in the small town of Aster, Alberta. The town, originally settled by freed slaves from Oklahoma, sounds to Samuel like the perfect place to start a new life, one that would allow him to live up to his potential, and he decides to exchange the drudgery of the city for the simplicity of small-town existence. When Samuel leaves his office for good after yet another minor humiliation, we cheer his resolve and look forward to what the coming days will bring.

Samuel believes that he is setting on a path to fulfill his personal expectations, but we begin to see the signs of what one reviewer has called Samuel’s “pathological temerity.” He doesn’t tell his family what has happened: not that he’s inherited the house, or that he plans to move there or even that he’s quit his job. Instead, he spends his days tinkering in the shed, emerging at just the right time to make it seem like he’s coming home from work. The truth comes out only when one of his daughters discovers his secret. His deception points to a paralyzing inability to communicate with others and suggests that this new beginning may be as fruitless as the last.

Maud and the twins, Chloe and Yvette, resist the move to Aster, but are helpless in the face of Samuel’s conviction that this is the right thing to do. And when they arrive, their new home — a gloomy, worn-down remnant of days long past — doesn’t exactly fill them with hope. But the seeds of renewal have been sown, the move has been made and they hesitantly take up their new lives. At first, the Tynes seem to be settling in — they meet some of their neighbours, Samuel sets up his own electronics shop, Maud begins to fix up the house and the twins are curious enough to at least begin exploring their new home. However, the idealized Aster of Samuel’s imagination proves to be as false as his family’s veneer of acceptance, and a dark undercurrent of small-mindedness, racism and violence soon turns on the town’s newest residents. When mysterious fires begin to destroy local buildings, and the bizarre yet brilliant twins retreat into their own dark world, Samuel’s fabled second chance slips slowly out of his grasp.

The Second Life of Samuel Tyne is a harrowing and beautifully written work of fiction, one that shows us how fragile our dreams can be in the face of the relentless march of time. Esi Edugyan’s evocative writing and pitch-perfect ability to get into the minds of her characters confirm that this book heralds the arrival of a major new novelist.

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Product Description

From Amazon

Esi Edugyan's atmospheric first novel has all the ingredients of a 1970s horror flick. A mild-mannered civil servant inherits a rambling old house in the country from a mysterious uncle. Convinced that this is his second chance, he quits his job and moves with his wife and twin 12-year-old daughters to the quiet town of Aster, Alberta. Before long the twins are behaving very strangely. They speak to no one but each other and only in an odd gibberish. They collect cast-off hairbrushes, lining them up on the floor of the room they share with their visiting friend Ama, and disappear alone into the bush each day. Then there are the accidents. Surely the twins wouldn't leave Ama to drown on purpose, but what about their mother's fall from the ladder and all those fires?

What saves The Second Life of Samuel Tyne from the cheap melodrama of films like The Stepford Wives and The Bad Seed is race. For Samuel is a black man, and colour lies over this gothic-hued tale of evil and stupidity like the thick grey dust coating the rooms of the Tyne mansion. In Samuel, the Calgary-raised Edugyan (whose fiction was recently featured in Best New American Voices) has created a Canadian Mr. Biswas. Like the hero of V.S. Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas, this middle-aged immigrant from Ghana pursues his new start in life with an obstinate naïveté that is excruciating to behold. His relationships, however, become increasingly swathed in obscurity. It's as if the furtive secrecy that marks the twins' communication infects all other interactions in the novel. By the end, it is impossible to say why any of the characters do or say the things they do. This unfortunately leaves the reader feeling as shut out from the action as the Tynes are from Aster society. --Lisa Alward --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Racial discord and family strife shadow this dense, moody tale of a black family and its troubles settling into a new town in Alberta, Canada. In 1968, soft-spoken West African–born Samuel Tyne inherits his reclusive Uncle Jacob's mansion in the town of Aster, formerly settled by black families out of Oklahoma. Stifled in his Calgary civil service job and hoping for a second chance at happiness, Samuel hastily relocates Maud, his crass, chilly wife, and their sneering, eccentric, "stone-like" twin daughters, Chloe and Yvette. Introverted Ama, the twins' asthmatic school friend, joins them for the summer, but soon grows terrified of everyone. As his home life becomes increasingly troubling, Samuel tinkers away in his new electronics repair shop, devising a computer prototype. Meanwhile, embittered Maud finds herself powerless against the increasingly menacing (and indistinguishable) twins, whose torturous treatment of Ama becomes the springboard for more hideous violence. Neighbors like Ray and Eudora Frank, a blunt, imposing couple-about-town, and rumored warlock Saul Porter, are friendly at first, but reveal their true colors after a fiery conclusion pits neighbor against neighbor, and vicious storefront vandalism returns Samuel to his "graveyard of an empty life." Edugyan's elegiac, shimmering prose makes up for the lack of sunny skies in this impressively conceived and well-executed debut.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars uncompromising and masterful June 8 2004
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
Praise comes cheap in the literary world and Edugyan has been so highly touted by the likes of the New Yorker and Joyce Carol Oates and the Globe and Mail that one can't help but be suspicious. I picked Second Life up thinking, "Great, just what we need, another important new voice." But this truly is an astonishing first novel. Despite its "gothic" elements it is never anything but literary and uncompromisingly so - do not buy this book if you like Stephen King, you will be disappointed. The ending is not "obscure" but rather "mysterious"; a crime is left unsolved but the emotional turmoil surrounding this is addressed with a terrifying delicacy. And that is really what the novel is concerned with, it seems - not who did what to whom at precisely what moment, but how it is possible to go on in the face of failure and loss. The book is funny and heartbreaking and very wise and it is in the end about all of us. While Samuel Tyne is a black man and living in Canada and while the novel addresses this, the book is not about "race" at all and to suggest otherwise seems to me a misreading of the book. It is no more a novel about blackness than David Adams Richards' novels are about whiteness (in fact this novel made me think of Mercy Among the Children). Edugyan is interested in the human condition, in the hopes and failures and potential for redemption we all share. I was blown away.
This is not "beach reading." Buy the latest Margaret Atwood or Maeve Binchy if you have an airplane to catch. But if you want compelling literature by one of our future stars, read this.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Ghanaian interpretation of loneliness in Canada April 8 2007
Format:Hardcover
A bleak look at the life of a migrant from an entirely different culture. Edugyan retains the cadence of Ghanaian speech ( as well as references to the Gold Coast instead of Ghana) and captures the essence of the migrant of colour on the vast wilderness of the Canadian landscape.

Perhaps not for those who are not prepared to step outside of the box and experience the intense loneliness of the ride.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not recommended Aug. 28 2006
By Sue
Format:Paperback
I found this book to be a slow and painful read. The writing is overly descriptive and the plot moves extremely slowly. The real tragedy is Samuel and his wife's inability to actually do anything! For me, this does not make for an interesting read. I was happy when the book finally ended!
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3.0 out of 5 stars A Strange Story of Unfulfilled Ambitions Jan. 3 2012
By Ian Gordon Malcomson HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
This is a novel that is, perhaps, too complex for its own good. The protagonist, a Ghanaian-Canadian named Samuel Tyne, is trying to live out his dream of becoming a successful individual while being surrounded by people who just don't appreciate his efforts. While that scenario typically makes for some very real conflict between characters in other novels, I am not sure it works here because it tends to create a tangle of opposing views that go in any number of directions that are hardly helpful in understanding Samuel's pathetic inability to move ahead in life. The reader gets to see more of how others, such as the members of the failed village of Aster, stand in the way of Samuel's aspirations than what is lacking in his own personality to overcome such poorly-defined cultural challenges from others. His move from urban Calgary to rural Aster seems to be motivated by nothing more than a mystical need to seize the moment and remake himself as someone who has the eternal respect of his peers. He is a disillusioned civil servant who seizes the opportunity to come home to get a restart. Moving out into the empty countryside to a place where a previous Ghanaian community had failed seems nothing short of a hopeless pipe dream. What the reader quickly learns is Samuel's dream starts to dematerializes before it gets underway, and we are left with the feeling that a melange of outside forces are racially responsible for his misfortune. There is his thin-skinned wife who chafes at every kind of injustice; there are his children who think he is weird for wanting to move into a dilapidated house out in the boonies; then there is the dirt-poor Porter family who has survived on the hope that the black magic spells of their past will finally work to get rid of their enemies, the Tynes. Read more ›
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Paradise Lost Dec 4 2004
By Jennifer M - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
We all dream of a better place. Be it the Garden of Eden or Thomas More's Utopia, the idea of a safe, sane, and just world has always captured the human imagination and striving for it has shaped human endeavor.

Esi Edugyan's debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne (HarperCollins, anticipated publication 2004), chronicles one man's pursuit of his personal heaven. Fifteen years after his immigration from West Africa to Canada, Samuel Tyne is stagnating in a dead-end government job and foundering as a husband and father. When he inherits his uncle's Alberta mansion in the town of Aster, he moves there over the protests of his wife and twin daughters. Settled by former American slaves who fled to Canada, the once all-black Aster is fabled to be the place of second chances. But the Tynes encounter a much different reality. A mysterious arsonist is terrorizing the town and, as Samuel's daughters become increasingly unstable and aggressive, the hostile eyes of Aster all turn towards the Tynes.

For a first novel, penned at the age of 25, Edugyan's work is impressive, exploring as it does our deepest desires for community and a chance to fulfill our truest dreams. With an elegance unexpected in an artist so young, the author plumbs the tragedy of a paradise just shy of fulfillment and ponders whether our actions create our nature or if our nature determines our actions.

In many ways, Samuel's story is a brilliant vehicle for these questions. To have imagined a utopia unrealized may be worse the inability to imagine it at all. Edugyan seems, almost inadvertently, to have tapped into the idea that the capacity for such fantasy is the source of human misery and madness. However, at times, she skims the deeper issues like a flat stone skipping across the surface of a pond, as though she doesn't trust her own instinct to let the story take her where she wants to go.

Edugyan's style is hypnotic and mythical, reminiscent in some ways of Steinbeck in her striving for a sweeping human fairy tale. The drawback is characters that are often shallow and lacking specificity. The outlines are there and quite compelling, but the details which would allow us to access the soul of the Tyne family and the people of Aster are missing.

As a result, the tragedy of the novel is almost farcical in proportion. As their lives unravel, the novel's tone takes on a futility that surpasses the capriciousness of life itself and devolves into random, even pointless, destruction that fails to be moving precisely because the characters themselves are inaccessible. The Tynes' world doesn't just fall apart; it collapses in on itself to the point of silliness.

Still, like much debut work from fledgling artists who have the chops to become important novelists, Edugyan's first title is worth a read. Despite its flaws, it's an engaging and solidly-written tale from a fresh new Canadian voice.
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing March 31 2013
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
"The Second Life of Samuel Tyne" by Esi Edugyan stood on my bookshelf for a long time before I dared reading it. I liked Half Blood Blues so much, I feared it would not live up to it.
I must have waited long enough then, because I loved this book. Very moody and quite different in style this book takes us from 1968 Calgary to Aster, a small community in Canada, where Samuel Tyne and his family try to make a new start. The newcomers are welcomed into the community as much as one would expect, with some openness but also some hidden agendas.
There is a dispute about land that Samuel has inherited from his uncle and other unpleasantness but a series of fires disturbs the community and at home Samuel's twin daughters start playing up.
This is great writing, confident and atmospheric, exposing human nature with great observation.
I enjoyed this very much.
3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars uncompromising and masterful June 8 2004
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Praise comes cheap in the literary world and Edugyan has been so highly touted by the likes of the New Yorker and Joyce Carol Oates and the Globe and Mail that one can't help but be suspicious. I picked Second Life up thinking, "Great, just what we need, another important new voice." But this truly is an astonishing first novel. Despite its "gothic" elements it is never anything but literary and uncompromisingly so - do not buy this book if you like Stephen King, you will be disappointed. The ending is not "obscure" but rather "mysterious"; a crime is left unsolved but the emotional turmoil surrounding this is addressed with a terrifying delicacy. And that is really what the novel is concerned with, it seems - not who did what to whom at precisely what moment, but how it is possible to go on in the face of failure and loss. The book is funny and heartbreaking and very wise and it is in the end about all of us. While Samuel Tyne is a black man and living in Canada and while the novel addresses this, the book is not about "race" at all and to suggest otherwise seems to me a misreading of the book. It is no more a novel about blackness than David Adams Richards' novels are about whiteness (in fact this novel made me think of Mercy Among the Children). Edugyan is interested in the human condition, in the hopes and failures and potential for redemption we all share. I was blown away.
This is not "beach reading." Buy the latest Margaret Atwood or Maeve Binchy if you have an airplane to catch. But if you want compelling literature by one of our future stars, read this.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Bleak, mostly unrewarding. Nov. 17 2004
By algo41 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Samuel Tyne is a novel with multiple themes, from the cultural conflicts of an African couple settling in an Alberta town, to the blight of dealing with psychotic children. Esi seems to delight in making situations just a little bleaker than they might be in real life: thus Samuel, while working for the Canadian government, has a father-son set of bosses who are bizarre without being in any way humorous. Sometimes the novel is very alive and engrossing, mostly it is bleak and unrewarding. The two most interesting and well drawn characters are secondary characters: the Tyne's white "friends" in their small town. Incidentally, there is nothing mysterious about the ending, as a reviewer wrote, it is quite clear who committed the crime.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This debut raises the bar of American Fiction a bit higher! Dec 5 2004
By claimingkin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I applaud Esi Edugyan for raising the high bar of American Fiction just a bit higher with this debut. This novel about an eccentric family legacy pitted against an arduous culture makes for an astonishing read. Even though the author uses a narrative that often tells more than it shows, she clearly makes up for this with an intuitive character dialogue that makes the second chance at life for Samuel Tyne ominous!
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