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
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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.
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