The portrayal of family and mental illness in Imagine Me Gone

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What I read

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett

What it’s about

Margaret learns about John’s depression before she marries him, but it doesn’t keep her from wanting to build a life with him. They have three children, one of whom experiences another serious mental illness. Imagine Me Gone follows the family of five over several decades, with chapters alternating between the perspectives of each family member.

This novel beautifully portrays a family who not only cares about each other but who care for each other. While the story illustrates how mental illness affects a family, it also explores the love, loyalty and devotion in various relationships.

Why I picked it up

I can’t remember where I first heard about Imagine Me Gone, but I read about it several times before I stumbled across a copy in the bookstore. There was something about the white cover and the missing letters that caught my eye. Still, it took a few more bookstore visits before I bought the novel.

The subject of mental illness appealed to me, and I do enjoy books that explore familial relationships. But I hesitated because this type of subject matter is something so many writers could get wrong, and I suppose I also thought the book could be too dark. But earlier this month, I couldn’t resist its appeal and I bought a copy.

What I liked about it

Haslett’s prose is stunning. As with Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Imagine Me Gone moves at a pace that made it almost impossible for me to put down, and yet it also made me want to reread sentences or paragraphs because of the beautiful wording.

I was impressed with how Haslett managed to write about complicated subject matter and complicated feelings without making it feel complicated to read. He smartly inserts humour into the story that helps with this.

Haslett also does a great job of giving each of the family members their own distinct voice. The inner thoughts and feelings of each of the five family members is captured brilliantly.

This is such an honest book. It never felt over-written, exaggerated or pretentious. I’m so glad I picked it up.

You’ll want to read it if…

This is definitely a book for fans of literary fiction. It’s a particularly good choice if you like novels that move between perspectives of several characters. And if you enjoy stories that examine family dynamics or sibling relationships, you should read this book.

Recommended refreshments

I read most of this book on one very cold December afternoon. Part of that afternoon was spent inside a cozy cafe with a mug of hot chocolate. I highly recommend this experience for anyone reading Imagine Me Gone.

Homegoing: an impressive debut

20161111_092100What I read

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

What it’s about

Homegoing opens in Ghana in the mid-18th century and tells the stories of two half-sisters, who never meet, and follows the lineage of each sister up to present day. Each chapter serves as a window into the lives of one of the sisters’ descendants.

The book begins with a chapter for each of the sisters. Effia is forced to marry a British slaver, and Esi is sold into slavery. Subsequent chapters alternate between Effia’s and Esi’s family lines and compare and contrast the lives of the characters in Ghana and in America.

Why I picked it up

I suggested this title to my book club, and the group thought it would be a good choice, so we read it. I’m not sure where I first heard of Homegoing. I only know that I read about it online in a few different places before I suggested it to our book club. I liked the premise, of following the lineage of the sisters over time. I happily purchased a copy from my favourite bookstore.

What I liked about it

In general, I liked the structure of this book. I loved the interconnectedness of the stories, and how oftentimes the characters from past chapters would show up as secondary characters in later chapters. I liked following the families through generations, and seeing the connections between characters who never met.

But while I liked the structure, it did leave me with a couple of frustrations. At times it was hard to keep track of how the characters were connected. (A family tree at the front of the book helped with this, and I was flipping back to it quite a bit.) My other frustration was that there were times when I wanted to stay with a character or story a bit more than Gyasi allowed–not because it felt like she had moved on too quickly, but because she did such a good job with them.

The story I was most captivated with while I read the book, and that stands out to me the most now upon reflection, is the story of H., a convict worker in a coal mine in the south. But each chapter is there for a reason, addressing themes of colonization, enslavement, racism and identity, to name a few.

You’ll want to read it if…

You should read Homegoing if you like historical fiction (or history) and/or novels-in-stories. It’s also a good choice if you’re a fan of family sagas.

It’s not really a good choice if you’re looking for something light. I’m not just referring to serious themes that are addressed. There’s some work involved in keeping the characters straight. It’s also maybe not the best choice if you really want to spend time with a single character and watch them develop over time.

Recommended refreshments

Our book club talked about Homegoing with some red wine and cheese on hand. I don’t know if the refreshments had anything to do with how the meeting went, but we did have some interesting conversation. And, really, wine and cheese is often a good idea.

Behold the Dreamers: a fantastic debut novel

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What I read

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

What it’s about

Behold the Dreamers takes place in New York City in 2008. The story opens as Jende Jonga gets a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a Lehman Brothers executive. Jende is thrilled to have landed such a good job after bringing his family over to America from Cameroon. His wife, Neni, has a student visa and is studying to become a pharmacist and is hired for some temporary work by Clark’s wife, Cindy. Jende and Neni work hard to make the life they have dreamed of for themselves and their young son a reality. But when Lehman Brothers goes bankrupt, and the recession begins, things change quickly and dramatically for both the Edwardses and the Jongas.

The story examines themes of race and class, about identity and how much our identity is tied with place. It’s about the quest for home and belonging. It’s also about the struggles families, couples and individuals face behind closed doors.

Why I picked it up

Before purchasing this book, I’d seen the title on a few lists previewing books for the fall. I’ve been reading a lot of Canadian literature lately, and I wanted to read a story from the perspective of a different culture.

What I liked about it

Mbue does a masterful job of creating a sense of empathy for the characters in this book. The pressures Jende feels to provide for his family in New York and for his family back in Cameroon, Neni’s struggle with deciding what is the right thing to do as a mother, Cindy’s inner turmoil–I felt like these were real people and not fictional characters. There is a scene between the Jongas’ son, Liomi, and Neni after Neni has been to a parent-teacher meeting. The description of how Liomi feels as Neni lectures him felt very real, and I wanted to reach out to Liomi to give him a hug.

The major events in this book–the recession, the Lehman Brothers going bankrupt, Obama getting into office–are all from recent history. It was interesting to read about these things with just a few years’ perspective, to be able to remember them from reality and to anticipate what will happen in the novel.

You’ll want to read it if…

This is a good choice for readers who want something more realistic than a feel-good story of people settling in America and living the American dream. It’s also a book for fans of literary fiction: The story focuses on the emotional challenges and intellectual struggles the characters experience.

Recommended refreshments

There were plenty of mentions about African food, such as fried plaintains and puff-puff. I haven’t eaten either, but I’ve since looked up what puff-puff is, and it sounds like a more delicious version of a doughnut. So while I haven’t eaten it myself, I’d say puff-puff seems like the perfect snack to enjoy while reading Behold the Dreamers.