Monday, February 10, 2020
Read by Robin Miles
Published December 2019 by HarperCollins US
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library
Structured as a triptych, Africaville chronicles the lives of three generations of the Sebolt family—Kath Ella, her son Omar/Etienne, and her grandson Warner—whose lives unfold against the tumultuous events of the twentieth century from the Great Depression of the 1930s, through the social protests of the 1960s to the economic upheavals in the 1980s.
A century earlier, Kath Ella’s ancestors established a new home in Nova Scotia. Like her ancestors, Kath Ella’s life is shaped by hardship—she struggles to conceive and to provide for her family during the long, bitter Canadian winters. She must also contend with the locals’ lingering suspicions about the dark-skinned “outsiders” who live in their midst.
Kath Ella’s fierce love for her son, Omar, cannot help her overcome the racial prejudices that linger in this remote, tight-knit place. As he grows up, the rebellious Omar refutes the past and decides to break from the family, threatening to upend all that Kath Ella and her people have tried to build. Over the decades, each successive generation drifts further from Africaville, yet they take a piece of this indelible place with them as they make their way to Montreal, Vermont, and beyond, to the deep South of America.
As it explores notions of identity, passing, cross-racial relationships, the importance of place, and the meaning of home, Africaville tells the larger story of the black experience in parts of Canada and the United States.
Africaville is one of those books from which I wanted both more and less. More depths to the characters, fewer side trips that only served to distract. More focus on the story in Canada, less time spent on a story line that seemed improbable.
I'm not opposed to sweeping family sagas (c'mon, one of my first favorite books was Collen McCullough's The Thorn Birds) but they have to have a focal point and there has to be a natural progression from one generation to the next. In Africaville, it felt more like Colville had things he wanted to say, research that he wanted to work into his novel and it rushed his story and overtook his characters. The story of the freed Caribbean slaves who settled in Nova Scotia is an interesting, little-known bit of history and I wish Colvin would have stepped further back to that time to start his story instead of trying to work it in here and there. Instead he also wants to work in the New Confederates of the American South, which has him, throughout the book, referring to a character who will come into play much later in the book.
There's a lot to recommend Colvin as a writer. He certainly hits on some interesting parts of history that I've not read about before and I appreciated that he wanted to explore that idea of interracial relationships and what happens to the children of those relationships as they try to find their place. If he had kept his focus more on the family and delved deeper into the characters that made up the family (we never do learn why Omar/Etienne is so rebellious; we are left to guess). It's an ambitious debut and I hope Colvin will continue to look for the new stories to tell.