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The Second Life of Samuel Tyne

by Esi Edugyan

Samuel Tyne is one of the oddest protagonists you will find in a Canadian novel of this or any other publishing season. A native of Africa’s Gold Coast (which we now call Ghana, though he never does), Samuel was a brilliant student who made it to Oxford on scholarship and then followed his patron Uncle Jacob to Calgary. He dresses in monstrous suits and a “mournful pre-war bowler,” and he can’t suppress an effeminate giggle when he’s nervous, which is most of the time. He works for the Canadian government as an economic forecaster, he marries a girl from Gold Coast named Maud, and they produce twin daughters.

He may look as if he’s living the Canadian dream, but Samuel Tyne hates his life. The civil service has become the graveyard of hope. He feels distanced from his daughters. As for his marriage, it’s the usual catastrophe, with the added fillip that “across the sea, their tribes had been deeply scornful of each other for centuries.” When word comes in the spring of 1968 that Uncle Jacob has died and left his nephew his house, Samuel sees a chance for a second life.

Jacob’s house is not in Calgary, but in a village called Aster on the Athabasca River. Aster was founded as an entirely black village in the early 1900s, its population made up of families of freed slaves who had migrated north from Oklahoma. (The real name of this village is Amber Valley, about 90 miles northwest of Edmonton.)

The hostile racial environment that surrounded blacks in Alberta at that time made them draw into a tight-knit community for support. By 1945 many blacks had left for the army or the city, to be replaced by whites. Still, Samuel hopes to put down roots in a place that might resonate more with him than a wall of Calgary skyscrapers.

The trouble is, Samuel keeps forgetting he’s part of a family unit. He quits his job, moves the family, and then starts an appliance-repair business in Aster without informing – let alone consulting – his increasingly appalled wife. Although his high-handedness gives him the occasional twinge of guilt, by the end of his life he explains his decision to himself with no trouble: “The older men get, the harder they try to guard against unwanted demands on a life made suddenly precious by impending mortality.” In other words, male menopause, although in Samuel’s version the clichéd sexual component is
largely absent. He’d just rather be soldering.

While Samuel himself shares a kinship with some of Rohinton Mistry’s thoughtful, befuddled heroes, other parts of this novel range from broad satire to lurid melodrama. Edugyan’s take on rural white Alberta is vicious and hilarious and pitch-perfect. When the self-appointed Welcome Wagon couple appear at Samuel’s door with a dessert torte wrapped in tinfoil, their first words – “Call the Guinness Book, we made it here in less than a month” – are spot on. Her portrait of what urban Canadians might call the Alliance Albertan is so shrewd that it lends legitimacy to her portrayal of Samuel and Maud, whose behaviour and rhetoric (they always seem to be talking to each other in proverbs) may seem awkward and hard to grasp at first. Thus are the horizons of CanLit extended.

There’s a great deal of plot to this novel, much of it involving Samuel and Maud’s strange and alarming daughters, Yvette and Chloe, who have “the sleek, serious faces of greyhounds” and who communicate with only each other. They may, or may not, be responsible for an escalating series of accidents in Aster, and their parents’ unwillingness to face the truth about the girls is both exasperating and quite believable. Ultimately, though, the girls’ madness is not a very compelling fictional device. If one accepts that novels are largely about what people do and why they do it, then removing the “why” through mental deficiency leaves a hollow structure.

There are also illogicalities in the novel’s details. Why is an asthmatic sleeping with a down pillow? (Even way back in 1968 they had foam, as I recall.) Why do 13-year-olds need to be lifted into the back of a pick-up truck? And there are weary repetitions. “A chin-high sea of grass” on the first page becomes “a field of chin-high grass” three pages later. A fat woman makes her chair creak every single time she sits down in this book. Eduygan must tell us at least 50 times through the book about Samuel’s “sadness” – a classic case of too much telling and not enough showing.

This is not the first new fiction title to suffer in this fashion. There appears to be a sense in Canadian fiction publishing right now that the job entails locating, signing, and then marketing the hot new writers. The patience and care needed to develop and edit them seems to be going by the boards.


Reviewer: Bronwyn Drainie

Publisher: Knopf Canada


Price: $34.95

Page Count: 336 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-676-97630-1

Released: Feb.

Issue Date: 2004-2

Categories: Fiction: Novels

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