#tobyreads: Human Connections and Parallel Lives


I’ve had Tiphanie Yanique’s memorably-titled How to Escape from a Leper Colony on my to-read shelf for a while now. I’ve heard good things about Land of Love and Drowning, the novel she has due out later this year, and figured that it might be the right time to check out the collection in question. Spoiler alert: it totally was. Secondary spoiler: season two of #tobyreads is all about me building a time machine to find my younger self and convincing him to actually read this book earlier.

These stories are largely set in the Caribbean. Not entirely, though: one of the collection’s most memorable stories is narrated by a Ghanaian man whose family moves to England in his childhood; its juxtaposition of familial secrets, ambition, and perceptions of duty create an organic, tangled sense of conflict. And the novella “The International Shop of Coffins” tells the story of a series of intersecting lives; in this, as in several stories here, Yanique zeroes in on certain characters’ histories, then shifts her focus and finds the parallels (or not) between two seemingly disparate figures. This particular novella builds and builds; each of its sections would be an astonishingly good story on its own, but the cumulative effect is devastating.

Reading Jason Porter’s Why Are You So Sad?I was reminded more than a little of the recent TV series Review, which also applies scientific methodology to questions of work and family life, with bleakly funny results. Porter’s narrator, Raymond Champs, is overcome by a sense of sadness: not just his own, but the perception that everyone around him is also overwhelmed by it. The tone here isn’t entirely realistic; certain details, like the name of the company for which he works (LokiLoki), are boldly satirical, while other moments contain more overtly realism. As the novel progresses, Raymond issues a survey to his co-workers looking to pinpoint the roots of their sadness; while the results are sometimes comic and sometimes overwhelmingly sad, that sense of a push towards human connection endures. And the way that the questionnaire motif is folded into the structure of the novel itself is a nice touch, and one with a solid payoff.

Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky, the forthcoming novel from David Connerley Nahm, takes its time unfolding. Its central character, Leah, has lived for most of her live in her hometown; she runs a nonprofit and lives what is, by all accounts, a laudable life. The pacing here is unconventional; the narrative jumps around in time, focusing on Leah in the present day; her childhood, as her life with her parents and brother is shattered; and on the intervening years, when a decent act has unpleasant consequences. All of these things unfold slowly, and are interspersed with scenes of daily life in the town: some of minor characters, and some that simply accentuate the sense of place, which is palpable here to an extent far greater than in most novels. In the end, this helps make the novel’s destination, and the moral ambiguity encountered along the way, all the more believable.

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