Book Review: THERE YOUR HEART LIES by Mary Gordon

Mary Gordon’s wrenching novel of the Spanish Civil War and family secrets that ripple throughout generations is deceptive: each time you expect to settle into one kind of story, whether one of the horrors of war or a more intimate family epic, you are pulled to another. Thankfully, Gordon threads this needle perfectly. There Your Heart Lies is a deeply moral novel that never moralizes; it’s a profound novel absent of profundities; it’s a novel as lovely as it is piercing, and not to be missed.

Read my full review below.


9780307907943

There Your Heart Lies by Mary Gordon

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  • publisher: Pantheon Books (imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: May 9, 2017
  • isbn: 978-0-307-90794-3
  • length: 336 pages

When this book appeared in my Friday Bookbag over a month ago, I wrote about how off-put I was by the book’s “Millennial vs. Greatest Generation” jacket copy. The novel follows Marian Taylor, privileged daughter of an Irish Catholic family, who seeks to break her family’s cycle of cruelty by disowning herself and fleeing to 1937 Spain to aid in the effort to quell Franco’s (ultimately successful) fascist rebellion. The novel also jumps 70 years ahead to follow Marian’s granddaughter, Amelia, who knows nothing of this history when she moves in to take care of a dying Marian.

To hear the jacket copy tell it, you’d think this was a novel about Marian schooling Amelia about what real problems are like, but thankfully, Gordon’s moral compass is much subtler and truer than that. At the center of There Your Heart Lies are questions of what it means to be a good person and of what it means to renounce privilege–and of whether the latter is ever possible at all.

Despite my generational trepidations, I picked up this novel because of my own interest in the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s subsequent dictatorship, both rapidly forgotten in the chaos of World War II and in the United States’ own anti-communist fervor. (The Republican government overthrown by Franco was left-wing, socialist if not outright communist.) I was not disappointed by Gordon’s treatment of the material, and can say without a shadow of doubt that There Your Heart Lies is one of the finest historical novels I have ever read, especially in its weaving-in with the present day.

Perhaps the most fascinating element of the novel, particularly in our current political climate, is its refusal to cave to the sort of moral relativism that forgives homophobia, racism, fascism, and other evils by claiming its perpetrators were products of their time who couldn’t possibly have known better. Gordon sharply rebukes this by imbuing Marian and Amelia with an admirable moral fiber independent of their eras.

The tension in the novel doesn’t come from the reader wondering whether or not Amelia and especially Marian will do the right thing–we know they will–but rather from how they will do good works, how they will prioritize the good that must be done, and how they will survive the toll that being a good person in a corrupt world takes.

If that makes the novel sound unbearably moralistic, I can promise it’s not. The effect is more like complex optimism: we see the horrors of the Spanish Civil War through Marian’s eyes, and then Spain’s more peaceful present through Amelia. We see terrible abuses committed in the name of Catholicism, but also the fragile hope present in Catholic rituals. We see Marian’s gay brother go through painful shock treatments that culminate in his suicide (the catalyst for Marian’s rebellion), but we also see the tender queer love between Marian’s best friends in the modern day, a lesbian couple who fled Germany during the Holocaust.

It has been a long time since I’ve read a novel as ambitious as this one–one that asks ambitious questions, plays within an ambitious setting full of rich historical detail, and juggles two ambitiously good characters that are still, somehow, flawed and not saints.

Wise, then, that Gordon doesn’t attempt heroic feats of language, although the writing is beautiful. Her prose is relatively simple, but the story she tells is not. I turned the final page feeling as hopeful as I felt sad. Sad that we have still not learned the lessons of the past; hopeful that we will edge ever closer, day by day, to justice. 5/5 stars.


My copy of There Your Heart Lies came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Review: HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi

Monday Reviews

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (imprint of Penguin Random House)

publication date: June 7, 2016

9781101947135Some books are so flawless they skate through my memory, leaving a pleasant aura in their wake but not much else. Homegoing is not one of those books: it’s flawed, frightening, ambitious, and hopeful, and best of all, it sticks with you.

Since I first picked up Homegoing two weeks ago, I have not gone a day without thinking about it, struggling with it, and marveling at it. Yaa Gyasi has achieved something remarkable here, and this book is everything I want literary fiction to be.

The story spans over 300 years, exploring the lives and bloodlines of two half-sisters–each unaware of the other’s existence–born near the Gold Coast. One sister achieves a life of relative privilege as the “wife” (read: glorified mistress) of a British slave trader, while the other is sold into slavery in the fledgling United States. Evil and suffering taint both branches of the family, including those left in Ghana, who must slowly reckon with their complacency and cooperation in the transatlantic slave trade.

The novel sags in the middle, especially because of its unusual structure: each chapter is told from the perspective of one member of one generation (alternating between branches of the family), and just as you expect to settle into one story, you are jolted to the next. Some of these stories are more riveting than others: standout chapters belong to Quey Collins, a half-British, half-Fante boy forced to choose between British colonial expectations and happiness; Kojo Freeman, a free black man in the 1850s whose life is upended by the Fugitive Slave Act; Willie Black, a gifted singer who trades the Jim Crow South for the subtler segregation of New York City in the early 1900s; and Marjorie Agyekum, who struggles with her Ghanaian-American identity, unable to assimilate into whiteness but equally barred from assimilating into American blackness.

Between these standout chapters, I occasionally found myself bored, and I was also sometimes irritated by the borderline deus ex machina resolutions of certain character arcs. But these are minor quibbles compared with the enormous payoff of Gyasi’s risk-taking: a novel that reckons with the cost of slavery to both sides of the Atlantic.

Gyasi pulls off this historical epic because she grounds it intimately in present-day discussions of race. Homegoing clarifies the connection between the enslavement, torture, and rape of black people 300 years ago and today’s racism, mass incarceration, and police brutality; it also illuminates the less-considered legacy of those who cooperated with the British and were both rewarded and condemned as a result.

All that, and it’s still a damn good story–Homegoing is not Metamucil for guilty (white) readers, but rather a literary banquet as complex as the African diaspora itself.

Through fiction, Gyasi achieves something history textbooks rarely do: she finds the lives in our facts and the questions in our answers. She finds nuance in the blunt horrors of American racism and absolution in the lives of modern-day Ghanaians. Homegoing is a debut of the highest order, and Gyasi is a writer to watch. 4/5 stars.

My copy of Homegoing came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.