The Second Life of Samuel Tyne
by Esi Edugyan
Suspenseful and atmospheric, this extraordinary novel portrays both the hardship and grace in the life of a man struggling to realize his destiny.
When Samuel Tyne emigrated from the Gold Coast (now Ghana) in 1955, he was determined to accomplish great things. He excelled at Oxford and then came to Canada with the uncle who raised him, leaving the traditions and hard life of his homeland behind. Here, in this nation of immigrants, Samuel would surely be free to follow his destined path to success.
That new beginning didn’t live up to Samuel’s expectations. As the novel opens fifteen years later, he is working as an economic forecaster for the government in Calgary. It’s a stiflingly bureaucratic, dead-end job, where petty managerial types and lifeless co-workers make Samuel’s days almost unbearable.
Everything changes for Samuel when he finds out that his Uncle Jacob has died. Samuel and his uncle had grown apart. They had not spoken for a number of years, though Jacob had raised Samuel and, in a way, sacrificed himself for Samuel’s future. Jacob’s death weighs heavily on Samuel, yet his reaction seems more about having “a singular chance to get all his sadness out” than about familial love. Samuel is jolted out of his sadness and his workaday world when he receives a call telling him he has inherited Jacob’s old mansion in the small town of Aster, Alberta. The town, originally settled by freed slaves from Oklahoma, sounds to Samuel like the perfect place to start a new life, one that would allow him to live up to his potential, and he decides to exchange the drudgery of the city for the simplicity of small-town existence. When Samuel leaves his office for good after yet another minor humiliation, we cheer his resolve and look forward to what the coming days will bring.
Samuel believes that he is setting on a path to fulfill his personal expectations, but we begin to see the signs of what one reviewer has called Samuel’s “pathological temerity.” He doesn’t tell his family what has happened: not that he’s inherited the house, or that he plans to move there or even that he’s quit his job. Instead, he spends his days tinkering in the shed, emerging at just the right time to make it seem like he’s coming home from work. The truth comes out only when one of his daughters discovers his secret. His deception points to a paralyzing inability to communicate with others and suggests that this new beginning may be as fruitless as the last.
Maud and the twins, Chloe and Yvette, resist the move to Aster, but are helpless in the face of Samuel’s conviction that this is the right thing to do. And when they arrive, their new home — a gloomy, worn-down remnant of days long past — doesn’t exactly fill them with hope. But the seeds of renewal have been sown, the move has been made and they hesitantly take up their new lives. At first, the Tynes seem to be settling in — they meet some of their neighbours, Samuel sets up his own electronics shop, Maud begins to fix up the house and the twins are curious enough to at least begin exploring their new home. However, the idealized Aster of Samuel’s imagination proves to be as false as his family’s veneer of acceptance, and a dark undercurrent of small-mindedness, racism and violence soon turns on the town’s newest residents. When mysterious fires begin to destroy local buildings, and the bizarre yet brilliant twins retreat into their own dark world, Samuel’s fabled second chance slips slowly out of his grasp.
The Second Life of Samuel Tyne is a harrowing and beautifully written work of fiction, one that shows us how fragile our dreams can be in the face of the relentless march of time. Esi Edugyan’s evocative writing and pitch-perfect ability to get into the minds of her characters confirm that this book heralds the arrival of a major new novelist.