Authors: Esi Edugyan
The Second Life of Samuel Tyne
“[A] daring, original work … In this remarkably composed novel, Esi Edugyan has conjured up a broth of magic and reality that crosses cultural boundaries. Some things in our experience—even the petty betrayals and the few exalted moments—are a mystery, the novel suggests. We go on, and there is no logical explanation for the turning of the seasons. At the end of his second life, that’s what the look on Samuel Tyne’s face seems to say.” —
The Vancouver Sun
“Prepare to meet Maud and Samuel Tyne, two of the most complex, contradictory, frustrating, appealing and heart-breaking characters you’re likely to find between covers. Prepare to worry about them, cheer for them, defend them, even to love them—while wanting to knock their heads together or give them a good shake. This husband and wife are so real you think you ought to get to Alberta fast and try to save them from themselves. But first you’d have to save them from their terrifying daughters.” —Jack Hodgins
“Powerfully written … It’s not surprising her stories should appeal to Joyce Carol Oates, because there is a similar feel to their work. Both drag the reader along on journeys they might not take alone, but won’t forget.” —
The Hamilton Spectator
“Psychotic twins, small-town racism and Samuel’s struggle for identity [comprise] … a truly interesting tale.… To be delved into and pondered.” —
“Edugyan is excellent on small-town life, showing the backbiting and the charm woven down deep. And there’s some superb cultural history, too, as she plows into Tyne’s African past and the pioneering black communities on Alberta’s frontier. Her prose style is poised and deeply serious, and it is perfectly suited to a story filled, as this is, with rich layers of plot.… It is an unsentimental portrait, and Edugyan confronts this man’s destiny with a kind of clarity that he himself only sees in spurts.” —
“Edugyan describes the complexities of family life in absorbing detail.… The cadenced sentences demand attention, drawing the reader deep into the resentment and deterioration of the family.… Edugyan has a strong ability to conjure characters and a sense of place and time. She writes with quiet compassion about Aster’s black population and their struggles through small-town stereotypes and expectations.” —
Winnipeg Free Press
“A work that balances the brilliance and audacity of youthful enthusiasm with sage awareness. It’s an impressive debut.… Edugyan does a fine job building the tension, eliciting a gothic menace that suffuses even the most banal of descriptions or conversations.…
The Second Life of Samuel Tyne
stands as a beautifully written novel of mounting isolation, violence and loss, the legacy of family and of culture, of wisdom hard-won and tragic. It’s hard to believe it’s a first novel.” —
“Every now and again a voice emerges from the chatter and hype, an old familiar voice from a young hand, a voice that has you nodding with appreciation, marvelling at the maturity of craft and assurance. It is the kind of talent that makes you burn with envy.” —
Literary Review of Canada
For my mother
he house had always had a famished look to it. Even now when Samuel closed his eyes he could see it leaning, rickety and rain-worn, groaning in the wind. For though he’d never once visited it, he believed that strange old mansion must somehow resemble his uncle in its thinness, its severity, its cheerless decay. The house sat on the outskirts of Aster, a town noted for the old-fashioned fellowship between its men. Driving through, one might see a solemn group, patient and thoughtful, sharing a complicit cigarette as the sun set behind the houses. And for a man like Samuel, whose life lacked intimacy, the town seemed the return to the honest era he longed for. But he knew Maud would never move there, and the twins, for the sake of siding with her, would object in their quiet way.
News of the house had arrived in that spring of 1968, an age characterized by its atrocities: the surge of anti-Semitism throughout Poland; the black students killed in South Carolina at a still-segregated bowling alley; the slaughter of Vietnam. It was also an age of assassinations: that year witnessed the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and those of less public men who gave their lives for ideas, or for causes, or for no good reason at all. But in Calgary, Alberta, in the far remove of the civil service, Samuel Tyne, a naturally apolitical man, worried only over his private crises. For his world held no future but quiet workdays, no past beyond youth and family life.
Sitting in the darkened shed in his backyard, Samuel examined the broken objects around him. Smoke from the solder filled his nose, his mouth tasting uncomfortably of blood. Snuffing the rod on a scorched pink sponge, he abandoned the antique clock and stood at the dusty window. He dreaded telling Maud about inheriting his uncle’s house. She was prone to overreacting. Their marriage, plagued by the usual upsets of all conjugal life, had added tensions, for across the sea, their tribes had been deeply scornful of each other for centuries.
Jacob’s death had been the first shock, but Samuel deliberated longer over the second: his unexpected inheritance. The first call had come days ago, after dinner, during Samuel and Maud’s only shared hour of the day. Already weary of each other’s company, they settled down on the living room couch with the resignation of people fated to die together. Samuel took up his favourite oak rocker, Maud the beige shag chair, and the clicking of her knitting needles filled the room.
“They’ve always been withdrawn,” she complained. “But this is madness. They won’t even talk to me. Their world begins and ends with each other, without a care for anyone else.”
Samuel sighed, scrutinizing his wife. She was thin as an iron filing, with a face straight out of a daguerreotype, an antiquated beauty inherited from her father. Her church friends so indulged her worries that Samuel, too, found he had to stomach her complaints good-naturedly. She took everything personally.
“Perhaps they did not hear you,” he said.
Maud continued to knit in silence, thinking, One does not ask a fool the way to Accra when one has a map in her pocket. The twins really had changed. Only Yvette spoke, and she wasted few words. Maud couldn’t understand it. As babies they’d been so different she’d corrected the doctor’s proclamation that they were identical. Now they’d grown so similar she couldn’t always say with great authority who was who. But she suspected it was her own fault. The thought of being responsible unsteadied her hands, and the sound of her nervously working needles began to irritate Samuel.
He’d been lost in his own meditations, contemplating what to fix next so that he would not have to think of his stifling job. Officially, Samuel was a government-employed economic forecaster, but when asked lately how he made his living, he lacked the passion to explain. The civil service now seemed an arena for men who woke to find their hopes burnt out. Every day, he too grew disillusioned. Even his children had become a distant noise. Samuel was the oldest forty in the world.
Yet fear of quitting his job did not unnerve him—it seemed only practical that he should fear it. What humiliated him was that he failed to quit because he dreaded his wife’s wrath.
Agitated, he’d begun to run through ways of asking Maud to stop knitting so loudly when the phone rang. People rarely called the house, so Samuel and Maud paused for a moment in their chairs. Finally, Maud dropped her lapful of yarn to the carpet, saying, “I’ll get it, just like everything else in this house.”
Samuel stared at the empty armchair. From the kitchen her voice droned on; he could pick out only the higher words. But they were enough. His chair began to rock, unsummoned, in what seemed like a human, futile move to pacify him. His childhood came back to him, a bitter string of incidents more felt than remembered. And the memories seemed full of such delicate meaning that he might have been experiencing his own death. When he opened his eyes, his wife stood before him, uncomfortable.
“You’ve heard then,” she said in a soft voice.
“Uncle Jacob,” he said. He stilled his chair.
“It took this long for them to find our number. I guess he didn’t mention he had family.” The spite in her comment sounded crass even to Maud. She went quietly back to her chair. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“When did he die?”
“Night before last. That’s what they think, anyway. He was very stubborn about being left alone in that old house. A neighbour he’d been friendly with went to call on him for something, and the front door was open. Just like that. They found him collapsed in a chair. Said he couldn’t have been gone more than an hour before they found him. It was God’s grace, too, because the neighbour had only gone to say goodbye before leaving town for a week, and no one else called on Jacob much.”
Samuel nodded. Jacob had been a private man. So private that he’d cut from his life the man he’d raised as his own son. Samuel looked at Maud’s hands, a dark knot on her lap.
“Good night,” he said.
Maud rose with deliberate slowness, giving him time to change his mind, to reach out to her. She stood quite uselessly in the doorway; then after a moment the hall lights went out and he heard her ascend the stairs.
At the brief funeral held in Calgary—a mock ceremony, for the body wasn’t present—Samuel wore the only gift his uncle had ever sent him: an elephantine suit that sulked off his joints and seemed to be doing the grieving for him. Samuel had eschewed a church ceremony, opting instead for a secular gathering in which his friend Halldór Bjornson, a retired speech-writer, mumbled a few lofty clichés over the already-covered grave. Samuel had put his full faith in Jacob’s neighbour’s judgment, choosing not to identify the body, and now he wondered if he’d done the wise thing. Maud saw his decision as an attempt to shield off more grief, but Samuel himself was less sure.
In truth, he was a man incapable of coping with sadness. Since the day Jacob had abandoned him for Aster, Samuel had unconsciously struggled to become more like his uncle. He thought often of Jacob’s face, which despite a life of labour, or perhaps because of it, had the craggy, aristocratic look of a philosopher’s. Jacob’s speech had even sounded philosophical; praised for his practical wisdom, he’d had a hard time believing he wasn’t always right. But Samuel only succeeded in imitating Jacob Tyne’s stubbornness, which went no deeper than Samuel’s face: he wore a look of dog’s mourning with the graveness of a sage, without irony, like an amateur stage actor.
His open melancholy aggravated his boss, for it made Samuel hard to approach. Just a glance into Samuel’s cubicle gave his co-workers much to gloat about. It seemed a wonder he was such an exacting employee, with the swift but pitiful stride that brought him, disillusioned, to the threshold of every meeting. Yet he was so indispensable in that ministry that his co-workers regretted every slur they flung at him, lest the slights drive him to suicide. For not only would the department collapse without his doting, steady logic to balance it, but it seemed at times that the entire Canadian economy depended on the reluctant, soft-wristed scribbling he did in his green ledger.
There Samuel sat each day, painfully tallying his data, his pencil poised like a scalpel in his hand, frowning at the gruesome but inevitable task ahead of him. Dwarfed by a monstrous blue suit, Samuel would finger the mournful, pre-war bowler that never left his head. And it was such an earnest sight, such an intimate window into a man whose nature seemed to be all windows—people wondered if he actually had a
self—that he might have been the only man in the world to claim vulnerability as his greatest asset.
The day after the funeral, Samuel returned to work to find a note from his bosses on his desk:
Come See Us
What could they have to reprimand him for? He was a fast and diligent worker, with enough gumption to use a little imaginative reasoning when some economic nuisance called for it. He was punctual and tidy, not overly familiar with his co-workers; quite simply, the best employee they had. Rather than indignation, though, Samuel only felt fear. To buy himself time, he crumpled a few clean papers from his ledger, and walked the narrow aisles between cubicles to throw them in the hallway garbage bin.
He returned to find both bosses, Dombey and Son, as he’d nicknamed them, at his desk. Dombey’s German sense of humour often failed to translate, at least to Samuel, who always overdid his laugh to mask confusion. Son, whose current prestige was pure nepotism, looked at Samuel with the coldness that cloaked all of his dealings, as if he knew he was inept and needed to compensate.
“Tyne,” said Dombey, “we need to talk about the Olds account.”
Samuel pinched the brim of his hat with his thumbs. “Ah, yes. Sorry, yes. I think, sir, I handed that in before I took day leave for my uncle’s funeral.”
“It contains a dreadful error,” said Son, blinking violenty behind his glasses. He jerked the report at Samuel.
There is was, plain as day, on page six. A miscalculation Samuel must have made while daydreaming about Jacob’s death and the house. He stood there, hat in hand, aghast.
“We realize,” continued Son, “that the job sometimes gets stressful. That, per se, there are times when one cannot always be as on-the-ball as is required. But this defies all. Not only is it not up to standard, it’s downright misleading.”
That was the way Son spoke, as though he hadn’t mastered the bureaucratic language, wielding phrases such as “per se” and “not up to standard” like the residue of some management handbook. Even Dombey seemed perplexed by this at times.
The muscle in Samuel’s cheek trembled. He nodded.
“We understand you’ve just suffered a big loss, Samuel,” said Dombey, “but as you know this is a federal workplace. What would happen, say, if you made this kind of error daily? Now, we’re certainly not saying you do. But what would happen? I’ll tell you what would happen. You’d have ladies collapsing in ten-hour lines just to get a loaf of bread to feed their families. You’d have children skipping school because there aren’t enough clothes to go around. Babies dying without milk. Old folks crumbling in their rockers. It’d be pandemonium with a capital P—depression. We
the economy. We answer to the prime minister. There
no room for error here.” Dombey scratched his head and looked wistful. “Oh, for chrissakes, don’t look so
Again, Samuel nodded.
Son, fearing his role in the reprimand unnecessary, added, “We are, of course, deeply sorry for your loss, but you must remember our country is in your hands.”
Dombey frowned at Son, and the two men walked off. When they left, Samuel heard through the divider the rude laughter of Sally Mather. His face burning, he sat at his desk, and picking up his green ledger, tried to make up for ten minutes of lost time.
He didn’t allow himself to think about the incident until lunch. He tried to suppress his rage by reasoning that, though he hadn’t made a single mistake in his entire fifteen-year career, this one was so severe that it merited rebuke.
And he was able again to forget his indignation until nighttime, when he retired to his work shed after the obligatory hour of his wife’s silent company. His shed was a refuge, a hut where life couldn’t find him. A place where only Samuel’s verdict mattered, and the only place it
matter. Into the early hours he’d sit and tinker with the guts of a stubborn radio, or a futile clock, or some negligent object borrowed from Ella Bjornson without Maud’s knowing it. Only after months of stealthy repairs did she start to wise up to his secrets, berating the flier boy for bringing
Northern Electronics Monthly
. How little credit she gave him. Never once did his stash of
National Radio Electronics
, prudently kept at work, occur to her, or the digital electronics certificate he was earning, his lessons also left at the office.
Initially, he’d had no noble ambitions for this new knowledge, but today’s run-in with his bosses made him ache for a vocation, not a mere job. He sat on the dusty workbench, the imprint in his seat betraying his dedication. Just when thoughts of quitting his job had grown ominous, he forced himself to forget them. This was how Samuel dealt with things—by ignoring them. The tactic had given him forty sweet years, and he was convinced that if every man had such strength of will, there would be decidedly fewer wars.
In forty years there was a good deal of life to forget. He’d been born the privileged and only son of Francis Tyne, an august cocoa farmer in Gold Coast, whose sudden death at the playboy age of thirty-six had devastated the family fortune. Faced with having to quit school to keep his family from poverty, Samuel was saved by his estranged uncle Jacob, who worked the harvests while Samuel completed his schooling. Family legend had it that Jacob, whose unparalleled erudition had been a rumour of Samuel’s childhood, had betrayed Francis in their youth. When, years later, Samuel was bold enough to go to the source, the old patriarch only said, “Rather than gouge old wounds, one’s energy is better spent making amends.”