Something draws me to themes of tragedy and darkness in my choice of reading. The Attic Child might very well be one of the darker — if not darkest — novels I’ve read this year. This is a novel about strength, resilience shaped by necessity of survival and trauma; but it is not only the characters who must cultivate and wield this kind of strength, the novel requires the reader to be brave and hardy too. The reader must be to bear the suffering of reading about the suffering of others.
The pain is intentional. Jaye’s novel addresses, with unflinching realness, the lived trauma of colonialism by highlighting the literal theft of human beings European colonizers forced People of Color and colonial subjects to endure. The novel forces the reader to see how this history is very much present in our contemporary moment, that it is has caused intergenerational harm beyond measure.
As a historian of decolonization I am grateful for a novel like this — and happy to see that it was distributed on a platform as wide and well known as The Book of The Month Club (which is where I obtained it). We — those who come from parts of Europe’s former empires and those whose ancestors benefited from those empires, that is, everyone — need books like this, stories like this, voices like Jaye’s to declare that the grief and loss and wounds of colonialism are still not healed, closed, “over.”
The novel spans many generations and decades, beginning at the start of the twentieth century with a young boy who lives with his family on the African continent. He becomes the Attic Child, the first of many — children shut away, abused, neglected. He is robbed of his identity and his heritage. The story of a young woman who lives in a time closer to our present intertwines with his. The reader is aware there is a connection between the two, something hidden in the attic and the house in which both of these characters grow up, both of them “attic children.” The mystery the reader will find themselves embroiled in is how they are connected and why.
As the mystery unfolds it also deepens, its roots are long and twisted and dangerous. The mystery exposes the characters to pain and the possibility of new emotional wounds. The threat of scarring is real. But they are both hurtling through history and time and must live their lives. If there is a history lesson here, it is that we cannot escape history or making history, as we do so simply by living.
The novel does not pretend to heal the pain of this history. Reader should not expect to be bandaged or coddled in any way. But the novel does end as a historian might expect, with the lesson that history does not end, it goes on and on and therefore, that is itself a kind of closure. Perhaps, the ending is something more of a suture than a healing.
This is a tough and exacting book to read, but one which will not fail to provoke emotion. This is a significant novel.