Two Summer Titles Tell Explosive, Expansive Family Stories


It’s a big summer for multigenerational literary sagas. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, which follows the sons and daughters of two Ghanaian half-sisters named Effia and Esi over a 250-year period, was published in June to rumors of a seven-figure advance and significant acclaim from major figures like Ta-Nehisi Coates. Now Kathleen Donohoe’s forthcoming Ashes of Fiery Weather tells the stories of six generations of an extended Irish-American firefighter family via the New York City disasters they lived through: the 1899 Windsor Hotel fire, the East River blaze that sank the Slocum in 1904, the airplane collision over Park Slope in 1960, and, finally, 9-11 — the event that inspired Donohoe in the first place.

Donohoe’s and Gyasi’s fictionalized journeys are vastly different. It goes without saying that the life of a woman sold into slavery is worlds apart from that of an Irish family that emigrates under voluntary, if difficult, conditions. Yet the novels make a common point: that there is a great deal of world and family history behind each individual’s actions.

Both begin abroad and end in the United States, and were inspired by their authors’ family histories. Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in the U.S., while Donohoe is an Irish-American Brooklynite whose father and uncles all served in the city’s fire department. The books share a structure (each chapter tells a different character’s story), and central to both are preoccupations with childbearing, motherhood, and the transmission of quirks and curses from one generation to the next.

Donohoe herself is 43, tiny, and a little shy; to borrow a description of one of her protagonists, she “has the map of Ireland all over her face.” Her novel first emerged in embryonic form when she saw the World Trade Center towers fall on TV before her first class at Southampton’s MFA program. “I remember thinking, no one can touch this subject,” Donohoe tells me on a muggy afternoon at Café Regular du Nord in Park Slope. She’s come from her day job in the horticulture department of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. “But at the same time, I had a strong sense that it would eventually happen because it was history, and that I was probably going to write about it, too.”

Donohoe ended up using the attacks as the focal point of her novel, by way of a painstaking process: Working backward from 9-11, she planned her characters’ life events (conception, birth, death) to coincide with historical incidents she found significant or interesting, from the influenza epidemic of the early 1900s to, half a century later, the fight to open the FDNY up to women. “It was very challenging to write something, then find something new and have to go back — there was a butterfly effect,” she recalls. “Just altering someone’s age so they’re around for a certain event means changing the births of all the other characters.”

Ashes begins at a funeral in Brooklyn in 1983, after protagonist Norah O’Reilly’s husband, Sean, dies in a firefighting accident, leaving her with three small kids and a baby on the way. “She would be brave. Not like a fireman, but like a Kennedy,” Norah tells herself at the service. “The Kennedys were always burying each other. They knew how it was done.”

The reference to the Kennedys turns out to represent more than a shared heritage: This is a book that hops from tragedy to tragedy, punctuated mainly by childbirth and trips to Ireland. In subsequent chapters, we learn more about the family’s other women: that Delia, Norah’s mother-in-law, had a love affair with a woman before marrying her husband; that rebellious Eileen, Sean’s adopted sister, becomes a firefighter herself; that Maggie, Norah’s eldest daughter, has a child out of wedlock but opts for an adoption rather than an abortion.

The book has a heft to it — as though it carries the weight of multiple generations of mothers — so I wasn’t surprised to discover Donohoe had completed two other novels, both of them unpublished; wrote the bulk of Ashes while pregnant; worked an administrative job to pay the bills; and finished the novel on her fortieth birthday. It was a grueling process, but the false starts actually made it easier. “When you don’t sell two novels you stop expecting to,” she says. “You think less about people’s reactions and about finding an audience.”

It’s hard to imagine this expansive, accessible book won’t find its audience, especially since it’s coming out on the eve of the fifteenth anniversary of 9-11. The writing is at times beautifully spare, and Donohoe has a knack for capturing heartbreaking moments with a gripping simplicity. Describing the scene after the towers fell, she writes, “There were a lot of men looking for their sons. There were sons looking for their dads. Guys looking for their brothers, brothers-in-law, nephews, and cousins.”

At the same time, the novel’s focus on personal history glosses over some of the more interesting psychological questions the narrative raises: What does it mean to be Irish American? Norah describes feeling like an abandoned foreigner in the U.S. when her husband left her alone at home with their first child, but we hear little more about it. Later, when two contemporary characters visit Ireland, all we get is a vague sense of dislocation amid all the family dynamics.

Gyasi’s Homegoing, while more stylistically adventurous and historically sweeping, similarly struggles when it tackles the question of where the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants fits in to African-American culture. One of the final protagonists Gyasi introduces is a Ghanaian transplant in an American public school. She finds she has more in common with a bookish white military brat who was raised in Germany than with her black classmates, who accuse her of acting too “white.” It’s a bold way to end a narrative that centers on forced, rather than voluntary, migration, and one that draws attention to how people of color of different backgrounds experience race in the U.S. But it’s hastily executed, which results in some unfortunate, if inadvertent, implications. As Isabel Wilkerson wrote in the New York Times, “It is dispiriting to encounter such a worn-out cliché — that African Americans are hostile to reading and education — in a work of such beauty.”

It’s exceedingly difficult to conclude a book that weaves together so many stories without wrapping things up too tidily, and unfortunately, both Donohoe’s and Gyasi’s final chapters fall into that trap. Homegoing ends with Effia’s and Esi’s distant grandchildren converging at an Afro-Caribbean dance party in San Francisco, then traveling together to Ghana. And after Katie, the youngest protagonist in Ashes, meets her biological cousins at a 9-11 memorial, she resolves to find her birth mother. She is, of course, living in Ireland.

Ashes of Fiery Weather
By Kathleen Donohoe
416 pp., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Out August 30

By Yaa Gyasi
320 pp., Knopf