The House at Sugar Beach – by Helene Cooper

house at sugar beach.jpgBefore reading this book, I knew next to nothing about Liberia. Just a vague sense that its recent history had been violent, and the recollection that it was the African country where Lincoln had wanted to relocate the freed slaves after the Civil War. I had no idea that its history was so tied to America — that a group of freed slaves left the coast of the United States in the 1820s and crossed the Atlantic to establish a colony on these West African shores. By the 1970s (when the story in this book begins), the descendants of these Americans had formed their own lighter skinned upper class, arrogantly distinct from the descendants of the original inhabitants of Liberia.

The first half of this memoir could be mistaken for a children’s book. It follows the author as a child, born into a luxurious upper class lifestyle, unaware of the distant rumblings of social unrest around her. When the storm of unrest breaks, however, the story is anything but children’s literature. The horrors of war invade the innocence of Helene’s childhood — executions, rape, and bands of roving soldiers become the background against which she lives.

I had the sense while reading this book that writing it was a journey of catharsis for the author — of turning to face a past that she’s hidden from. It’s a fascinating past, full of growth and irony. But I had a vague sense that she was holding something back. I kept thinking of books like The Last Brother or Half a Yellow Sun — powerful novels, weighty with emotional depth in their exploration of themes such as war and human suffering. Perhaps it’s unfair of me to compare memoir to fiction. But while I found this book to be an engaging read, I kept waiting for something more.

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