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Fiction: Unhappy Families, Unhappy in Their Own Ways

Travis Hunter A Family Sin (One World/Ballantine, 2007)

We are a nation of secrets. We come from far away places, fleeing our past. We come from faraway states in the nation, and faraway states of being. But it is fundamental to the American experience that, every day, just waking up in the same place as always, we can begin anew. It is not always easy, it is not always successful, but it is there: the promise of rebirth.

Karim Spencer is a man with a secret that is tearing his family apart. He’s torn between his duty to his immediate family and guilt. His sister Nadiah, a struggling artist, begins blackmailing him to help her with her out-of-control son. Driven by guilt he takes this teenager into his house. He expects him to behave, while he, Karim, turns to alcohol to deal with his demons. The process of love, of failure, is the undercurrent of a novel deeply felt, emotively delivered by the author.

A Family Sin is about love, loyalty, and sacrifice. Raised by his grandmother in Decatur, Georgia, who “sold liquor and beer out of a back room that was once a sun porch.” Karim explains, “Guns came out, everybody lost. That’s the story of my life.” It is the American dream, as it is told one generation after another. He wanted something more than “living with roaches, being broke and hungry all the time,” more than “Crackheads, hookers, and a bunch of underachievers…”

Hunter’s concerns are rooted in present-day issues that have been backburnered by a nation at war. It is perhaps fitting that a paperback form once reserved for daydreaming, temperance and nationalism is increasingly finding a conscience. A Family Sin is not only about consequences, but hope, sometimes, futile hope. For Hunter, the difficulties of contemporary life make for high drama, and rightly so; Hunter looks to characters who feel ignored, lost, and shows us a reason to pay attention, and a map of the labyrinth.

In addition to Karim, Hunter takes on the mercurial perspective of fifteen year old JaQuan, Karim’s nephew, who struggles with a world of drug dependence and human merchandising. That “No Child Left Behind” has left so many children behind is exemplified by the world of the young man; we have squandered our resources on uranium-laced bullets, at the expense of schoolbooks. But Hunter’s strength is in individuating the generality. It is perhaps no coincidence that Hunter is in high form when relating to the character; Hunter’s personal non-profit work runs parallel.

A Family Sin is a quick, compelling read, and though it’s not heavy, neither is it light reading. Hunter’s characters are rich and well drawn-out; he has a sharp eye for detail. Subplots intertwine nicely. Karim’s sister, Nadiah, is a single mother, raising her son the best way she knows how. “Family should always work together,” says Omar, Karim’s older brother. Hunter’s lens of contemporary storytelling engages challenges felt throughout America, and beyond. Wanting, getting—it is indicative of the redemptive plot—but Hunter is not facile with a world that doesn’t always give people what they want, and sometimes gives them all too much.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2007

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