Disclaimer: An advance reading copy of The Brightest Sun by Adrienne Benson was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions presented in the review are my own.
The Brightest Sun by Adrienne Benson. Harlequin Publishing, Park Row Books.
Genre: General Fiction, Women’s Fiction
Publishing Date: March 20, 2018
My rating: 3/5
Benson undertakes a large project writing The Brightest Sun. The story opens with Leona, an anthropologist studying the Maasai people of Kenya, giving birth to a daughter she never planned for, Adia. Early on we meet John, a British-Kenyan, who weaves in and out of the action-packed, plot-based novel. John, we quickly learn, wants to be a part of Adia’s life because his own family life was never what he had hoped for. John, like every other character in this novel, is deeply affected by his upbringing and family life. Then we meet Simi: a Maasai woman who becomes Leona’s closest friend, their bond almost forced as Simi is the only Maasai fluent in English. Although Simi did not complete her formal education, she has high hopes that all her children, daughters included, will go to school and complete theirs. Later we meet Jane, whose family life has also had a deep impact on her adult life. Jane moves from the U.S. to Kenya to begin a career in elephant conservation. In Kenya she meets Paul and they later have a child together, named Grace. Eventually, the lives of these five separate women become woven together and each woman learns to overcome her past through the opportunities available in her present.
At its core this a novel about coming to terms with one’s past. To tell this story, the lives of five women are weaved together to show how each possesses unique individual experiences that she must overcome. Benson has tried, and generally succeeded, in developing many characters and many narratives. Her ability to intertwine the story of multiple women, mostly through chance encounters, is done with skill and eloquence. Her ability, also, to explain how each woman’s unique childhood experiences continue to shine through in her adult choices, is her best attribute as an author. The balance between dialogue, plot, and story was also maintained seamlessly throughout the novel.
While Benson generally succeeded in balancing the intricacies of her novel, there is too much going on. I’m not saying there can be too many protagonists in a novel; one need only point to any Tolstoy novel or Jaffe’s The Road Taken as proof that authors can write artfully about five or more protagonists. What I am saying is that writing about more that three protagonists is difficult and not everyone succeeds in doing so. Benson is one of those authors who hasn’t fully succeeded in doing so. As the novel ended I had too many questions about what happened to everyone. How did Jane’s marriage turn out? What about John and Leona? Where does Adia eventually call home? Although Benson answers most, if not all, the questions of why each woman is the way she is, at times these answers felt superficial, that they weren’t explained as fully as they could’ve been.
Benson’s storytelling ability is reflective of her varied travel experiences. As a US Aid worker’s daughter, Benson grew up in Zambia, Cote d’Ivore, Liberia, and Kenya which have deeply imbued her memory with the sights, scents, and cultural experiences each country has to offer. When she writes of the unique cultural experience of moving from an African country to America, she writes from a personal place having undergone the experience herself. Thus, each character she creates and develops in this novel holds a piece of her own experiences.
Despite the stories Benson articulates, she doesn’t manage to balance her complicated characters and their complicated experiences enough. By the end, she hasn’t answered the numerous questions she’s raised. I left the novel with too many unanswered questions both about the futures and the pasts of her characters. Although I would recommend this novel to individuals interested in Africa-focused fiction or women’s fiction, the ending was not enough.
For anyone who has made the vast geographic and cultural crossing from Asia or Africa to North America, I would love to hear your personal experiences. My family moved from India to Canada in 1997, but I was only three at the time and consider myself wholly Canadian. My sister, who was eleven had a vastly different acclimatization experience than I did, and I would love to hear other stories of acclimatizing to such different places. For anyone who has made a similar move, or who’s interested in the intricacies of such moves, I would definitely suggest reading The Brightest Sun, because at its essence it’s a story about coming to terms with your past and your present.