- Paperback: 354 pages
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster; unknown edition (July 21, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0743266250
- ISBN-13: 978-0743266253
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars See all reviews (203 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #167,635 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood Paperback – July 21, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Journalist Cooper has a compelling story to tell: born into a wealthy, powerful, dynastic Liberian family descended from freed American slaves, she came of age in the 1980s when her homeland slipped into civil war. On Cooper's 14th birthday, her mother gives her a diamond pendant and sends her to school. Cooper is convinced that somehow our world would right itself. That afternoon her uncle Cecil, the minister of foreign affairs, is executed. Cooper combines deeply personal and wide-ranging political strands in her memoir. There's the halcyon early childhood in Africa, a history of the early settlement of Liberia, an account of the violent, troubled years as several regimes are overthrown, and the story of the family's exile to America. A journalist-as-a-young-woman narrative unfolds as Cooper reports the career path that led her from local to national papers in the U.S. The stories themselves are fascinating, but a flatness prevails—perhaps one that mirror's the author's experience. After her uncle's televised execution, Cooper does the same thing I would do for the rest of my life when something bad happens: I focus on something else. I concentrate on minutiae. It's the only way to keep going when the world has ended. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From Bookmarks Magazine
In her warm, conversational tone, Helene Cooper vividly evokes the sights, sounds, and smells of Liberia for readers as she describes the customs, history, and culture of her native land. Indeed, she has a great deal of background information to convey to Western readers unfamiliar with the country, but she folds this material masterfully into the narrative. An accomplished storyteller, Cooper relates the arrogance and excesses of her family during her early years without losing her readers’ sympathy, and she likewise depicts the joys of friendship and the horrors of war without becoming melodramatic or maudlin. Like the best nonfiction—and journalism—Cooper’s gripping coming-of-age story enlightens and inspires, often reading like a novel. In sum, it is a very personal and honest memoir from a gifted writer.
Copyright 2008 Bookmarks Publishing LLC
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Top customer reviews
In the novel, Cooper recounts her childhood and adolescence whilst she provides us with a historical account of the birth of Liberia, which takes place upon the arrival of freed slaves, of African origin, from North America, known in Liberia as “Congos“. Family plays a central role in Helene’s life. Helene is fruit of a marriage between two Congo families: the Dennises and the Coopers. It is her father’s second marriage. The children of his first relationship also live at Sugar Beach.
I enjoyed The House at Sugar Beach. It may be that I’m particularly fond of it because it was the first book I read written by an “African woman”.
Indeed, after reading the novel, I realized that up until then, both while reading and writing, I had always had a white audience on my mind. It wasn’t until I read The Sound and the Fury, that I realised that the protagonists of a work, didn’t necessarily have to be white.
On the other hand, as I have been saying, The House at Sugar Beach, helps us to understand Liberian history much better, leading to a better understanding of how a Liberian, an African, thinks. Also, it proves that Liberia’s history is very cruel. Clearly, the Congos (with the US turning a blind eye) created a failed state designed solely to further their interests, creating millions of ‘citizens’ without any education, future nor soul. Indeed a failed state that was also born through corruption and betrayal (the bribery (extortion?) of King Peter), an inherent practice since then in Liberia which explains a lot about how things are done in this country.
It must also be said that the novel depicts life in Liberia from a bourgeois perspective, as that was Helene’s life, without there being many references, therefore, from the point of view of the middle or lower class. On the other hand, this is a story written in the first person where the aim is finding oneself: Helene needs to return to Liberia to find herself, an impulse that many readers can identify with.
From a technical and structural point of view, Cooper combines the story of her life with the history of Liberia, which seems like a good idea to me. Therefore readers, on the one hand, do not get bored (as it jumps from one story to another) and on the other, it also helps them understand the context better. In turn, the scenes portraying childhood, youth or any other aspect, are very well chosen and are always exposed in a fresh, flowing and dynamic style, not without occasional humour.
As for the “surprises”, something that struck me about this book (a classic among the expat community in Liberia) was the fact that malaria, a typical “paranoia of the Whites” is barely mentioned. I was also surprised by the importance of tribes such as the Deys or Condoes in the birth of Liberia, as they are tribes, which we hear very little about nowadays.
Regarding the novel’s aspects that I didn’t really fully enjoy, I must say that perhaps the narrative begins with the wrong phrase when it says that, “this story is about rogues.” It appears that Cooper proposes a path that is then not consistently followed. Furthermore, the novel is certainly interesting, but curiously when it becomes more cosmopolitan (Helene’s trips around the world) it becomes less appealing because the novel soon becomes dispersed and suffers a certain loss of focus that confuses a reader who was already really into Liberia.
Moreover, I appreciate Helene Cooper’s honesty when she really speaks her mind (she even says that her family may have been involved in “dodgy” businesses) and when she recognizes that she received help in writing the book. All writers who publish in big publishers receive this help but only very few recognize this. What would many novels be like without the help of the publisher?
On another level, whilst I was reading the novel it often reminded me of The Shadow of the Sun, the work on the African continent written by Kapuscinsky. I often thought that the great Polish reporter had, not only exaggerated his vision of Liberia, but had also introduced inaccurate information. For example, in The Shadow of the Sun it is said that Doe and his men gained power by chance after having been to the Executive Mansion to collect their wages and suddenly noticing Tolbert’s defencelessness. This goes against The House at Sugar Beach version where the coup sergeant and his men’s intentions were clear right from the start. Also, the conquest of Liberia was not as easy or as quick as it appears when reading The Shadow of the Sun, it was in fact, a long and hard struggle. In defence of Kapuscinsky, I must say that we cannot compare the access of information that the Polish reporter had at the time, with what we have now. In any case, t’s well worth re-reading the Liberian part of The Shadow of the Sun and draw new conclusions.
In short, it is well worth reading The House at Sugar Beach.
Cooper not only tells stories of her youth, but explains the history of her home, especially the politics that surrounded her childhood. She divides the book into two parts, Liberia and America. In Liberia, she lives with her family in a 22-room mansion on Sugar Beach, goes to a private school and knows many men in her family who hold high positions in the government. After the coup in 1980, she arrives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with her mother and younger sister. Later, she moves to Greensville, North Carolina, and lives with her father. When she graduates from high school, she enters journalism school at Chapel Hill. I won't go into too many details, because I don't want to ruin the story for those who want to read the book.
One thing I kept wondered about was how Helene was going to follow her dreams and be a foreign correspondent, with all the legal implications of being a Liberian resident. She doesn't go into too much detail about the trials of citizenship, but does tells a story about becoming an U.S. citizen on May 13, 1997.
When I started the book, I had a hard time reading her "Liberian English" and thought it was unnecessary. Halfway through, though, the rhythm of the Liberian voices grew easier to understand, and by the end of the book, I understood her reasoning behind the language she used. What a wonderful story - I highly recommend it!
To learn more about Helene Cooper, listen to an interview she did with Tavis Smiley on Sept. 24, 2008.