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Red at the Bone: A Novel Hardcover – September 17, 2019
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An Amazon Book with Buzz: "Sweet Sorrow" by David Nicholls
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This is a novel in which “nothing really happens.” It’s not especially action-packed or telling a full on story with a build and a climax and loads of events. It’s a slice of life with a lot of various scenes and flashes that kind of tell a piece of a family’s story. There is a considerable amount flashbacks explaining how the characters got to the point where we meet them, some perspectives on a coming of age celebration, and an aftermath. But this is not one that has a developed story starting at point A and going to point B. The whole thing just hangs around level C. The premise is basically that Melody was born right on the eve of her mother’s (Iris’) coming of age ball (think cotillion) when Iris was 15. Her birth tore apart the dreams and expectations of two families and they look back and reflect on their relationships and love and loss as she (Melody) now celebrates her coming of age ball.
There are a couple of interesting style things the author does that I’m not sure of- first, speech is italicized rather than quoted so that you’re left wondering if things are actually said or left unsaid, and whether these scenes are actually happening, or if it’s a sort of collective ancestral memory of this family’s current history. Second, there are 5 narrators and they all pick up and drop the story at different points but the author never tells you who’s who. I mean, reading on, you can kind of eventually figure out whose perspective you’re getting but I didn’t see any reason not to just tell the reader. Also, with the 5 narrators in this length of book, I felt like we only got flashes of their full characters, and I felt very led to put them into certain trope boxes based on the nuggets we were fed- Iris is the fall girl, Aubrey is the angel, the grandparents are pretty much The Cosbys, and we’re barely given anything of Melody enough to form an opinion other than the fact that she’s the hope of success and vindication of a painful family line?
If lyrical, poetic storytelling is your jam, this book has loads of that. This in many parts requires reading the sentences over and over to understand the meaning. My preference personally is simplicity and accessibility in art but I could appreciate the lyricism and the flow of this. I feel like however, sometimes there was a disconnect with the lyricism and revelations the characters had versus what they revealed about themselves in their stories. And that if we wanted to be strictly true to the character as opposed to the narrative the author wanted to further for the overall purpose of the book, there was sometimes a divergence. For example, Iris spends most of her own narrative scornful of the “dreams of her ancestors” and mainly wants to leave for school to escape the situation she’s unwittingly gotten herself in, but when the author describes Iris right before she leaves, she makes it look as though Iris is going because she wants to fulfill some ancestral destiny when that is not the case. I feel like sometimes the characters were saying and showing one thing, but the author was telling another lyrically for effect.
Okay ultimately did I like this, yes. The style isn’t my favourite, the character development to me wasn’t all it could be, there isn’t much of a story per se. But given all those things, the emotional punch this book packs is EVERYTHING. This author made me feel the emotions of characters I barely knew or even liked. The themes of pain, resilience, survival, succession, love, loss, rebuilding, victory and just pure black magic that survives hurt came through and ultimately this was a really strong, healing, emotional read that I highly recommend.
Red at the Bone deals with teenage pregnancy and the impact on a family generationally. The book kicks off with Melody's sweet sixteen party. An orchestra warms-up playing "Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac" before Prince's "Darling Nikki" ushers in the birthday girl. Oddly, Melody dons a white dress commissioned sixteen years prior for mother, but she did not wear it. Why?
Red at the Bones is not a linear narrative. Woodson drops the reader into a family that has seen its fair share of hardship. In real-life can a story be told from the beginning? Generational baggage and trauma haunts every family and gets passed down as heirlooms. This trauma impacts everyone before they even enter the world. To emphasize this point, the reader enters the heads of family members, and through their point of view, a multi-faceted story unfurls. Secrets hidden in dark crevices reveal themselves slowly and "villains" are humanized.
Woodson purposely subverts stereotypes about motherhood, fatherhood, and Black generational wealth. She does not shy away from writing a seemingly unsympathetic woman! In life, there are many questions and no easy answers. Woodson allows her characters to be human without judgment, and does this with prose bordering on the poetic. Her writing is like listening to jazz with its leaps, bounds, and improvisations. Oh, and you get a minor history lesson on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
Top international reviews
Woodson's stellar novel imprints itself indelibly on my memory with its insightful and acute observations that go into highlighting the complexities and complications of family. She has a real gift in characterisation with so few words, bringing a humanity and authenticity to the people who inhabit the book. This may well be a short novel, but it is epic in scale, containing such beautiful imagery, with an underlying sense of universality when it comes to family, of what it takes to survive and endure, the importance of remembering, the tragedies, the heartbreak and the joy and hope too. A poignantly stitched together multilayered reconstruction of a specific family and its past amidst which lies the history of a nation. Highly recommended. Many thanks to Orion for an ARC.
My favourite moments were the two-handers: the private moments shared between two characters & the perspective through which Jacqueline Woodson chooses to convey the intimacies of these personal experiences. The tenderness of a first sexual experience described from the male perspective; a nursing mother's experience of arousal; a Black mother's experience of childbirth and encounters with medical professionals; Black queer sexual awakening; the earliest childhood experiences (the layering of memory here almost reminded me of Sister Night's nostalgia trip and hearing her grandmother's voice echo through her memories of William - Watchmen HBO ep 6); the significance of that white dress. In this novel, pleasure and pain are tightly wound together; Woodson poignantly captures the ecstasy of being.
Like a lot of the books I've read recently, this sparked my interest in what we pass down through the family line and what is inherited - be it mannerism, temperament, belief - how trauma is engraved in our ancestry and woven through the generations. Sabe and Tulsa will be on my mind for a while.
There were a few moments when I wanted a little more from the narrative, but stories like this are making me hungry to read.
Didn’t follow the story that well. But I read it in sections weeks apart.
Put this on your reading list.
Oldest memory concerns the 1921Tulsa massacre - white supremacists intent on destroying a whole black community. Most memories though are of more conventional family matters, Melody's mother Iris in particular with special cause to reflect. Recalled by all key members present are early relationships, scandals, true love, the heartrending loss of nearest and dearest.
Those accustomed to a more conventional telling may find it hard to adjust to this novel's wavelength. At times it confuses exactly whose thoughts are represented and the exact relationship with characters already met.
At the end of it all? Realization that life itself is an ongoing story, lessons learned from the past helping new generations to adapt. So will it always be. No longer, though, do those only of a different colour need to be in "survival mode". We all do, that 1921 massacre chillingly not the only one depicted here.
One way and another, much to think about.
It explores sexuality and coming of age sexual exploration but not in an overly sexual way if that makes sense. It is more about the emotions and emotional struggles that the characters go through.
The time frame goes from the 1921 Tulsa race massacre to post 9/11 New York but neither of those huge events is laboured, in fact, I would say they are almost glossed over. The Tulsa race riots leave a mark emotionally and cause the family to move from the area. The 9/11 terror attack is not actually mentioned as such but anyone knowing about the attack will know what s happening in the storyline.
It is an emotional read but despite it being well written I didn't feel any great upset while reading this. The characters were well created and believable but somehow I only felt a connection to Aubrey and his mother.
This short book is a series of rather brief descriptive paragraphs that allude to Melody’s coming of age, sixteenth birthday party. The narrative is written from different viewpoints and perspectives - from Melody’s thoughts to Iris’s standpoint from Aubrey’s emotions to ‘granddaddy’s and Sabe’s. Snippets of information are gleaned from each paragraph and revelation after revelation is unveiled page after page. The paragraphs are written as streams of consciousness, with sometimes just one word to a ‘sentence’. It has the literary feel of Faulkner’s ‘As I lay dying’, minus the black humour. It details accents and lingo with unswerving precision, lending authenticity and credence to the plot.
This tale is about loss - the loss of innocence, relationships and family members. It would be too simplistic to label the plot as a growing of age tale but it does depict the growth towards maturity. It incorporates racism and growing up as a black child in white environs and how events shape that person. It relates how Iris falls pregnant and naively expresses her wish to keep the child. Not much more than a child herself, this decision unwittingly shapes the rest of Iris’s adult life and those around her. We learn of her parents’ disappointment and Iris’s own, as she then abandons her child and Aubrey, to go to college.
‘Red at the bone’ means raw and bleeding and the writing, emotional turmoil and upheaval that the characters separately undergo, powerfully illustrate the title. This story is never dull. It is thought-provoking and stimulating. Above all, it is a tale that keeps on revealing more.
I enjoyed "Red at the Bone" and Woodson's lyrical writing, especially in its final pages. This is a very short novel and by the time I felt I was getting to know the characters it was over. I’m still trying to decide whether the length works or if it is perhaps too slight for its scope.
‘Red at the Bone’ is an emotional and thought-provoking but it is initially confusing over identities of characters and it can be somewhat difficult to appreciate who is contributing to multi-voice narrative. This aspect settles down as the story proceeds but it undermines what could have been a 5-star exposé of racial prejudice and segregation. The aftermath of the ‘Tulsa Massacre’ affected the lives of those living there and the next generations, and this fictional account of events and experiences provides insights to a now neglected historical stage in American society.
Two generations on from Tulsa the story shifts to a more general family saga as it focuses commentary on relationships. Families come together as teenage Iris become pregnant to teenage Aubrey. Iris has strong desires for what she wants from life and these are repeatedly introduced with comparisons of her difficulties against the easy progress of privileged whites. ‘Red at the Bone’ evolves to present a unique view as after the birth of Melody Iris goes off to university and cuts herself off from her motherhood to leave Aubrey as a devoted father to bring up Melody. This is the opposite of the usual loving mother and wayward father which is fine – but it loses sight of racial discrimination issues – which is a shame.
My favourite character was Iris, a young mother at 16 she broke free of the shackles of family and societal expectations by going back to college to get her degree, effectively handing over the raising of her daughter to her parents and estranged partner. Iris’s struggles with her conscience and society’s expectations were convincing and poignant, but having said that all the characters were well developed and empathetic.
This powerful and insightful novel really packs a punch.
While I found it a little disjointed and was unclear what was happening in parts, overall this was an interesting read, with a thoughtful treatment of the way that some things have changed for African-Americans over the 20th century while other things have stayed the same. A short but meaningful novel.