Top positive review
Tarpley's Novel Inspires its Readers to Think About Space and Belonging
Reviewed in the United States on June 26, 2018
My absolute favorite types of stories are the ones about place. I adore novels in which the setting is so lively and so carefully and tenderly described that the place itself is one of the novel's central characters. This is a difficult thing to do, but when it is done well, it elevates a perfectly fine book to a great one.
Natasha Tarpley's 'The Harlem Charade' is just that sort of book. A young adult mystery novel set in what is arguably New York's most famous neighborhood, 'The Harlem Charade' follows Elvin, Jin, and Alex as they attempt to unravel the story behind a vicious attack upon Elvin's grandfather and the discovery of rare painting in a community garden. The truth behind both mysteries are of course related, and Tarpley weaves an intricate tapestry that shows the connections between art, inequity and power differentials, community engagement, grassroots organizing, and ownership and belonging.
Elvin and Jin (Elvin especially) were great characters. I had a harder time connecting with Alex and found it near impossible for me to do so. Readers have to suspend themselves in disbelief to imagine these three twelve-year-olds solving what is (in this fictive world) one of modern Harlem's greatest political scandals. Nonetheless, it was refreshing to read a novel in which young children learned about the injustice of racial and economic marginalization and were engaged in their community's political and economic well-being.
However, without shear doubt, Harlem was the novel's greatest character. Like the real Harlem, it was a city in the midst of drastic racial, economic, and cultural transition. The insidious effects of gentrification--the disempowerment and displacement of longstanding (often working-class) communities of color--however, had yet to take root in this fictional universe. Unlike the real Harlem, the Harlem in Tarpley's novel has not drastically lost its families, bodegas, community centers, cultural practices, etc. It's on the cusp, and the heroic action of these three twelve-year-olds help stave off (this particular) socioeconomic/sociopolitical shift. The real Harlem has not been so easily protected.
The novel does start to drag a bit by the second half, and there is a somewhat overly dramatic, unengaging climax in the penultimate chapters.
Tarpley's novel nonetheless inspires its readers to think deeply about space and belonging (amongst other themes). I couldn't help but wonder how a twelve-year-old me would have absorbed the text. Adult me likes it just fine.