Top critical review
Reviewed in the United States on November 6, 2019
This is my intro to this author’s work and overall, I enjoyed this slice of family saga, multiperson storytelling, novel. This things this novel does beautifully all have to do with the emotion of it. There is complexity of feeling between all the different characters and emotion and relationships and interconnectedness being my favourite things about reading fiction, I liked that. In addition, I think overall, this book did a good job with race especially for multicultural societies where there is an endemic discrimination against black people. Race is a major theme and it’s all black confidence, black excellence, “hey society, the inferiority complex you’re were trying to give me didn’t take.” I also feel like colour and race play a huge role in how people see themselves in this book and their belonging and worthiness, is actually, based on their degree of blackness, as opposed to popular culture where the inverse is true. That said, as much as I enjoyed the discussion of race in this book, I felt that towards the end, the “be true to yourself”-type conclusion that was reached was calling for people to be true to a very specific experience of what is black- in terms of speech or food or loudness or experience or pain that some have felt they need to suppress in order to be successful in society.
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.