Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Hardcover, 240 pages
Expected publication: February 13th 2018 by Grove Press

An extraordinary debut novel, Freshwater explores the surreal experience of having a fractured self. It centers around a young Nigerian woman, Ada, who develops separate selves within her as a result of being born “with one foot on the other side.” Unsettling, heartwrenching, dark, and powerful, Freshwater is a sharp evocation of a rare way of experiencing the world, one that illuminates how we all construct our identities.

Ada begins her life in the south of Nigeria as a troubled baby and a source of deep concern to her family. Her parents, Saul and Saachi, successfully prayed her into existence, but as she grows into a volatile and splintered child, it becomes clear that something went terribly awry. When Ada comes of age and moves to America for college, the group of selves within her grows in power and agency. A traumatic assault leads to a crystallization of her alternate selves: Asụghara and Saint Vincent. As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these selves–now protective, now hedonistic–move into control, Ada’s life spirals in a dark and dangerous direction.

Narrated by the various selves within Ada and based in the author’s realities, Freshwater dazzles with ferocious energy and serpentine grace, heralding the arrival of a fierce new literary voice.

It’s not easy to persuade a human to end their life – they’re very attached to it, even when it makes them miserable, and Ada was no different. But it’s not the decision to cross back that’s difficult; it’s the crossing itself.

Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater is a novel of layers that do not always nicely overlap; in fact, the pieces often seem to not fit together at all. It is a novel born from trauma and emotional paroxysms, a read that erupts with them throughout. You have to peel back the layers to get to what Emezi has laid underneath, to find the gems, to find the hidden well of pain and sentiment offered here, and that may not be a satisfying journey for many readers.

Freshwater is the story of Ada, a young Nigerian woman with a fractured self, or multiple personalities, due to the gods who have mistakenly taken root in her body and mind. It is a dark novel portraying the malevolence within us – that darkness at the very deepest depths of us that we hope to never have to witness of ourselves or in others. It is a novel that portrays the psychological effects of such darkness and emotional violence. When Ada comes into adulthood and leaves her splintered home for a new existence in a Virginia college, a traumatic sexual experience further shatters her mind and her multiple personalities are born. Ada fights a battle between herself, her other selves and her God she left behind, a battle to regain her equilibrium that veers her onto a dangerous course of self-destructive behavior. A path of bloodshed, tears and an equal dose of sexual trauma and exploration. Ada fights with herself, realizing something is wrong. She wants a change but her other personalities refuse to let her go.

Let me tell you now, I loved her because in the moment of her devastation, the moment she lost her mind, that girl reached for me so hard that she went completely mad, and I loved her because when I flooded through, she spread herself open and took me in without hesitation, bawling and broken, she absorbed me fiercely, all the way; she denied me nothing. I loved her because she gave me a name.

Freshwater was a novel that took a lot of patience for me to read. If you’re a reader who clings to continuity, who needs progressive character development to follow the path a protagonist’s life, or a reader who is in the least bit squeamish, this will likely prove to be a difficult read for you. Not an unworthy read – but a difficult one. The narrative leapt back and forth in time with new personalities and overlapping stories already told being retold differently. This book was a collage, a kaleidoscope, a reflection of a splintered self. Given the subject matter, the shattered quality of the narrative is understandable but at times arduous to read.

It was hard for me to fully connect with Freshwater when the moments of truth, heartbreak and the demise of entire relationships in Ada’s life were narrated, not fully shown in action. Emezi’s debut novel is more about the relationship between Ada and her other selves –internally—than it is about her outward experiences in the world. (view spoiler) It wasn’t enough for me, though some parts of the novel were absolutely gripping, and there were some lovely lines scattered throughout.

He wanted to pretend he was somehow better than he knew he was; he wasn’t ready to throw himself into sin. Humans find it easier to just lie and lie to themselves.

However, in those neglected moments (which is probably why the book is relatively short) the novel loses its soul and misses opportunities.

Other qualms:

The quote headings at the start of each chapter made no sense to me in the context of the story. Often, they made no sense to me at all though I got the feeling that they were Nigerian sayings. And I had too many WTF moments here because of the haphazard way life events and realizations were thrown into the narrative, no build-up, just dumped. I found myself reading whole passages and thinking, Where did this come from – outta thin air? That was the main issue I had with this novel: there was no real character development aside from Ada and Ewan, just a series of narrations and events.

I also never understood the title of the book. There was a reference to it at the end of the novel, but I found it to be too cryptic and unclear, so I still have no idea what it was trying to convey, why it was the namesake of the book. Because of this, I had the noteworthy experience of loving and hating Freshwater. There were moments where I couldn’t wait to turn the page and others where I skimmed past the incoherence of the We. Because of that, Freshwater’s dazzling and dreadful moments condensed down into a grade of 3 stars. ***

*I received an advance-read copy of the book from the publisher, Grove Press, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

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Akwaeke Emezi Akwaeke Emezi

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Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed

Hardcover, 352 pages
Published July 25th 2017 by Little, Brown and Company

For fans of Emma Cline’s THE GIRLS and Emily St John Mandel’s STATION 11, this dark, unsettling and hugely compelling story of an isolated island cult will get under your skin.

GATHER THE DAUGHTERS tells the story of an end-of-the-world cult founded years ago when ten men colonised an island. It’s a society in which men reign supreme, breeding is controlled, and knowledge of the outside world is kept to a minimum. Girls are wives-in-training: at the first sign of puberty, they must marry and have children. But until that point, every summer, island tradition dictates that the children live wildly: running free, making camps, sleeping on the beach. And it is at the end of one such summer that one of the youngest girls sees something so horrifying that life on the island can never be the same again.

“When a daughter submits to her father’s will, when a wife submits to her husband, when a woman is a helper to a man, we are worshiping the ancestors and their vision.”

Jennie Melamed’s Gather the Daughters bowled me over in more ways than one. It was haunting, arresting, thought-provoking and confrontational in all the best ways possible. It pressed up against the boundaries of my personal comfort levels – and then pushed passed them. This was a novel with something to say, and Melamed’s voice carried far, loudly and still resonates in my head as I write this.

In Gather the Daughters, this island is no ordinary island, and these girls live no ordinary lifestyle. Cut off from the mainland (which they’ve been told has burned to the ground, riddled with disease, sin and destruction, never to be habitable again) they live in a dystopian world without realizing that they really don’t. The “ancestors” brought their people here as an escape, away from the laws and customs of the mainland, and built their own commandments (the Shalt-Nots) and customs for the people to abide by – customs which include no access to outside books or knowledge, a social hierarchy where men reign supreme and women are subservient in every possible way, and a land where fathers have a special relationship with their daughters…

In the midst of it all, a handful of girls have the wherewithal to question it all, and those who don’t suddenly disappear for speaking out band together to find answers…

The first thing I’ll say is that Gather the Daughters is not a read for the faint of heart, but it IS a book for readers who aren’t afraid to cross a few lines. Jennie Melamed has crafted a novel that both explores and speaks out for the victims of abuse with poeticism, grace and force. She tells their story, paints their woes and harnesses their pain to educate and lend them a voice. The Daughters will push you to your boundaries. It will make you uncomfortable, make you think, make you angry.

“She bit Garret Jacob badly when he tried to slide fingers over her breast in the night, waking to him cradling a bleeding palm and glaring at her. Embarrassed and guilty, she apologized and let him do whatever he wanted with her later – acts she was pretty sure the ancestors would have disapproved of.”

With this novel, Melamed addresses the effects of rape culture on its survivors and on its observers. But, it is so much more than that. Gather the Daughters is an exploration of cult mentality and the tools used on its subjects to maintain the status quo and power the cult forward, of patriarchal rule and oppression, of the burdens of womanhood, of the will we have to survive and of what happens when we lose that will and succumb to the influence of others. It is an exploration of the darkness within us all and of an extreme patriarchal system of oppression not unlike how many women live today.

“If everyone does it, it can’t be too bad, right?”

(I can only imagine someone said something similar just before drinking the Jonestown punch in ’78.)

From the very first page I was drawn in with one of the most haunting and arresting prologues I’ve read in a long time. Admittedly, there were times when the writing was too flowery in a way that took away from the poeticism of the novel rather than adding to it, so that what Melamed was trying to convey was nearly lost, but that never overshadowed the evocativeness of this atmosphere she painted for us. This world was complete. I felt it, lived it, was part of it, a difficult feat that Melamed surmounted with ease. Their world was all encompassing and the tension of their cult-like existence against the backdrop of the “Wastelands” was palpable. This novel started out of the gates with a bang garnishing an easy five stars, but the second half of the novel slowed a bit, while still offering morsels for thought, earning Jennie Melamed’s Gather the Daughters a very strong four stars overall. ****

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Jennie Melamed JENNIE MELAMED is a psychiatric nurse practitioner who specializes in working with traumatized children. During her doctoral work at the University of Washington, she investigated anthropological, biological, and cultural aspects of child abuse. Melamed lives in Seattle with her husband and three Shiba Inus.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Paperback, 289 pages
Published March 1st 2016 by Picador (first published March 3rd 2015)

The Sellout is the first book by an American author to win the UK’s prestigious Man Booker Prize.

A biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality – the black Chinese restaurant.

Born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens – on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles – the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: “I’d die in the same bedroom I’d grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that’ve been there since ’68 quake.” Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father’s pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family’s financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that’s left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.

Fueled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town’s most famous resident – the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins – he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.

This entire novel, especially the prologue, reminded me of the ramblings of someone’s old grandpa rocking on the front porch of his clapboard home. I can only assume this is exactly what Beatty was going for, by the direction the novel ended up taking, but I felt like I was reading—no, sifting through—a bunch of nonsense I just wanted to be done with. And a lot of this read like an ultra-liberal excuse to spout out the n-word (hard er, mind you) as both a starting point, comma and full stop to every paragraph. It was absolutely exhausting.

I was looking forward to a good satire, but I don’t think I ever laughed once, because I was too distracted by trying to figure out what the hell he was even rambling about and how it fit into any possible plot line, ironic device, literary direction–hell, even a Katt Williams-like satirical skit–anything! I wanted to like this one – the first time non-Commonwealthers are allowed to be considered for the Man Booker Prize and an American—I’d be lying if I didn’t go ahead and point out—and African American wins it. I HAVE to read it; I’m so excited…I’m so confused…I’m so let down.

I don’t want to take away from the win at all. Have it; keep it, Paul Beatty. But I’m not on the bandwagon. Not even a little bit. DNF.

 

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Paul Beatty Paul Beatty (born 1962 in Los Angeles) is a contemporary African-American author. Beatty received an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College and an MA in psychology from Boston University. He is a 1980 graduate of El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, California.

In 1990, Paul Beatty was crowned the first ever Grand Poetry Slam Champion of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. One of the prizes for winning that championship title was the book deal which resulted in his first volume of poetry, Big Bank Takes Little Bank. This would be followed by another book of poetry Joker, Joker, Deuce as well as appearances performing his poetry on MTV and PBS (in the series The United States of Poetry). In 1993, he was awarded a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists Award.

His first novel, The White Boy Shuffle received a positive review in The New York Times, the reviewer, Richard Bernstein, called the book “a blast of satirical heat from the talented heart of black American life.” His second book, Tuff received a positive notice in Time Magazine. Most recently, Beatty edited an anthology of African-American humor called Hokum and wrote an article in The New York Times on the same subject.

Green by Sam Graham-Felsen

Hardcover, 320 pages
Published January 2nd 2018 by Random House

A novel of race and privilege in America that you haven’t seen before: a coming-of-age story about a life-changing friendship, propelled by an exuberant, unforgettable voice.

“This isn’t some Jedi bull****; the force I’m talking about is real, and its energies are everywhere, working on everyone.”

Boston, 1992. David Greenfeld is one of the few white kids at the Martin Luther King Middle School. Everybody clowns him, girls ignore him, and his hippie parents won’t even buy him a pair of Nikes, let alone transfer him to a private school. Unless he tests into the city’s best public high school–which, if practice tests are any indication, isn’t likely–he’ll be friendless for the foreseeable future.

Nobody’s more surprised than Dave when Marlon Wellings sticks up for him in the school cafeteria. Mar’s a loner from the public housing project on the corner of Dave’s own gentrifying block, and he confounds Dave’s assumptions about black culture: He’s nerdy and neurotic, a Celtics obsessive whose favorite player is the gawky, white Larry Bird. Together, the two boys are able to resist the contradictory personas forced on them by the outside world, and before long, Mar’s coming over to Dave’s house every afternoon to watch vintage basketball tapes and plot their hustle to Harvard. But as Dave welcomes his new best friend into his world, he realizes how little he knows about Mar’s. Cracks gradually form in their relationship, and Dave starts to become aware of the breaks he’s been given–and that Mar has not.

Infectiously funny about the highs and lows of adolescence, and sharply honest in the face of injustice, Sam Graham-Felsen’s debut is a wildly original take on the struggle to rise in America.

 

I will be surrounded by dudes like this for the rest of my life. White boys and white girls who grew up behind whitewashed fences, who grew up with no idea, for the rest of my life. The force preordained it: Not only will I be surrounded by them, I will become one of them, the thing I hate and can’t escape. Not a white boy or a whitey or a white b*tch, but a white person.

If you’re looking for a way to start your new year out right, Green is absolutely the way to go. Prepare yourself to be transported by a distinctive voice and a story line that screams with authenticity. More than authentic—it was one that mirrored what middle school was like for me in the 90s: the same cliques, the same typecasts, the same social rules. This novel transported me back to those days, back to those vibrations in the air, to that slang on our tongues, to those priorities in our pre-teen minds and to those questions that plagued our thoughts night and day about the world around us and our place in it.

Picture it (in my Estelle Getty voice): Boston, 1992.

David Greenfeld is one of the only white sixth graders at Martin Luther King Middle School—the “ghetto” school—with no friends, no cool points, and no chance at getting a girl. His Harvard-educated, politically correct, granola parents don’t understand his pleas to be removed from the school, and there seems to be no end to the social torture in sight. Until. He meets Marlon Wellings, an ultra-smart, Boston Celtics-obsessed, black kid from the projects across the street whose street smarts start to rub off on Dave and who’s life in the hood and drive to get out of it spark questions in Dave’s mind he’s never contemplated before.

In Green, Sam Graham-Felsen gives us a fresh look at the merging of two cultures, literally painting it is a physical intersection of neighborhoods as well as of cultural mores and rules. I couldn’t help but remember another book I’ve reviewed recently that was also a coming-of-age story with a jumping off point from the ’92 L.A. riots—and all the while, I marveled at how much better this story was told, at how much more the voice and experiences rang true. Graham-Felsen brought these characters to life on the page. He gave them hopes and made them my hopes. He made them fall, and I felt the blow myself. And he made them fail, as we all do in life sometimes. It is in those moments that this novel’s heart is most evident and that its impact slammed into me the hardest.

Through Dave and Marlon, Graham-Felsen explores the color line through the eyes of adolescents still finding themselves amidst the chaos of race relations. What really set this novel apart for me is that he gave us the perspective of the white side of the fence, while still being true to both stories, to both cultures.

In school the next day, Ms. Ansley shows us another installment of this long, made-for-TV movie we’ve been watching called Roots. When she introduced it, she said we needed to know our history, especially after what happened in L.A…I hear people shifting in their chairs. The violence is one thing: We all know the wounds are just makeup, the whip’s just a prop, the loud crack’s only a sound effect. But the n-word is different. Even if it’s just acting, it’s still the real n-word. I’ve heard it ten thousand times…but always with the soft ending. Hearing it with the hard er …makes my face muscles clench up even thinking about it. All that evil, all that power, packed into two tiny syllables.

Then, we have ‘the force.’

As their school year progresses and confrontations are had, as Dave’s belief in religion is explored and his cross into cultures and upbringings other than his own changes his outlook on his surroundings, he begins to ponder the idea of ‘the force,’ his interpretation of race relations around him. He sees it everywhere. It peppers his every interaction with the world around him, and jolts him out of adolescence and into a more adult mindset:

It seemed like the smoke of those riots spread all across the continent, all the way to Boston, like they were looking for their own Reginald Denny, because as far as I could tell they stepped for no other reason than the fact that I was white. But as I ran away…I began to wonder if maybe I was looking at them the wrong way, the same way I must have stared at the TV screen when those dudes bundled Denny—a shook and boggled look that said, You are predators—and maybe that made them want to treat me like prey. All summer, I tried to deny the force, but I felt it every time I got checked on my way past the Shaw Homes…And I felt ashamed of that…and yeah, I’ve been feeling ashamed that the force has been with me, pretty much nonstop…

Green was an entertaining read and one that provoked thought. There were moments when I laughed out loud and, yes, even a moment when I cried. There’s something for everyone within these pages, because we all know at least one of these characters, from the granola do-gooders to that kid from the wrong side of the tracks. Here’s your chance now to get glimpse into their world. I wouldn’t be saying enough to say that I highly recommend this book for readers of all sizes, colors and creeds who are ready to open their minds and their outlooks. I even recommend it for all ages, because the cultural boundaries explored within Green are real and not to be ignored. The tragedies of everyday life surrounding us are real and not to be downplayed. And the line between the haves and the have nots, the clueless and the culturally aware, the predators and the prey is real and should never, ever be doubted. 4.5 stars. *****

 

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Sam Graham-Felsen Writer based in Brooklyn. Author of the novel, GREEN (Random House, Jan 2018). Former chief blogger for Barack Obama.

Palace Council by Stephen L. Carter

Hardcover, 512 pages
Published July 8th 2008 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2008)

In the summer of 1952, twenty prominent men gather at a secret meeting on Martha’s Vineyard and devise a plot to manipulate the President of the United States. Soon after, the body of one of these men is found by Eddie Wesley, Harlem’s rising literary star. When Eddie’s younger sister mysteriously disappears, Eddie and the woman he loves, Aurelia Treene, are pulled into what becomes a twenty-year search for the truth. As Eddie and Aurelia uncover layer upon layer of intrigue, their odyssey takes them from the wealthy drawing rooms of New York through the shady corners of radical politics, all the way to the Oval Office.

Stephen Carter’s novel is as complex as it is suspenseful, and with his unique ability to turn stereotypes inside out, Palace Council is certain to enthrall readers to the very last page.

Whew, this book was a lot! It was a murder mystery and whodunit, an exploration of 20 of the most tumultuous years in American 20th century history and a political thriller, not to mention a foray into Harlem’s Golden Age of influential African Americans with the money and connections most never knew existed for them in those days. There was a lot crammed within these 500+ pages, sometimes for the better and sometimes not.

Stephen L. Carter is my favorite author for his ability to weave historical truth with fiction and for his portrayal of the African American community–both modern-day and historically–so accurate in its incisiveness and so taunt in his analysis of it. I’ve never encountered an author before or since who had such an accurate, compelling and thought-provoking voice about the upper echelons of black culture–the very embodiment of W.E.B. Dubois’ Talented Tenth–the subculture within a culture that so few even know exists with its own rich history, mores and societal rules. Carter displayed all of this and more within the pages of Palace Council, and that I lapped up with the enthusiasm you’d expect from one who’d gone too long without such substance.

I’ve seen Carter’s work described as being Dan Brown-like, and it’s true–they do share the element of mysteries solved through obscure literary references and the thrill of running from killers hellbent on snatching the clues the protagonist has found for themselves. But may I step in here and say that Stephen L. Carter is more wily than Dan Brown, his plots more complex in so many ways? Carter’s novels center around both the present and past of affluent African American culture, which allows his reader a basis on which to start from in every read and the thrill of seeing unexpected recurrences of previous characters in diverse stages of their lives. For example, The Emperor of Ocean Parkrevolves around the Garland family who also play a prominent part in Palace Council, set 50 years before the events in Emperor even happened. Readers who love to follow characters over the spans of their lives–who don’t just want to see them one and done in one novel–will love this as I do. This is Carter’s angle (pun intended for those who’ve read this book), rather than the Bond-like supporting female characters of Brown’s novels.

Stephen L. Carter’s novels are always decadent in setting, but Palace Council took the cake. Sweeping from Harlem to Washington D.C. to Saigon and back again, it’s the details here that filled so many pages of this novel. There are so many minute and intricate details here that make their world more solid and complete–from street names in Hong Kong to delicious elements of historic events of the 50s, 60s and 70s–that this one novel could easily be made into a multi-season TV series–and should! Yet, in the setting of one book, it was a lot to take in at once.

If it’s possible for one to drown in literary details, I must say I certainly struggled to stay afloat at times, keeping characters and their bloodlines straight amidst the historical events surrounding them–from Kent State, to the Tet Offensive, to JFK’s assassination and beyond. At times the narrative moved at too slow a pace, filled with historical filler and unnecessary scenes, both, which slowed the plot (in true literary form) rather than urging it forward. While these historical landmarks (the dates sometimes toyed with for the benefit of the characters at Carter’s admission) helped to center the players within these pages and paint a complete picture of the age they lived in, there were also so many times where historic events seemed just dumped in there. (I hesitate to say haphazardly because I doubt Carter does anything “haphazard” ever.) And, I’ll admit, the plot was sometimes muddled and muddied by Carter’s abundance of clever asides and descriptive tags galore. But Carter’s novels reside in the company between Dan Brown’s thrillers steeped in literary puzzles and Salman Rushdie’s erudition. And for that, he warrants all the praise he has garnered, and remains my favorite author to date. Palace Council earned a solid 4 stars sullied only by the editor’s inability to rein this one in a little more. (Honestly, a good 75 pages at least could have been chopped.) ****

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Stephen L. Carter Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale where he has taught since 1982. He has published seven critically acclaimed nonfiction books on topics ranging from affirmative action to religion and politics. His first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park (2002), was an immediate national best seller. His latest novel is New England White (Knopf, 2007). A recipient of the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature-Fiction, he lives near New Haven, Connecticut.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published September 5th 2017 by Scribner

A searing and profound Southern odyssey by National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward.

In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Morrison and Faulkner, The Odyssey and the Old Testament, Ward gives us an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi’s past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. Ward is a major American writer, multiply awarded and universally lauded, and in Sing, Unburied, Sing she is at the height of her powers.

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing is true Southern Gothicism at its finest. It is a novel that I’ve been waiting a very long time to read, and I mean that both literally and figuratively. There is so much within these pages—so much angst, so much wonder and so much sorrow—that I am still grappling with it even now. And that’s a wonderful thing, the best feeling and the most lasting impression a writer can ever bestow on their reader.

I read, before reading this novel, that Jesmyn Ward had recently been called the modern-day Faulkner, and I doubted this, I admit, likely because of all the books out there I’ve encountered doing reviews that are buoyed up by their awe-inspiring cover flaps and exalted comparisons to other, greater works, only to fall flat on their faces under the weight of such lofty and inaccurate comparisons. But Sing, Unburied, Sing is the real deal. Its utter humanity and heart bursts forth from every page, particularly leading up to the climax, never shying away from the reality of hard living, always staring it down right in its face, urging us to look it in the face, too. Don’t turn away. I could never turn away.

This is the tale of two Mississippi families, one black and one white, joined by bloodshed and bloodlines. Joined by love and hatred, by death and birth. But this is also a coming-of-age story of one teenaged boy, Jojo, whose life is forever changed. Jojo is the biracial son of the often high, often absent Leonie—who sees her murdered brother, Given, in drug-induced hallucinations—and Michael, whose hostile, racist family will never accept his black girlfriend and half-breed children. Jojo is caught between being a parent to his three-year-old sister, Kayla, and learning to be a man from his grandfather, Pop. But this place he is emotionally sandwiched between is a place he calls home, a place of comfort and togetherness, between Kayla and Pop—until Leonie comes back from a bender and piles them all in the car on the way to Parchman Penitentiary to retrieve Michael from the prison that has changed and ended so many lives connected to theirs. It is on this journey that Jojo sees the naked truth of racial hierarchies and the hatred the South is all too known for, and discovers his gift of sight he never knew he had. And it is also on this journey that Jojo faces who his mother is, what she is capable of and what she will never be.

“When I wake, Michael’s rolled all the windows down. I’ve been dreaming for hours it feels like, dreaming of being marooned on a deflated raft in the middle of the endless reach of the Gulf of Mexico…Jojo and Michaela and Michael with me and we are elbow to elbow. But the raft must have a hole in it, because it deflates. We are all sinking, and there are manta rays gliding beneath us and sharks jostling us. I am trying to keep everyone above water, even as I struggle to stay afloat. I sink below the waves and push Jojo upward so he can stay above the water and breathe, but then Kayla sinks and I push her up, and Michael sinks so I shove him in the air as I sink and struggle, but they won’t stay up: they want to sink like stones…they keep slipping from my hands…I am failing them. We are all drowning.”

If a hallmark of Southern writing is setting, Ward’s novel offers that in spades. Here, in the blazing sun of Mississippi, you can feel the sweat dripping from the characters’ brows, feel their pulse as they confront one another—as they confront themselves. The suffering within these pages was tangible, palpable, like a pulse in the air, a drumbeat at the turn of every page. It marked the characters’ lives just as numbers mark the bottom of each page. But Ward goes beyond that—beyond the quintessential tale of Southern burdens, anguish and racial hate, beyond the stereotypes we can all so readily pluck from our minds to describe the Bible Belt in all its historical wonder and terror. My one note of criticism is that the voices didn’t always sound realistic for the characters. JoJo and Leonie’s chapters after sounded like they were coming from the same voice (the sophisticated voice of the author rather than the rugged voices of folks who have been through some “thangs,” and that rang false to me). But, when I say that Sing, Unburied, Sing is true Southern Gothicism at its finest, I mean that it binds, bridges and merges every aspect of the genre—social commentary, magical realism, surrealism and grit. Blood, sweat, tears, but, most of all: haunting and poetic soul. That it did in spades despite the hiccup with the voices.

This novel will stay with me for a long time. There were aspects of this book that I did not immediately like, but that all came together in the end. And, quite honestly, I haven’t read such an emotively resonating ending like that since Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif,” and for that I could only ever give a well-deserved 5 stars. *****

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**I received a copy of this novel from the publisher, Scribner, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Jesmyn WardJesmyn Ward is the author of Where the Line Bleeds, Salvage the Bones, and Men We Reaped. She is a former Stegner Fellow (Stanford University) and Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. She is an associate professor of Creative Writing at Tulane University.

Her work has appeared in BOMBA Public Space and The Oxford American.

The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

Hardcover, 400 pages
Expected publication: September 5th 2017 by Random House

When powerful real-estate tycoon Nero Golden immigrates to the States under mysterious circumstances, he and his three adult children assume new identities, taking ‘Roman’ names, and move into a grand mansion in downtown Manhattan. Arriving shortly after the inauguration of Barack Obama, he and his sons, each extraordinary in his own right, quickly establish themselves at the apex of New York society.

The story of the powerful Golden family is told from the point of view of their Manhattanite neighbour and confidant, René, an aspiring filmmaker who finds in the Goldens the perfect subject. René chronicles the undoing of the house of Golden: the high life of money, of art and fashion, a sibling quarrel, an unexpected metamorphosis, the arrival of a beautiful woman, betrayal and murder, and far away, in their abandoned homeland, some decent intelligence work.

Invoking literature, pop culture, and the cinema, Rushdie spins the story of the American zeitgeist over the last eight years, hitting every beat: the rise of the birther movement, the Tea Party, Gamergate and identity politics; the backlash against political correctness; the ascendency of the superhero movie, and, of course, the insurgence of a ruthlessly ambitious, narcissistic, media-savvy villain wearing make-up and with coloured hair.

In a new world order of alternative truths, Salman Rushdie has written the ultimate novel about identity, truth, terror and lies. A brilliant, heartbreaking realist novel that is not only uncannily prescient but shows one of the world’s greatest storytellers working at the height of his powers.

Salman Rushdie’s 13th novel, The Golden House, plays out as a Shakespearean drama re-imagined in the eyes of a postmodernist and set in the Obama era of ultra-riche Manhattan. (There, how’s that for an elevator pitch?) This novel is full of nostalgic references, ornate erudite descriptions and high-brow prose, as you would expect from the man who brought us Midnight’s Children and holds an esteemed Booker Prize. I was first introduced to Salman Rushdie by Hanif Kureishi, who wrote one of my favorite college reads, The Black Album, in response to the fatwah issued by Islamic fundamentalists intent on killing Salman Rushdie for writing his 4th novel, The Satanic Verses. So, you can imagine the anticipation I felt to finally meet this great novelist and essayist up close and in person for myself—or as up close and in person as one’s words on a page will allow us to get to the true author themselves.

And here you have it. Sit back and imagine this:

The Golden House trots along the Obama era years, from his inauguration on January 20, 2009, through the election that gave us our 45th president. This political period is the mirror against which these characters see their lives unfolding, crumbling and transforming. Nero Golden and his household of three sons, of which he is the god-like patriarch, are expatriates of an unnamed country (which is eventually named) after a terrorist tragedy takes the life of their matriarch and shady financial deals finish them off in their homeland, sending the family to New York to rebuild their lives with the help of their obscene and conspicuous wealth by way of the American Dream. They move into a mega-mansion in an affluent neighborhood in Manhattan, where all 22 homes of the community back into a luxurious garden oasis that the families all communally enjoy. It is in this near-utopian communal setting where lives begin to cross and our narrator, René, meets the leading family. We follow him on his journey to infiltrate, observe and ultimately document the Golden lives in a film he’s been longing to make but isn’t really sure of how to go about doing. Along the way, characters come and go. As the modern-day “Julio-Claudian” drama unfolds, death occurs. Birth occurs. Marriage occurs. The saga of their lives unfolds, shatters, melts down and repairs—never in that order.

If you’re looking for a single word to describe this novel, a good starting place would be dense though I cannot argue that it is unnecessarily so, and the read certainly wouldn’t have been the same without this aspect. Literary allusions—call me Ishmael— abound on every page here and, quite honestly, you might want to have a digital encyclopedia on hand for quick reference through some of these passages— Chinese hexagrams of divination, for example? But I loved that, reveled in it for the most part, in fact, because this enlightened display of narrative talent played with so many forms of storytelling, from conventional narrative formatting to scenes written as screenplays, from the use of quotation marks to the use of not-a-one, and back again. It was a journey, but at least it was a ride too, crossing the lines of contemporary fiction, post-modernism and metafiction.

Here you’ll find wry social commentary that crackles and pops with dry irony, heaped on in healthy doses so that no culture—past or present, Eastern or Western—is safe from the scrutinizing eye—though, with the backdrop of this novel being set specifically against the Obama era, much of the commentary hits hard on American culture, smashing up against it forcefully and knocking down our perception of it, knocking down the barriers around talking about it, from Black Lives Matter to the collapse of the housing market to transgender transformation and everywhere in between:

“Once upon a time…if a boy liked pink and dolls his parents would be afraid he was homosexual and try to interest him in boy stuff…they might have doubts about his orientation but it wouldn’t occur to them to question his gender. Now it seems you go to the other extreme. Instead of saying the kid’s a pansy you start trying to persuade him he’s a girl.”

“What is American culture?” This novel dares to seriously ask—often pokes fun at—and ultimately explores—no, turns inside out—this beloved cliché we and the world over cling to called the American Dream, from the viewpoint of the transplant, from the viewpoint of those ultimately in search of themselves in the whirlwind that is our lives in our culture today.

“…I could feel it, the anger of the unjustly dead, the young men shot for walking in a stairwell while black, the young child shot for playing with a plastic gun in a playground while black, all the daily black death of America, screaming out that they deserved to live, and I could feel, too, the fury of white America at having to put up with a black man in a white house, and the frothing hatred of the homophobes…the blue-collar anger of everyone who had been Fannie Mae’d and Freddie Mac’d by the housing calamity, all the discontent of a furiously divided country, everyone believing they were right…”

Rushdie’s insightful narrative is at times chilling it its acute accuracy about our cultural climate and our 45th president—“…the Joker shrieked…in that bubble…gun murderers were exercising their constitutional rights but the parents of murdered children were un-American…mass deportations would be a good thing; and women reporters would be seen to be unreliable because they had blood coming out of their whatevers…”— and made The Golden House a complete package, which managed to be both entertaining and at times mildly surreal, with the help of a wink toward a more avant-garde formatting technique and a nod toward the “magically real.”

I navigated this novel with the sense of one at their grandfather’s knee, he with brandy and cigar in hand, hearing a tale that was often fascinating in its baroqueness. The Golden House is chocked full of so many things we love in reads—solid plotting, whimsy and intellectual stimuli—which made the ornate density of this novel worth persevering through in the end—and that both stirred and excited my reader soul, like a hearty helping of literary gumbo you have to close your eyes and smile to enjoy, adding depth to the layers of the pages, of these words. And, that was easily enough for 4.5 stars. ****

**I received a copy of this novel from the publisher, Random House, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Salman RushdieSir Ahmed Salman Rushdie is a novelist and essayist. Much of his early fiction is set at least partly on the Indian subcontinent. His style is often classified as magical realism, while a dominant theme of his work is the story of the many connections, disruptions and migrations between the Eastern and Western world.

His fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, led to protests from Muslims in several countries, some of which were violent. Faced with death threats and a fatwa (religious edict) issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran, which called for him to be killed, he spent nearly a decade largely underground, appearing in public only sporadically. In June 2007, he was appointed a Knight Bachelor for “services to literature”, which “thrilled and humbled” him. In 2007, he began a five-year term as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emory University.