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.

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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.

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

Hardcover, 259 pages
Published October 18th 2011 by Doubleday (first published October 18th 2010)

In this wry take on the post-apocalyptic horror novel, a pandemic has devastated the planet. The plague has sorted humanity into two types: the uninfected and the infected, the living and the living dead.

Now the plague is receding, and Americans are busy rebuild­ing civilization under orders from the provisional govern­ment based in Buffalo. Their top mission: the resettlement of Manhattan. Armed forces have successfully reclaimed the island south of Canal Street—aka Zone One—but pockets of plague-ridden squatters remain. While the army has eliminated the most dangerous of the infected, teams of civilian volunteers are tasked with clearing out a more innocuous variety—the “malfunctioning” stragglers, who exist in a catatonic state, transfixed by their former lives.

Mark Spitz is a member of one of the civilian teams work­ing in lower Manhattan. Alternating between flashbacks of Spitz’s desperate fight for survival during the worst of the outbreak and his present narrative, the novel unfolds over three surreal days, as it depicts the mundane mission of straggler removal, the rigors of Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder, and the impossible job of coming to grips with the fallen world.

And then things start to go wrong.

Both spine chilling and playfully cerebral, Zone One bril­liantly subverts the genre’s conventions and deconstructs the zombie myth for the twenty-first century.

“The dead had paid their mortgages on time…graduated with admirable GPAs, configured monthly contributions to worthy causes, judiciously apportioned their 401(k)s…and superimposed the borders of the good school districts on mental maps of their neighborhood, which were often included on the long list when magazines ranked cities with the Best Quality of Life. In short, they had been honed and trained so thoroughly by that extinguished world that they were doomed in this new one.”

Zone One is full of colorful melancholy descriptions, of varying levels of cerebral-ness, of an ashen, grey Manhattan post-plague apocalypse. Imagine a world where post “apocalypse-as-moral-hygiene,” as one character put it. A world where, “the dead came to scrub the Earth of capitalism and the vast bourgeois superstructure, with its doilies, helicopter parenting, and streaming video, return us to nature and wholesome communal living.”

I’d be remiss—not to mention completely misleading you—if I didn’t note that Zone One is not an action novel by any means. (Really, any reader of Colson Whitehead would probably figure this before even picking this one up from the shelf, so this is really a note for those as yet unfamiliar with his writing style. 😊)

**SPOILER** There is no real “action” in this novel so much as there’s deliberations, flashbacks, and several run-ins—some eerie, some semi-dramatic, some thought-provoking–with “skels,” the dead who are not quite dead. **SPOILER END**

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—depending on the reader—because it allows for the Sci-Fi-like descriptions of an otherworldly scenario that oft-times need to be drawn out in such a fashion. However, I yearned for some action after a while—some way to ignite the gloom of ash and barrenness described.

Mark Spitz, the main character and the only one to be constantly referred to by his whole name, spends his days as one of the sweepers for Zone One, killing “skels” with a bullet to the head and collecting the info on their IDs, when he can, so that information of plague victims can be turned into the higher ups and turned into spreadsheets of data. Can this data help them to get a larger view of what happened—how the plague spread so quickly, how it can be prevented in the future? That’s the hope and the new purpose of Mark Spritz’s days. Of course, his cynical humor, narration (which seemed to drone on at times with a cadence of monotony) and outlook on life help to pass the days as well.

The majority of the novel passes via cerebral recollections from Mark Spitz conveyed to the reader in all manner of both wryness and dryness—pulling a “skel” who looks like his old elementary school teacher into a body bag elicits pages of narration on what it was like for him as a young student. Shooting a gorilla-costume clad “skel” in the head elicits imaginings of what their life must’ve been like before the plague, why they were even in such an outfit, etc. The at times mundane musings of one of the last people on earth. Really, I suppose the mundane nature makes the novel all the more real. Wouldn’t our thoughts turn to the ordinary, the routine, the yesterdays and yesteryears, when all that stretches before you is a life more quiet and routine than the one you experienced in the loud, capitalistic, busy world that’s now fallen?

Of course, there’s always that bit of action in the end to get you through. Apocalypse junkies: never fear; there will be blood, gore, gunshots in the night…

Though relatively short, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One was not necessarily a quick read, because of the density of its language and the vaguely cerebral, and at times seemingly intellectual ramblings. In reading this novel, you’re likely to get carried away in this deluge of narration. Wry narration laced with appealing satire here and there, shrouded in the grey gloom of overcast skies and a metropolis covered in soot and ash. Like this one as they fight their way through “skels”:

“She aimed at the rabble who nibbled at the edge of her dream: the weak-willed smokers, deadbeat dads and welfare cheats, single moms incessantly breeding, the flouters of speed laws, and those who only had themselves to blame for their ridiculous credit-card debt. These empty-headed fiends between Chambers and Park Place did not vote or attend parent-teacher conferences, they ate fast food more than twice a weeks and required special plus-size stores for clothing to hide their hideous bodies from the healthy. Her assembled underclass who simultaneously undermined and justified her lifestyle choices. They needed to be terminated, and they tumbled into the dirty water beside Gary’s dead without differentiation.”

How’s that for a healthy injection of social commentary?

They say, “The third time’s the charm,” but with the conclusion of Zone One, after The Intuitionist and The Underground Railroad, I think it’s safe to say I have immense respect for the obvious skill and intellect of Colson Whitehead, but his writing, overall, simply does not move me, yet, the ending did save this one. 3.5 stars ***

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Colson Whitehead He’s the author of the novels Zone One; Sag Harbor; The Intuitionist, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award; John Henry Days, which won the Young Lions Fiction Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Apex Hides the Hurt, winner of the PEN Oakland Award. Colson Whitehead has also written a book of essays about his home town, The Colossus of New York, and a non-fiction account of the 2011 World Series of Poker called The Noble Hustle. A recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur Fellowship, he lives in New York City.

Whitehead’s latest book, The Underground Railroad, is an Oprah’s Book Club pick.

Linden Hills by Gloria Naylor

Paperback, 320 pages
Published March 4th 1986 by Penguin Books (first published 1985)

A world away from Brewster Place, yet intimately connected to it, lies Linden Hills. With its showcase homes, elegant lawns, and other trappings of wealth, Linden Hills is not unlike other affluent black communities. But residence in this community is indisputable evidence of “making it.” Although no one knows what the precise qualifications are, everyone knows that only certain people get to live there—and that they want to be among them.

Once people get to Linden Hills, the quest continues, more subtle, but equally fierce: the goal is a house on Tupelo Drive, the epitome of achievement and visible success. No one notices that the property on Tupelo Drive goes back on sale quickly; no one questions why there are always vacancies at Linden Hills.

In a resonant novel that takes as its model Dante’s Inferno, Gloria Naylor reveals the truth about the American dream—that the price of success may very well be a journey down to the lowest circle of hell.

“Fences…Even at the university: big, stone fences – and why? The gates are open, so it’s not to keep anybody out or in. Why fences?…To get you used to the idea that what they have in there is different, special. Something to be separated from the rest of the world. They get you thinking fences, man, don’t you see it? Then when they’ve fenced you in from six years old till you’re twenty-six, they can let you out because you’re ready to believe that what they’ve given you up here, their version of life, is special. And you fence your own self in after that, protecting it from everybody else out there…”

Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills is a truly sharp and discerning glimpse into the modern-day class hierarchy embedded within black culture. Within the exploration of this quest for upward mobility and affluence, this novel featured some of the most true-to-life dialogue since Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and biting social commentary that rang so insightfully and authentically that it could only be true (not to mention witty enough to make me laugh out loud at the sheer truth and reality in it).

Written and set in the mid-1980s, the societal reflections here were absolutely superb, truly bordering on Southern Gothicism in the way that each explored the mores and values of this society—at times even based in the South. This element honestly made this novel and was the foundation from which the rest of the plot was built. I wasn’t expecting the Gothic elements at play here, so that was definitely an added delight. In fact, Linden Hills models itself as a play off of the classic Dante’s Inferno, with each street further and further down the hill of the neighborhood being more and more sought after, and also more and more corrupt. That was a truly clever play on Naylor’s part and lent so many added dimensions to this novel as the main characters “descended” further and further into the neighborhood.

For me, reading Linden Hills was often like sitting back at home in our old kitchen 20 years ago, listening to the “grown folk” shoot the breeze and discuss their woes over Bundt cake; it felt like home, and the authenticity of the subject matter, and characters’ reactions to it, felt like warm arms surrounding me as I “descended” into Naylor’s version of Dante’s hellish Inferno with them.

Here, our main protagonists are Willie Mason and Lester Tilson, two 20-year-old poets and best friends—one from the “wrong side of the street” and the other just barely inside the gates of Linden Hills himself, who get a lesson in what class lines mean to people in this neighborhood. Over the few days leading up to Christmas, Willie and Lester stare into the various faces of agony the people in Linden Hills try to hide. Watching them as they go about their lives, they begin to understand the motivations that keep them all in the rat race that is “keeping up with the Joneses.” Lester, who lives in Linden Hills, has already seen the inner workings of the neighborhood, the attitudes of its residents and the lies they cloak themselves in, thus he takes these lessons that Willie is busy learning for granted—in fact, he teeters throughout the book with being bored with such observations to, as the novel progresses, railing against them, because those very motivations that drive the Lindenites are also what keep him on the periphery of it all, neither fitting into their molds nor residing on the “right street” within Linden Hills. It is in this way that Gloria Naylor illustrates not only the racial lines but the class prejudices between us all, using the literal analogy of who’s from the right side of the street and who’s not, making the class lines drawn throughout this neighborhood both topographically and societally based. As they tear back the mask of Linden Hills, Willie and Lester begin to formulate their own theories on what shapes the world around them:

“You know, my grandmother called it selling the mirror in your soul…I guess she meant giving up that part of you that lets you know who you are…So you keep that mirror and when it’s crazy outside, you look inside and you’ll always know exactly where you are and wat you are. And you call that peace…These people have lost that, Willie. They’ve lost all touch with what it is to be them. Because there’s not a damned thing inside anymore to let them know.”

In tackling these major themes, Naylor also elegantly delves into social issues from the often-fragile bonds of marriage, to the separation of college-educated black women from their counterparts, to the line between “acting white” and “acting black,” among other themes:

“He would have found the comments that he was trying to be white totally bizarre. Being white was the furthest thing from his mind, since he spent every waking moment trying to be no color at all.”

I’ll admit that the writing style vexed me at times, usually at a crescendo of activity near the end of a chapter. My one note of criticism here is that it read as if Naylor was trying too hard to be lyrical, and it didn’t flow effortlessly. In fact, those moments in the novel often read as disjointed and convoluted, and I had to reread several of those passages for comprehension.

**SPOILER** I also thought that the ultimate climax of the novel—the fire that really brought the theme of Dante’s Inferno to the foreground was rushed and wasn’t leant nearly the amount of time and care as passages of far lesser importance earlier in the novel. That was absolutely a missed opportunity, because the ending is what resonates with readers—not to mention, this particular ending would have been the cherry on top of otherwise beautifully Gothic undertones in Linden Hills. **END SPOILER**

All in all, Gloria Naylor showed poetic lyricism and incisor-like insight in her execution of this novel, and it is a book that I would happily read again. It is because of the narrative undercurrents that I place this novel in the Southern Gothic arena (and I’ll give it that pass since part of it was based in Georgia), and it’s because of the bumbling “crescendo prose” that I deduct 1 star. BUT, despite that deduction, Linden Hills has absolutely earned its spot in my “Oh Where Have You Been All My Life” collection, because very rarely indeed will you come across a novel with such poise and bite as this one. 4 stars ****

 

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Gloria Naylor was an African-American novelist whose most popular work, The Women of Brewster Place, was made into a 1984 film starring Oprah Winfrey.

Naylor won the National Book Award for first fiction in 1983 for The Women of Brewster Place. Her subsequent novels included Linden Hills, Mama Day and Bailey’s Cafe. In addition to her novels, Naylor wrote essays and screenplays, as well as the stage adaptation of Bailey’s Cafe. Naylor also founded One Way Productions, an independent film company, and was involved in a literacy program in the Bronx.

A native New Yorker, Gloria Naylor was a graduate of Brooklyn College and Yale University. She was distinguished with numerous honors, including Scholar-in-Residence, the University of Pennsylvania; Senior Fellow, The Society for the Humanities, Cornell University; the President’s Medal, Brooklyn College; and Visiting Professor, University of Kent, Canterbury, England. Naylor was the recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships for her novels and the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship for screenwriting.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Paperback, 216 pages
Published September 6th 2005 by Plume (first published June 1st 1970)

…his mother did not like him to play with niggers. She had explained to him the difference between colored people and niggers. They were easily identifiable. Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud…The line between colored and nigger was not always clear; subtle and telltale signs threatened to erode it, and the watch had to be constant.

While I was not the biggest fan of Morrison’s style in this novel, I did fully appreciate the dagger-sharp insight that she brought to the color caste system that is so prevalent in African-American culture, even today. Her dialogue rang so true, I could hear it coming directly out of my mother’s mouth, my grandmother’s mouth, and those of all of the women who’ve ever filled our kitchens with raucous communal fun and glum communal tragedy alike. Her use of the Dick & Jane children’s books, used for decades to teach children to read (SEEMOTHERMOTHERISVERYNICEMOTHERWILLYOUPLAYWITHJANEMOTHERLAUGHS  LAUGHMOTHERLAUGHLA) created a chilling, ironic and staggering contrast between the lives of the whites and those of the blacks in this novel. Shirley Temple, Mary Jane candies, and Jean Harlow hairstyles – you’ll find the delicacy of all of them here, both in these characters’ reality and in metaphor. While the truth and injustices here were often sobering to read, they were filled with too much truth to rightfully deny or turn away from.

I could spend hours discussing this novel. I could quote from it all day, but I won’t do that, because the entire read was poignant and so crisply aware of the color line – the how and the why – that there is no one point that can overshadow another in the message that these words aimed to send. This novel is older than I am, and yet it still rings with such verity, with such biting truth and reality. With The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison cut open the existence of both internalized and externalized racism in America and laid it bare and exposed at our feet. For that, she deserves nothing but reverence and applause, so she will always have that from me.

Anyone who’s ever been in doubt of a color line in Black America should read this book. Anyone who’s ever questioned, “But why can’t I say those words when you say them all the time? But why do you still believe that racism exists? Why can’t you just get over it – the past is the past?” should read this book. In fact, just read this book anyway – how about that? 🙂 *****

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The Dumb House by John Burnside

Paperback, 198 pages
Published June 4th 1998 by Vintage (first published 1997)

“…the very act of breaking the skin, of entering another human body, intrigued and excited me. I could see why people might kill for that sensation…Such people would be the victims of an exquisite curiosity…”

To accurately assess this novel, I would first have to say that I have honestly never before encountered such an exquisitely void soul in fiction before. It was almost like staring into nothingness, a sensation I have not felt in reading in a long while, if ever.

John Burnside’s The Dumb House is a disturbing and unsettling narrative that crawls inside of the reader’s psyche and pushes the boundaries of what is socially, morally and, dare I say it, scientifically, acceptable. This work of short literary fiction burrows in and takes hold; before you know it, you’re on a deliberate and methodical exodus from the everyday, headed toward a climax that is as gripping as it is literarily brilliant and macabre.

This novel essentially starts with a bedtime story: Of all of the cold elaborate tales that Luke’s mother spun for him as a child growing up, the experiment of the Gang Mahal, or Dumb House, left its mark the deepest. This experiment, set in the ancient world of India, centered around one simple question that would haunt and motivate Luke for the rest of the novel: “whether a child is born with the innate, God-given ability to speak” or if it is a learned behavior. The Gang Mahalwas erected to find the answer to this question, tasking a court of mutes to care for newborn babies who were never to be exposed to human speech. Inside its walls there was only silence; the children never learned to speak. But the experiment, to Luke, feels incomplete. The nature of communication and its possible correspondence to the soul obsesses him. Did it correspond to the soul, and, if so, how could one see it? Could you touch it, see it, cut into it…

It is the tone of this novel that does a lot of the work. The tone of the protagonist, the tone of setting. Together, they build an intense fusion of the former’s analytical voyeurism and the latter’s airy and wraith-like qualities. It is like watching a madman inside a dream, complete with a Sleepy Hollow-like sort of haze that covers everything and turns the everyday interaction—a chance meeting at a library, an innocent letter sent through the post—into catalysts for sexual deviance and callous violence. The characters felt almost ethereal and had a dream-like quality, as if they, and likewise, their entire world, were constantly shrouded in a sepia haze. That almost-surreal quality reminded me of The Vegetarian, House of Leaves and even 1Q84.

Yet, for so many of us readers, it is the protagonist that we most care about. We want to feel what it is like to slip into their shoes; we want to crawl into their minds and understand the mechanisms of it. But, readers, beware. For in The Dumb House, Burnside managed to create a character who is as cold in his natural eloquence as he is almost detached in emotion in narration. The narrator is like a slick block of ice, rounded at the edges so as not to be overtly or obviously menacing and dangerous to the outside word, to the everyday onlooker. For some, the inner workings of his mind will utterly intrigue. Others will find him utterly deplorable. For there were two things about Luke that I slowly began to grasp as the narrative went on: he suffers from “Rich and Entitled Syndrome” as much as he does from severe ego maniacal delusions. He believes himself to be always laboring under the guise of curiosity and exploration of what it means to be human, even as he slowly destroys the humanity around him in search of this purpose. And this delusional quality is what made the narration so piercing, because it was consistently eloquent and disturbingly calculating in the coldest of manners simultaneously.

“…how easy it would be to find a young runaway on her first or second night: someone inexperienced, someone vulnerable. I’d read about men who wandered around the stations and backstreets at night, hunting down such girls. If they could do it, I could…Even if she wasn’t a willing partner, even if she didn’t understand what was happening, or what her true purpose was, she would be comfortable and well looked after, for a time at least. Most importantly, she would be engaged in something worthwhile…”

This would likely be a good time to mention that if you’re squeamish, intolerant of the sexually perverse and/or uncomfortable reading about harm inflicted on women, children and animals, you should go ahead and turn back now. This one is full of that.

There is no mistaking that the prose is both elegant and intellectual throughout, no matter your feelings about the protagonist. This novel was unmistakably Gothic, with all of the subtle touches and fine-hair-raising moments requisite to earn such a title. From crop circles to human dissections, you can find an alternate world within these pages, one that will stretch the breadth of what you’re comfortable with and is altogether unlike anything else you’ve ever read. The Dumb House earned itself a solid 4 stars ****

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

Paperback, Reissue, 256 pages
Published February 6th 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1952)

“…that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption…there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgment because there wasn’t the first two. Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar…”

Wise Blood is the story of Hazel Motes, a recently discharged twenty-something war vet who returns home to Tennessee to find the town abandoned and his childhood home dilapidated and deserted. So, he leaves the town behind and takes a train to Taulkinham, where he meets the crude, ignorant and possibly OCD/mentally ill Enoch Emery. Together, they encounter a blind preacher turned sometimes street beggar, Asa Hawks, and his 15-year-old daughter, Sabbath (her name in itself an ironic play on the themes of this novel). Motes becomes entangled with the Hawks’ as he embarks on the notion of atheism and—fully embracing it partially out of resistance to Asa Hawks’ idea that Motes needs to repent for his sins—starts his own church, the Church Without Christ. As he starts preaching his message of salvation through truth from the nose of his old car, he encounters a street-preaching swindler, Hoover Shoats, who steals Motes’ idea of the Church Without Christ and uses it to get rich, also preaching a varied version of that message on the streets, which effectively pushes Motes out of his own market and idea. When he finds out that Asa Hawks is also a crook, he takes up with his daughter, who proclaims of him:“I said look at those pee-can eyes and go crazy, girl! That innocent look don’t hide a thing, he’s just pure filthy right down to the guts, like me. The only difference is I like being that way and he don’t.Soon after, Motes’ disillusionment starts its descent into completeness, as a series of events pushes him to enraged murder and finally to self-mutilization and recluseness. Meanwhile, Enoch Emery’s story line branches off into him becoming enamored with, and then literally turning into, a gorilla, which came off as a little slapstick in its presentation and fell flat for me as a whole.

Wise Blood seemed to hit the ground running toward something definite and profound from the very first page. Rushing toward an abandoned home in Tennessee, then rushing toward Hazel Motes’ warped coming-of-age prophecy of atheism and a “new jesus” (yes, lowercase). O’Connor hit on salient, hard-hitting moments of ironic verity and outright cultural authenticity in true Southern Gothic fashion: Christianity versus atheism in the post-war South, Christian hypocrisy, redemption, isolation, and coming of age. In that way, it had its moments of dazzling literary insight. The characters were, for the most part, well realized, each offering a necessary ingredient to this Gothic tradition. And yet.

A little-known fact of this this novel is that it was originally not a novel at all but a collection of short stories (published in various publications). The first chapter of Wise Blood was an expanded version of Flannery O’Connor’s Master’s thesis, and several of the other chapters were reworked versions that she revised so that they could all fit together as a novel. Hence, Wise Blood was born, but the thing is, it didn’t work 100% as a fluid work of literature. For the most part, it did. For the most part, this novel read as a cohesive story with fully realized narrative arcs and satirical if not poignant realizations throughout. Yet, Enoch Emery’s character dragged down the latter part of the novel, because the short story that he derived from, “Enoch and the Gorilla,” did not fit with the theme of the rest of the novel. It felt disparate, like it didn’t belong, which, of course, is true since it was originally a separate short story, but it should not have felt that way to the reader.

O’Connor’s use of vernacular was spectacular.

The sense of setting was complete.

And yet, though we make a habit of saying here in the South, “One monkey don’t stop no show,” in this case, it certainly did. 3.5 stars ***