Attracting much critical acclaim in the US and an Oprah Book Club pick which ensures high sales this is a big book in terms of size and themes, coming in at just under 800 pages and an extraordinary debut from an award-winning poet.
It is both an epic saga taking in generations of an African American family from Chicasetta, Georgia and in a parallel first-person narrative an intimate, unflinching study of the youngest member Ailey, focusing in very close detail on her upbringing and academic studies. A family tree at the front of the book is vital as one narrative begins with the Native American inhabitants of the land moving to the rise of the plantation and slavery moving through the generations slowly slotting things into place as Ailey begins her own studies of her family history.
The historical narrative is powerful, beautifully written and impressive. This is a long book, however, and it does at time sprawl which can place demands on the reader. This author loves detail and this is most evident in Ailey’s account which is so closely observed and meticulous in its detail. It was here that I felt the odd twinge of frustration, especially in Ailey’s college years and her response to American academia. However, this is a book which will leave the reader feeling changed, this long time spent in the company of Ailey’s family (you can’t rush through this book) will provide the reader with a change of perspective in terms of American history, race and feminism.
It never gets any easier reading about slavery and it is important that it doesn’t. Ailey’s contemporary account highlights the more subtle forms of racism, including what is referred to here as “Black Tax” where the African-American has to work harder to achieve the same results.
I know I am not the intended audience for what the author unapologetically describes in her Coda as “a black feminist novel” and “undoubtedly a woman’s novel” but I was very impressed.
The Love Songs Of W E B Du Bois was published on 20th January 2022 by 4th Estate in the UK. Many thanks to the publishers and NB magazine for the review copy. This review, along with many others of recently published books can be found at the Review Centre on the NB website.