Harlem Shuffle – Colson Whitehead (Fleet 2021)

Colson Whitehead’s reputation as one of the greatest living American writers took off with his last two novels which both won the Pulitzer Prize making him only the 4th writer to win this most prestigious Fiction award twice (alongside William Faulkner, John Updike and Booth Tarkington) and the only Black American to do so to date.

The Underground Railroad”(2016) was the book that took him to the big league- I still cannot understand how it did not win the 2017 Man Booker Prize describing it thus “It ticks all the boxes for me, an involving, entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read.”.  I still feel aggrieved by the panel awarding the big prize to “Lincoln In The Bardo” with Whitehead failing to make the transition from longlist to shortlist.  I still haven’t watched the adaptation of this currently on Amazon Prime in the UK. 

Pulitzer Prize number 2 came with “The Nickel Boys” (2019) which focused on a boy’s reform school.  This was a more straightforward narrative which managed to both please and slightly disappoint me so I ranked it four stars.

This latest, his 8th novel is more understated than his two big-hitters but he is now at a point of his career where each publication is a big literary event.  Set in late 50’s/early 60’s Harlem it feels what I imagine Chester Himes to read like (I’ve never read him but I did recently buy “A Rage In Harlem” (1957) so it’s only a matter of time) with greater awareness of the history between now and then and the significance of civil rights unrest.  Here this unrest provides a backdrop more than a focus for the novel and in fact is seen at best as an inconvenience by the characters.

Main character Raymond Carney’s focus is furniture, a salesman with his own store. His desire is to become the first black shop-owner allowed to stock branded items previously only available in white-owned stores.  Carney is doing okay, he is employing staff and looking towards expansion but the start-up money derived from wrong-doings from his largely absent now deceased father and that association causes Carney problems.  Fencing stolen goods becomes part of his trade yet (and this will become the most quoted phrase from this novel) “Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked.”

The influence of family leads to Carney becoming involved in a heist at a hotel frequented by a black clientele which begins a slippery slope.  What begins as a crime caper becomes darker as Carney becomes obsessed by revenge whilst always trying to separate the personal from his business life.

Carney is a great character and he comes up against a number of other memorable creations here but I found plot development a little stop-start and the novel does not flow as well as I would have hoped.  I actually found it hard to retain what had been going on.  There’s a tendency to introduce something then backtrack as to how it happens, but this introduction caused me to feel like I’d missed out on something and started leafing back when there was no need as the author hadn’t got to that bit yet.  The plot seems too content to just simmer along, there were points when the pace accelerated and then the book really takes off. 

There’s nothing wrong with this novel and it’s totally right that an author should be allowed to move back from creating the extraordinary to do something which feels less momentous but it is not up there with his best.  I think my own expectations might have let me down here.  I’d been looking forward to the publication of this since the start of the year when I highlighted it as a must-read for 2021 and that is probably the reason why it feels for me just a touch disappointing.

Harlem Shuffle will be published on 14th Sept 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward (2017)

The paperback edition of this has sat on my shelves since it was published when I was so eager to get hold of a copy and I feel bad that it has taken me so long to get round to reading it.  Mississippi resident Jesmyn Ward made history with this book when she became the first Black American writer as well as the first woman to win a second National Book Award for fiction in her home country.  It seems incredible it took until 2017 for this to be achieved.  Her earlier win came with “Salvage The Bones” (2011) which I also haven’t read.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, the title and front cover made me think I would be in similar territory to Robert Jones Jnr’s masterful “The Prophets” (2021) but this is a Southern-set contemporary novel enriched with the rhythms and the sense of folklore, rhythms, spiritual beliefs and history of the community.  This makes it a powerful read. 

At first I was a little resistant.  I thought it might be a novel about bad parenting using thirteen year old Jojo and his neglectful mother, Leonie, to narrate sections and I wasn’t sure I fancied that, despite the quality of the writing.  A road trip (which I can also be ambivalent about in fiction) to collect Jojo’s white Dad from prison surprised me by really drawing me in even as it emphasised the poor parenting skills as the adults focus on getting high .  Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, are forged closer together during this time because of their strong feelings for one another and their mother’s indifference.  They leave at home Jojo’s grandparents, Pop, who is filling the gaps Leonie creates through his care and his stories of the past and Mam, rooted in mysticism and the supernatural but now in terminal decline as cancer ravages her body.  The other side of Jojo’s family is dominated by a racist who wants nothing to do with his son’s choice of partner.  The ghosts we carry around with us become palpable as the narrative progresses leading to an extraordinary last third which so impressed but which wouldn’t have functioned had not the character development in the opening two-thirds been so strong.

It is rare that I am drawn to a book both so lyrical and spiritual and on completion I experienced that shift in my perspective which you get from reading top-quality fiction.  It definitely had some difficult, challenging moments both for the characters and the reader and it cannot be consistently described as enjoyable but it certainly provided a powerful experience and it will stay with me for a long time.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, was published in the UK by Bloomsbury in 2017.

The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett (2020)

Another book from my What I Should Have Read In 2020 post (I’ve now managed to get through 60% of these).  Here was one I suspected  that I would really like but I enjoyed it even more than I imagined.  This is American author Brit Bennett’s second novel and after this I would certainly be keen on seeking out her 2016 debut “The Mothers”.

This, however, is the book that has established her breakthrough into the big time, appearing on so many Best Of The Year lists and has been shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for fiction.  The hype has built up which is often a dangerous thing for me and my expectations, but I’ll emphasise this, my expectations were exceeded here.

I came to it knowing roughly what it was about but there was so much more to it . Two light-skinned black twin sisters disappear from their small-town home and head for the excitement of New Orleans.  One, Desiree, eventually pairs up with an abusive, dark skinned man and has Jude, whose blue-black darkness of her skin shocks the residents of her home town, Mallard (where its black residents generally have a much lighter tone) on her return whereas her twin, Stella, ditches Desiree to disappear once again and decides to “pass” and live her life as a white woman.  In a decades spanning time frame we have as our starting point 1968 when Desiree returns to Mallard with her young daughter. 

There are so many discussion points in this novel regarding identity that one might expect it to feel issue-driven but no, plot and characterisation are both very strong and that together with its immersive readability provides an extremely impressive rounded work.  Those plot lines and unpredictable turns do drive the reader forward.  It’s not without a healthy dollop of melodrama and on a few occasions the authors use of cliff-hangers resembles the soap operas that one of the characters makes a name for herself on, but this is also a good thing, making it feel highly commercial, this together with its relevance where its publication alongside the media coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement created publicity at a time when lockdown ensured the usual avenues of publicising their work were not open to most authors.  This book deserved the exposure, however, not because it was of the moment but because of the sheer quality of the handling of all areas of the book.

Performance has a major part to play.  Many of the characters are donning a disguise and playing a part, some professionally and some within their lives and even within their closest relationships.  I found the implications and repercussions of this fascinating.  It has the unusual advantages of being both a thought-provoking important novel and a great holiday read and I hope many more people will discover this work over the summer.  My only criticism of a book I found very difficult to put down is that perhaps the ending felt a little flat and less defined than I would have hoped but that may have been because it was the end of the novel and there was no more to read about these characters. 

The Vanishing Half was published in the UK by Dialogue Books in 2020.  The paperback edition is out now.

A Little Devil in America – Hanif Abdurraqib (2021)

Ohio resident Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist and music critic and is both critically acclaimed and a good commercial proposition in his homeland.  This non-fiction work is something we’ve been seeing a fair bit of recently- a mash-up of memoir and analysis.  At times it feels like a collection of essays but I don’t think it is.  Linking the pieces together is the theme of the black performer in America and coming from that is the significance of dance.  Saying it like this, however, is very much simplifying matters.  Abdurraqib, being a poet sees things in terms of metaphor and the notion of dance and performance is used to touch on many aspects of the American experience, and especially the African-American experience.

Also, being a poet Abdurraqib does not see things the way many of us do, he has the ability to zoom in on a detail and expand out from that.  It’s often a moment in a life he finds fascinating and what it tells us about that particular life and the environment in which it was lived and that in itself is intriguing.  In terms of the performers examined there is a very good range and I find much of his writing illuminating.  With Aretha Franklin, he examines her funeral, and what the “sending home” of the ritual says of a life and then moves backwards to the filmed version of her live gospel recording “Amazing Grace”- the biggest selling gospel live album of all time.  With Whitney Houston he focuses on the response of the black audience and how that changed.  There’s a lively section about the antagonism between two demonstrative performers, Joe Tex and James Brown.  The issue of “blackface” is dealt with through William Lane known as Master Juba who Charles Dickens saw perform and how casual racism caused a latter day TV tribute by Ben Vereen to this black minstrel who performed in blackface to become meaningless because his performance was cut inappropriately. 

People who have not fitted in to what was expected of them are examined including Sammy Davis Jnr, Michael Jackson and the always amazing to read about Josephine Baker.

This is where this book is the strongest for me, a white British reader, I can see the common threads and follow the arguments.  When the author veers away from this central theme I miss the tightness of the structure although I am still impressed by the writing.

And the writing is impassioned, creative, energetic and very often enthralling.  Culturally, very few will get all the references initially because of the broad timescale Abdurraqib employs in this work.  If this looseness of structure and digressive style which I have mentioned before (most recently in “Gay Bar” by Jeremy Atherton Lin) is going to become commonplace I’m just going to have to get used to it because to ignore it would mean missing out on impressive, quality writing.

A Little Devil in America was published in the UK by Allen Lane on 30th March 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

100 Essential Books – The Prophets – Robert Jones Jnr (Quercus 2021)

I was looking forward to reading this.  It is an extraordinary debut novel from gay black American author Robert Jones which could very well become a contender for the twenty-first century Great American novel.

It is a historical work set in the Halifax family’s cotton plantation in Vicksburg, Mississippi and over the years the slave plantation is a location I have visited quite a few times in fiction but I don’t think that many have made so much of an impression upon me as this.

In a barn live and work two teenagers, Samuel and Isaiah, who have become lovers.  Set apart from both the rest of the slaves and the members of the white household but observed by both they are true outsiders.  The response to these boys searching for happiness in such a grim existence is commented on by other characters, often in sections that relate to Books of the Bible.  They are also observed by a chorus of ancestral voices who powerfully and poetically comment on proceedings. 

The boys, unbeknown to them, have been part of an economic experiment by the white master, Paul Halifax, who has put them in an environment of hard physical work away from the cotton-picking to make studs of them, to provide him with a strong stock of future slaves.  The problem is, the boys are only interested  in one another.  Along comes another slave Amos, granted rights of preaching who uses his sermons to turn the slaves against the boys known to all as “The Two Of Them”.  Others in the plantation cannot comprehend what Amos is against thinking that happiness should be taken wherever it is possible to find it.  Samuel and Isaiah’s combustible situation is exacerbated by the sexually frustrated white mistress and her son returned from a “liberal” education up North.

The plot, in its bare bones here, seems a tad melodramatic, but oh my, how well Jones brings it alive, developing characters quickly and effectively and by having these two young men at the centre of a love story which feels bound to be ultimately tragic.

Amongst this Jones also superbly intersperses tales from previous generations- of the plantation’s ancestors, of plunder, of slave ships encompassing the black American history to this point into one superb novel.

When reading this it was a comment I had seen by Marlon James which kept coming to mind.  He said of this book; “The Prophets shakes right down to the bone what the American novel should do, and can do.  That shuffling sound you hear is Morrison, Baldwin and Angelou whooping and hollering both in pride and wonder.” 

What a marvellous thing to say about another author’s book but it is so appropriate.  And this is a debut novel!  At the end Robert Jones Jnr acknowledges hundreds of people by name, those black writers, educators, public figures, musicians, performers, friends who have inspired him, an awe-inspiring roll-call which might have seemed over the top if Jones did not have the goods to deliver.  With this enthralling, heart-breaking, poetic, challenging, very accessible yet difficult novel he certainly has.  The only thing I am not totally on board with is the cover which has a self-published self-help book vibe about it but certainly do not judge this by that. It is possible that I may have already read my Book of The Year.

The Prophets was published by Quercus in the UK in hardback on 5th January 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Such A Fun Age – Kiley Reid (2020)

On the day I finished this it was announced that Philadelphian resident Kelly Reid had won the Best Debut Award at The Goodreads Choice Awards, voted for by readers.  I am not surprised that this book has won a popular vote as I would be hard pushed to come up with a suggestion for a better debut novel this year.

There are a lot of complex issues in this book presented in a highly readable, involving form.  I found myself holding my breath when reading it, I was so gripped by the turn of events and felt on edge for the characters.  It is very much a book for our age, certainly in keeping with a couple of other books written by women of colour I have read this year which feel so relevant, as well as being very well-written, Kia Abdullah’s stunning legal thriller “Truth Be Told” and Candice Carty-Williams’ British take in “Queenie”.

Reid’s richly drawn main character is Emira, a 25 year old young black woman living in Philadelphia who works part-time as a babysitter for two white children.  One night, whilst at a party, she is called on for emergency child-care in order to remove the toddler Briar from the house for a time.  With limited choices available at that time of night, Emira takes Briar to a supermarket which sets off a whole chain of events.  This makes for a jaw dropping, tense beginning and repercussions and analysis of this event occupies all the main characters.  At the supermarket the proceedings are filmed by a white man, Kelley, who Emira begins a relationship with.  Her white employer, Alix becomes obsessed with this event and with Emira herself.  The multi-layered plot thickens continually until the characters are in a right old stew.  Whose behaviour is without blame?  Who is using who to score points and how far can all of the characters’ actions and justifications be classed as racist? It is especially pertinent (following the publication of this book) with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s non-fiction work “Why I’m Not Talking To White People About Race” (2018) belatedly topping the UK best sellers list but here we have some of these issues within a vibrantly written, involving fiction work which is so impressive.  There is great warmth and humour which also deepens the issues raised.  If we are to class this as an issue-led book it is so rich in character.  I would imagine this could well be a very big bestseller when the paperback is published on 29th December. 

My only reservation is the title and I know it’s ironic but it doesn’t convey the feel of the book and may detract purchasers, especially in the UK, where it has a kind of a “jolly hockey-sticks” air about it but surely this will be compensated by the very good word of mouth and its featuring in end of year lists, including The Daily Telegraph’s Best Books, that Goodreads win, a Booker longlist nod and The Independent calling it “the book of the year.”

“Such A Fun Age” was published in hardback in the UK in 2020 by Bloomsbury Circus.  The paperback edition is scheduled for 29th December.

Lot- Bryan Washington (2019)

This critically acclaimed collection of linked short stories is the winner of the 2020 Dylan Thomas Prize (given to the best work by a writer under the age of forty), was a New York Times Top 10 Book Of The Year and was publicly lauded by Barack Obama.  I don’t often seek out the short story format in my reading choices but I do have Washington’s debut novel “Memorial” due out in the UK in early 2021 on my reading schedule and I was interested in finding out more about this writer before I begin his novel and short stories are often a good way to get to know a writer.

In “Lot” we have 13 stories ranging from 3 pages in length to around 30 pages for the collection’s closer “Elgin”.  All are set in regions of urban Houston, which is where the author resides.  The majority of them feature the same characters at different parts of their lives, a narrator Nicolas, his brother Javi and sister Jan and their parents, a Latino father and Black mother. The family run a restaurant and the young Nicolas is coming to terms with his sexuality in a very macho culture. 

Occasionally the stories stray away from this family grouping.  One I found very involving was the more mystical “Bayou” where a couple of teens discover a creature of legend – the Chupacabra and see it as a potential means of escape from their existence and also the equally impressive “Waugh” where a young street hustler finds his own way out and attempts to save a recently diagnosed HIV+ friend.  Looking for escape is a common theme but most often the characters are so embroiled in their everyday existence that they do not take it.

This is a selection of powerful, often brutal stories which certainly have me looking forward to reading Washington’s debut novel.

“Lot” was published in 2019.  I read the 2020 Atlantic paperback edition.

The Water Dancer – Ta-Nehesi Coates (Hamish Hamilton 2020)

Ta-Nehisi Coates has built a strong reputation for his non-fiction work, particularly his award-winning “Between The World And Me” from 2015 which was written as a letter to his son encompassing feelings regarding being a black man in the United States, a twenty-first century slant on James Baldwin’s important “The Fire Next Time” (1963). This is his debut novel, a historical work, set in Virginia in the nineteenth century.

Hiram Walker is a slave.  Acknowledged by his master as his son he is spared work in the tobacco fields and used as a servant for his white half-brother Maynard.  Whilst returning the no-good heir from the racetrack Hiram has a vision which leads to a catastrophic accident which puts his future in doubt.

Events lead him to become linked to the Underground Railroad, a group of agents who worked to free slaves and bring them north.  He meets and is inspired by Harriet Tubman, the real-life woman who rescued around 70 slaves on 13 dangerous missions.  Coates here employs a little magic to explain Tubman’s success, magic which Hiram himself discovers he has the potential to utilise, the ability to jaunt through space.

I wasn’t sure about this – feeling it undermined the true life heroine’s contribution but looking at the life of Harriet Tubman afterwards she did seem to experience visions probably caused by an overseer throwing a heavy weight at her head when a child so Coates is using an imaginative next step in using these visions to assist her with her rescues. Also, despite any misgivings the section where Hiram accompanies her on a mission was one of my favourite parts of the novel.  What also is done very well is emphasising the importance of story and their history for the black characters (both aspects often present in the very best Black American literature) and also conveying the sense of loss in their lives here at a time when the good times are drawing to a close for the white plantation owners meaning the slaves are no longer the asset for them they once were, which brings its own particular set of problems.

Comparisons do have to be made, however, to the multi-award winning 2016 best-selling novel by Colson Whitehead “The Underground Railroad” which similarly uses imagination to provide a creative slant on this rescue network.  That is one of my favourite novels in recent years and whereas I was very impressed by Coates’ debut the Whitehead novel has the edge.

The Water Dancer was published in hardback in the UK by Hamish Hamilton in February 2020.  The Penguin paperback is due on 19th November. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Bluebird Bluebird- Attica Locke (2017) – A Murder They Wrote Review

Attica Locke is an American author I’ve been meaning to read for some time.  I chose to start with the 4th of her 5 novels, the first in her so far two novel series “Highway 59” which features black Texan Ranger Darren Matthews.

In this novel Darren uses a temporary suspension from duties to visit the small East Texan town of Lark where two bodies have been fished out of the Bayou in rapid succession; a black man visiting the area followed a few days later by a young mother who lived locally.  This is not the usual order for murder victims in a location where the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas still operates, historically, too often a black man has been killed in retaliation for a white woman killing so the Ranger’s interest and his local knowledge of both the black and white local communities leads him to risk his fragile marriage and stay to unravel the case, meeting up with the dead man’s widow in the process.

Tensions simmer and occasionally bubble to the surface in this oppressive atmosphere which the author very effectively conveys.  Her main character is flawed but driven by a background brought up by two uncles, one himself a Texan Ranger, the other a lawyer, and a strong sense to do the right thing.  The story behind his suspension adds another layer to the plot and feels like it will carry over to the next in the series.  Richly written, strong characterisation and subtle plot twists made this very enjoyable and I would certainly want to catch up with this author’s other novels.

Bluebird Bluebird was published by Serpent’s Tail in 2017.