This book recently won the National Book Award for Fiction so I decided to read it. I certainly understand why it received the prize.
The novel is set in a coastal town in Mississippi. Thirteen-year-old Jojo and his three-year-old sister Kayla live with their maternal grandparents, Mam and Pop, because their mother Leonie, a drug addict, often disappears for days. Their father Michael, a white man, is released after serving three years in Parchman, the state penitentiary, and Leonie, wanting to reunite her family, insists on taking her children when she drives north to pick him up.
The book examines the effects of racism and injustice on a rural black family. An 18-year-old black man is killed because he dares to win a shooting contest with a white man; the court rules the incident an accident. When faced with a 13-year-old black boy and a white woman who is probably still high on drugs, a policeman choses to handcuff the boy and even aims a gun at him. Being black means having limited options; Mam speaks of “Growing old with my mouth twisted bitter at the taste of what I’d been accorded in the feast of life: mustard greens and raw persimmons, sharp with unfulfilled promise and loss.” Leonie echoes these feelings when she mentions, “Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds.” The ghost of a young man imprisoned at Parchman emphasizes how little has changed over time: “Parchman was past, present, and future all at once. . . . [At the old Parchman] I watched chained men clear the land and lay the first logs for the first barracks for gunmen and trusty shooters. . . . [At the new Parchman I saw] men who wore their hair long and braided to their scalps, who sat for hours in small, windowless rooms, staring at big black boxes that streamed dreams. Their faces in the blue light were stiff as corpses.”
What stands out for me is the realistic character portrayal. The first impression the reader has of Leonie is that she is self-absorbed and a negligent parent. Leonie even admits that “’I’m too selfish.’” Mam tells Jojo that Leonie, “’ain’t got the mothering instinct. . . . she love you. She don’t know how to show it. And her love for herself and her love for Michael – well, it gets in the way. It confuses her.’” Then gradually, the reader is given Leonie’s perspective and he/she sees a woman who is grieving for her murdered brother. Her disappointment with life and her shame because of her behaviour become palpable. At one point, Leonie has a dream of being marooned on a raft, a dream which clearly describes her situation in the world and her feelings: “I’m not alone in the raft because Jojo and Michaela and Michael are 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 thrust them up toward the surface, to the fractured sky so they can live, but they keep slipping from my hands. . . . I am failing them. We are all drowning.” One cannot but have some sympathy for her.
Jojo is another character who makes a strong impression. He is a very sensitive young man. He adores his grandfather whom he tries to emulate, but he distrusts his mother because of her drug use so he takes responsibility for looking after his sister and is fiercely protective of her. Not understanding his mother’s suffering, at times he is very judgmental, but he is a son most parents could not but be proud of.
Not being a fan of magic realism, the one element I did not enjoy is the ghost stories. The ghosts of two young black men who did not get a chance to grow up occupy a huge presence in the second half of the book. There are other ghosts as well who died violent deaths and have not found peace: “He raped me and suffocated me until I died I put my hands up and he shot me eight times she locked me in the shed and starved me to death while I listened to my babies playing with her in the yard they came in my cell in the middle of the night and they hung me they found I could read and they dragged me out to the barn and gouged my eyes before they beat me still I was sick and he said I was an abomination and Jesus say suffer little children so let her go and he put me under the water and I couldn’t breathe.” I understand their thematic purpose in the book, but I did not find their presence as effective as those in Lincoln in the Bardo.
Despite this reservation, I do recommend the book though readers should be forewarned that it is a disheartening read.