fulfilling book riot’s 2020 read harder challenge task #11: Read a debut novel by a queer author
set on a plantation in antebellum mississippi, this is a story about two slaves—isaiah and samuel—who find respite from the brutality of their lives in their love for each other, and how this relationship brings hope, comfort, or danger to those around them.
as far as story, content, and characters go, this book is a mega-star. i had difficulty with some of the author’s prose/style choices, but the parts that i loved far outweighed the parts that i didn’t.
it’s a sprawling novel—there are many character POVs, looping back and forth through time and locale. and when he’s writing in the grounded and immediate, it’s superb. however, he also tends towards the abstract and ethereal, the slippery and poetic—not only in the observations/commentary of “the seven,” whose mysterious ancestral/divine presence surfaces throughout the novel, spouting foreshadowy bits of ominous, impressionistic speech—but also in the ordinary/mortal characters, like timothy—artist-son of the slaveowner:
He had learned that horrors could be planted like seeds, spring to life if given the right tenderness of soil, water, and shine. Unfurl slowly beneath the earth’s skin, burrowing down even as it stretched upward toward an open sky. Hiding, at first, its center, it could be coaxed to reveal its core, exposing colors vibrant enough to make even animals weep, unveiling fragrances that could seduce even the most ferocious of bees. You would never know it was poison until you touched it or consumed it, but by then it was already too late. You had already been choked, just like the ones before you. And there was no one left unscathed enough to tell the tale, to warn the next person foolish enough to stop and admire, plucked when they should have just left well enough alone.
this is probably not the best example of the phenomenon, but it’s the first one i flipped to just now. this kind of writing is not my jam, and it weighed me down with its mooshiness—having to parse so many amorphous clause-riddled sentences for meaning, when so much of the rest of the prose was so sharp and precise:
It was worse when the cruelty came from other women. It shouldn’t have been; after all, women were people, too. But it was. When women did it, it was like being stabbed with two knives instead of one. Two knives, one in the back and the other in a place that couldn’t be seen, only felt.
the only other complaint i had was that there are a ton of characters; their relationships and motivations so many spinning plates, so it gets a little messy and convoluted in the resolution.
long story short—i didn’t love all of it, i didn’t even understand all of it, but having said that, the most important takeaway here is that the parts that were great were GREAT.
because once you get used to his style, it’s such an impressive debut. the female characters are particularly well-rendered, and the way he expands the thematic focus of the typical historical slavery novel to consider not only gender, but also sexuality, is spectacular. i could have read an entire novel about the matriarchal african tribe led by king akusa, and the slave ship passages were excruciatingly powerful.
one last quote and then i’m out:
To survive in this place, you had to want to die. That was the way of the world as remade by toubab, and Samuel’s list of grievances was long: They pushed people into the mud and then called them filthy. They forbade people from accessing any knowledge of the world and then called them simple. They worked people until their empty hands were twisted, bleeding, and could do no more, then called them lazy. They forced people to eat innards from troughs and then called them uncivilized. They kidnapped babies and shattered families and then called them incapable of love. They raped and lynched and cut up people into parts, and then called the pieces savage. They stepped on people’s throats with all their might and asked why the people couldn’t breathe. And then, when people made an attempt to break the foot, or cut it off one, they screamed “CHAOS!” and claimed that mass murder was the only way to restore order.
definitely one to watch.