A Texas thriller, conceptual art, and various views on racism in America
By Jenean Marie Gilmer, Daley Farr, Emma Gordon, Annie Harvieux, Ann Mayhew, Kaylen Ralph, and Sarah Waller
A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s stunning debut novel examines systemic racism in America by following a single family over three generations in New Orleans. In A Kind of Freedom, the stories of Evelyn in 1944, her daughter Jackie in 1986, and Jackie’s son T.C. in 2010 unfold in alternating chapters, demonstrating the way the Jim Crow laws of Evelyn’s early adulthood continue to affect her grandson’s life more than 60 years later.
The format gives the reader the ability to judge Evelyn’s decisions with retrospective clarity. Since she is coming from a wealthy family — and, in marrying for love, chooses a husband who does not — a reader could be tempted to see her family’s subsequent problems as consequences of “choosing the wrong path.” But A Kind of Freedom fights this impulse with its fully fleshed out characters, its clear depictions of racism, and a closing scene that challenges anyone making exactly such a privileged judgment.
The book’s greatest strength lies in its characters. Evelyn, Jackie, T.C., and their family and friends are remarkably well developed, creating in the reader a wrenching empathy to their plights. These three main characters do their best to achieve their dreams despite a system working against them; the reader becomes invested in these stories even while knowing, in the case of Evelyn and Jackie, the ways in which these dreams will not be realized. A whole-hearted book that couldn’t be timelier, A Kind of Freedom challenges, illuminates, and inspires.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Inspired by Sophocle’s Antigone, 2017 Man Booker longlisted novel Home Fire is a story about love in all of its forms and an exploration of what those different iterations of love look like in the extreme.
Told in alternating perspectives, the novel focuses on two families. The father of the Pasha family was an Islamic extremist who died while in prison — a dark mark on the family’s tapestry that the eldest sister would rather never acknowledge or unnecessarily reveal unnecessarily. The Lones are a high-ranking political family; the patriarch has just assumed the title of Home Secretary, promising an agenda that is tough on religious extremism (and unforgiving toward extremists).
The families’ worlds collide when Isma, the eldest Pasha daughter, meets Eamonn, the new English Home Secretary’s oldest son. She is infatuated with this person she thinks she should distrust, but he, in turn, falls in love with Aneeka, Isma’s younger sister. Their love affair is intensely passionate as well as not altogether honest. Motives for affection have real-world political consequences, especially as Parvaiz — Aneeka’s twin brother and the only Pasha boy — attempts to establish a relationship with his deceased father by following his footsteps to the caliphate in Syria.
Shamsie’s writing evokes the lyricism of the classics — epic poems and tragic romances in which family loyalty, religion, and taboos all converge into the perfect literary storm (there’s also one very memorable sandstorm, too). The most compelling aspect of this novel is Shamsie’s examination of the temporaneous construct of nuclear families and how little it takes to disseminate a familial bond in a world contemporized by bias and uncertainty.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward returns to fiction with Sing, Unburied, Sing, an exquisitely controlled story about love, family, and American violence. In her first novel since 2011’s Salvage the Bones, Ward confronts our national legacy of injustice and racism in a narrative that feels frighteningly intimate but resonates with timelessness.
Sing, Unburied, Sing opens in the Mississippi Gulf with Jojo, a sensitive, biracial boy uncannily attuned to the voices of animals. He lives with his baby sister, Kayla, and their grandparents, Mam and Pap. Their mother, Leonie, is in and out of the house between her drug habit and her job in a backwoods bar. Their father, Michael, developed his own addiction after surviving the Deepwater Horizon explosion. A long drive to retrieve Michael from prison plunges each of them into a gripping struggle with the past.
In lyrical language permeated with eerie magical realism, Jojo and his family fight to preserve their humanity against forces determined to wrest it from them: prison, addiction, industry, police, and traumas experienced and inherited. While the story offers harmony with elders, ancestors, and the natural world as a balm, both land and lineage are fraught in a country founded on slavery.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is a reckoning with this country, its brutality and its ghosts, a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected with painful clarity — a stirring, masterful accomplishment.
We Were Witches by Ariel Gore
The latest installment of The Feminist Press’ Amythest Editions imprint is a compassionate, metafictional portrait of the artist as a young woman from Hip Mama founder Ariel Gore, told with whimsy and dignity. The result is a galvanizing celebration of womanhood and freedom.
Protagonist Ariel is a 19-year-old student precariously balancing money, motherhood, college, and her aspirations of being a writer. Guided by her collection of sacred feminist texts and dreamlike encounters with witchy female elders, Ariel copes with condescending school administrators, her abusive mother, threatening neighbors, and custody court. But the novel maintains a guileless warmth, even as it steadfastly rejects the various manifestations of harm and shame.
When the creative writing techniques from Ariel’s classes prove insufficient for describing her life as a queer teen mom, she builds a provocative critique of those conventions into her narrative. As the book Ariel works on within the novel blends into the narration of We Were Witches itself, she challenges tradition — from Grimms’ fairy tales to the phallic rising and falling action of Freytag’s pyramid. Ariel’s writing becomes a spell “built with the conscious intention of transmuting shame into power.”
We Were Witches conjures a creative depiction of a writer’s personal growth and inspiration while Gore displays welcome tenderness toward her younger, semi-fictionalized self. This “memoirist’s novel” is a beguiling mash-up of feminist quotations, literary critique, real life predicaments, and plenty of magic.
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
It’s no surprise that screenwriter Attica Locke’s latest novel, Bluebird, Bluebird, is a gripping page-turner with suspenseful hooks and an old-school, cinematic feel. This suspenseful read is also a genuine and open examination of a community’s wounds, including racism, poverty, nepotism in law enforcement, and sexism.
Bluebird, Bluebird follows Texas ranger Darren Mathews, a black man, as he investigates a series of murders in the tiny town of Lark in which a white woman and a black man have been murdered in close proximity. Darren’s increasing involvement in Lark’s problems doubles as an escape from home and problems of his own: alcoholism, a suspension from work, and conflict with his wife.
Locke’s ace card is her world building — from the local idioms and slang spoken by Lark’s residents, to the diner-door sleigh bells, blues music, and even the “bug-encrusted” license plates. The story’s social structure is notably well crafted. From family dinners to debts and divorces, Bluebird, Bluebird’s community dynamics — complicated even further by race and class divides — give just as compelling of clues for the book’s crimes as found weapons.
This is a book of small-town saloon fights and forbidden relationships but also one that name-drops hate crime victims like Sandra Bland. The juxtaposition of the old-fashioned feel and modern references is an effective tool for conveying the timelessness of discrimination. It puts a keen eye to the fact that damaging hateful and prejudiced biases will persist unless people take thoughtful, careful, and honest action to bring justice to their communities.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
One of the most compelling characters in Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng’s propulsive sophomore novel, is its setting. Shaker Heights, Ohio is America’s first planned community, meaning it prides itself on a kind of progressivism and equality made possible by obscuring difference and avoiding difficult conversations. Elena Richardson has been a resident of Shaker since childhood and now lives there with her own family, trying to instill the community’s sense of order in her teenage children.
To fulfill her sense of charitable responsibility, Elena rents out her second home to Mia, a mysterious artist who arrived in town with her teenage daughter Pearl. After spending her childhood on the road with her mother, Pearl is drawn to the well-adjusted Richardson children who embrace her for her foreignness and wit, but a contentious custody battle in Shaker Heights over a Chinese baby’s adoption into a white family soon pits Elena and Mia on opposite sides. Is it love or biology that makes someone a mother? And how do race, gender, and class play into that relationship?
As demonstrated in her breakout debut Everything I Never Told You, Ng is at her best when deepening her characters’ present actions by delving into their backstories. In Fires she uses this ability to humanize each perspective, leaving the reader with no easy answers. Though the omniscient narration in places feels contrived, Ng’s voice is a welcome reminder that true progress starts with embracing contradiction.
The Consequences by Niña Weijers, translated from the Dutch by Hester Velmans
Having enraptured Europe when first published in 2014, The Consequences by Dutch author Niña Weijers has already earned well-deserved prizes, rewards, and praise. In the book, Minnie Panis is a young contemporary artist in Amsterdam surprised by her success in the art world and looking for her next direction while at the same time trying to uncover the mystery of her strange past.
Minnie decides to end her affair with “the photographer” (who is never named), but she then breaks her unspoken rule of not staying the night, giving him the opportunity to photograph her in her sleep and publish the photos without her knowledge, which alters her career to her advantage. She decides to embark on a new project — letting him follow her around and photograph her, but she soon receives a letter straight from the past mentioning a vague treatment she underwent as a child, which she believes might explain why she feels so lost.
Despite having very few characters, Weijers’ prose is sharp, intimate, and curious as soon as the story begins. However, it takes an organized reader to follow Minnie’s conceptual art methods and isolated thoughts along with the flashbacks to Minnie’s childhood, her distant mother, and her various love affairs. The layout instills mystery but also creates distance, though perhaps that is exactly what Weijers wanted to convey about Minnie in the end.
Like a Dog by Tara Jepsen
City Lights/Sister Spit
Tara Jepsen’s novel Like a Dog follows the narrator Paloma as she drives around California in search of work, dried-up backyard pools for skating sessions, and her brother — an addict in a downward spiral. Jepsen’s description of addiction and Paloma’s relationship with her family will take a reader down a dark hole or two, but Like a Dog isn’t all doom and gloom. In fact, Jepsen’s humor may induce a spit-take or two. Readers are also treated to homilies regarding the vagaries of human sexuality, civic duty, and class:
“Who knows what those people think beyond ‘I better marry someone of my own class.’ ‘My siblings and I all went to prestigious universities and are doing Important Work.’ Do I think there are rich people who live without a hole inside themselves? Probability tells me there must be, but popular evidence begs to differ.”
Jepsen’s writing is dense and does important intellectual labor. Moreover, she’s to be praised for presenting her findings in a relatable, conversational tone. She takes on tough subjects, and her thoughts are complex, lack pretension, and are refreshingly honest.
A performer, actor, and an accomplished writer, Jepsen is multi-talented, but this is her first published novel, and it sometimes reads like one. The chattiness of the narrative might grind on some, but there’s a lot to be said for the gut-punching rawness of Like a Dog. It feels like Jepsen has been holding onto this story for a long time.
—Jenean Marie Gilmer