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In US author Jacqueline Woodson’s haunting novel, a 16-year-old girl’s coming-of-age party prompts an avalanche of memories for her middle-class African American family. Melody is smart, pretty, private school privileged and much adored by her father, Aubrey, and proud grandparents, Sabe and Po’Boy. Melody is also the product of a teenage pregnancy that has left her estranged from her mother, Iris, who chose the distance of college in Ohio over nappies, baby bottles and the domesticity of her parents’ Brooklyn brownstone.
The baby bump deprived Iris of her own introduction into society: now she must look on as her daughter descends the stairs wearing the white dress she was not permitted to wear and is serenaded by an orchestra playing an instrumental version of Prince’s “Darling Nikki”. On a spring day in 2001, while Melody and Malcolm, her childhood friend and date, swirl around the dance floor, so do the memories for the teenager and the key players in her life. Melody can’t help but observe that her relationship with her mother is full of regrets and thorns. “That afternoon, the years that separated us could have been fifty – Iris standing at the bottom of the stairs watching me. Me looking away from her. Where was I looking? At my father? My grandparents? At anything. At anyone. But her.”
There is an abundance of angst over class, gender and race subtly woven into this beguilingly slim novel. Woodson frames each chapter from the point of view of a different character, and the result is a narrative about an individual family that takes on communal urgency and power. She shows her readers how elliptical and obsessive human memory is. The precarious dance between intelligence and emotions makes it difficult to unravel the whole truth because no two characters experience the past in the same way. The past, however, informs their present.
In many ways, Red at the Bone is Iris’s story – that of a young woman raised for respectability who is unable to follow middle-class norms. Iris is a modern version of Janie in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God or Sula in Toni Morrison’s eponymous novel. At one point, Iris questions the nature of Melody’s relationship with Malcolm. She intuits that her daughter’s friend is gay. This recognition leads us to Iris’s own past and a love affair with another woman during her sophomore year at college. During a moment of sexual arousal, breast milk seeps from her body and she is forced to reveal to her girlfriend that she has a daughter (Melody) and boyfriend (Aubrey) waiting for her in Brooklyn. The reality dawns on Iris that her two lives will never blend, and she goes on to pour herself into her education and career. (How lovely, by the way, to see feminist writer bell hooks’s 1981 book Ain’t I a Woman mentioned, one of many examples of character- and world-building layered throughout Red at the Bone.)
But it’s not only Iris’s story: Melody’s father has his say too. Following an unstable childhood, Aubrey loves his baby girl and closes rank with Iris’s parents to give Melody a loving home during Iris’s prolonged absences. (Not every man can live with his in-laws.) Woodson captures how important status is for African Americans determined to pull themselves up from poverty and racial oppression. Upward mobility is fragile in black communities and the scrutiny hard when someone – in this case Iris – falls short of the family’s good name and potential. Sabe also carries the memory of her family’s escape from the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, along with a rock-solid belief that nothing but pure gold can keep black folk safe.
Woodson takes us back to when Sabe and Po’Boy first meet in Atlanta, Georgia, reflecting how many educated, middle-class men and women came to find lifelong partners at traditionally all‑black universities and colleges, where they were largely free from the white gaze. She shows how families pass down traumatic memories and reinvent themselves despite major setbacks. Those setbacks can become a source of joy or celebration: Po’Boy loves his grandchild in the same way he loved the daughter whose pregnancy broke his heart.
Black women and their sexuality – what is projected on to it; its weight, beauty and ease – are at the heart of Red at the Bone. Woodson seems to understand that there has never been a way for youth or love or desire to play it safe. A young girl’s sexuality is hers to discover, and not her parents’, nor her lovers’, to assume or take away. It is the mystery that keeps unravelling, like blood, truth and memory.
• Regina Porter’s The Travelers is published by Jonathan Cape. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson is published by W&N (RRP £14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson review – heartbreak and joy | Books