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Teen pregnancy is a staple of young adult fiction, but Jacqueline Woodson, the author of a number of groundbreaking books for that age group, has embedded the theme in her second novel for adults. She does so in a way that’s profound, moving and consistently unexpected.
For a start, the scandal – and in the affluent African American milieu to which Sabe and her husband, Sammy, belong, it is a scandal – is long past. Some 16 years past, in fact, because the story opens on 31 May 2001, with their granddaughter Melody’s coming-of-age ceremony.
It’s a charged scene that sets the tone for all that’s to come. The windows of their Brooklyn brownstone have been flung open and music spills out over the block; inside, sunshine dances on hardwood floors as Woodson’s cast negotiates exquisitely judged joy and sadness.
The novel’s first word, it should be noted, is “But”, a conjunction that throws an elegiac spell over the pages that follow – of which there aren’t nearly enough – hinting at trouble that lies in the past or the future or perhaps both.
It unfolds through the eyes and voices of five characters spanning three generations. There’s Melody, of course, who’s defiantly chosen to descend the stairs, cotillion-style, to Prince’s Darling Nikki. We hear from her grandparents, too – fierce Sabe and tender-hearted Sammy. And then there are Melody’s unmarried parents: Aubrey, for whom parenthood has always been enough, even as a teenager; and Iris, for whom the beginning of Melody’s life felt like the end of her own. It’s Iris’s dress – the one she never got to wear, having already become pregnant by 16 – that Melody wears.
Aloof and hungry, Iris is a difficult, brilliantly realised character, and one whom the author never judges. Having insisted on keeping the baby, Iris then flips the gender stereotypes and leaves Melody to be raised by her father and grandparents, heading off to faraway Oberlin College in an attempt to catch up with her own life. “Was that cruel?” she asks herself.
Mothers with no desire to mother are an enduring taboo, but Woodson’s novel is about more besides. Stretching back to the 1921 Tulsa massacre, from which Sabe’s mother and grandparents only narrowly escaped, and forward, to 9/11 and beyond, it’s a book that embraces class, desire, race, gender, ambition and tragedy, all with exemplary subtlety. The word “margarine”, for instance, conveys a world of socioeconomic differences; the fierceness with which a baby latches on contains all the seeds of a complex mother-daughter relationship.
Red at the Bone is pure poetry, filled with incantatory repetitions, soaring cadences, burnished images. There is laughter and spirit, “fire and ash and loss”, blocks of gold hidden beneath squeaky stairs. It’s a story laden with stories, too. As Sabe says, “If a body’s to be remembered, someone has to tell its story.”
Woodson does just that, weaving a narrative whose specificity yields an undeniable universality. We grownups have been missing out.
• Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson review – poetic and profound | Fiction