The Eighth Life: For Brilka by Nino Haratischwili

41071389._SY475_

And, in tracing the path of this ghost, she hoped to find redemption, and the definitive answer to the yawning emptiness inside her.

This is the book I have been needing to steep myself in all year. It’s about the revolution of the Janish family, which really begins with a secret, irresistible, seductive hot chocolate recipe that tastes like a blessing but bleeds into their lives like a curse. Surely a cup of warmth that fills the belly with such promise can fix an entire empire and yet how could they possibly know what destructive forces a red century has in store for them all? That they will become knots in a horror story of sorts, isn’t history full of those? Who is ever truly spared the cruelty of wars, within a country or a family? The beautiful Anastasia “Stasia”, ‘who came into the world already dancing’ is oblivious to the power the secret recipe her father (a famous chocolatier) gives her. “He guarded it like a secret of war.” He makes her promise to never allow the recipe to leave the family nor use it lightly, it is meant only for rare, special occasions. Does she heed his warning? From the moment it touches her tongue “it was like a spiritual ecstasy”, her fanciful dreams of life as a ballerina in Paris dissolve, but that is the least of the miseries and sorrows to come. In marrying a friend of her father’s, lieutenant of the White Guard Simon Jashi, she is bound not for Paris but for the cold climate of Russia- a country troubled with unrest. Meant to join her husband who left ahead of her, things run amok and fate teaches her a lesson.

There is no time for innocence nor clumsy dreams. It is only a relative that keeps her alive and later, when everything sours and the October Revolution thunders on, tragedy strikes. Fleeing destruction and death she finds her husband and gets pregnant with their first child ( Brilka’s great grandfather), returns back to Georgia “to the bosom of her family”, only to see the Chocolaterie fall into the state’s hands. Joined together again, she and Simon live in the countryside as a family where her life no longer feels like her own. Her sister Christine comes of age, blossoms and makes a very successful marriage. Stasia’s family grows as she gives birth to a daughter, and refusing to visit her husband in Moscow, instead moves into her father’s halved house. Later, she and her children live with her beautiful sister Christine and her husband Ramas. Christine catches the eye of her husband’s superior, the Little Big Man, awakens his animal urges, and sets in motion a horrific chain of events that will near destroy their entire family.

Then there are the children, Kitty and Kostya and how their lives play out. They both find themselves tied up in Andro’s own future, the son of Stasia’s dangerous friend, Sopio. How did I keep up with every character without notes? That’s how enthralled I was with the family and I began to feel like I was living through it all alongside them. This is a novel rich with history but nothing is more domineering than the fate of these characters. The dust never settles, the devil always seems to be at someone’s heels. But just which devil? There is no monster nor darkness more terrifying than human beings. Betrayal, starvation, treason, infidelity, war, dictators, torture, pogroms… and “Men always want to be in charge of you. What kind of life is that? I may as well have been born a dog; even as a dog I would have more freedom.”  It’s not only women who ‘Little big men’ are in charge of, but countries full of doomed people. It’s as if another character may as well have been death, because it’s a constant presence.

If you’re unfamiliar with Russian, German, Georgian history then you will be better informed after reading this novel. I can’t imagine a reader unfamiliar with it being able to understand the choices made nor the traps the characters all fall into. It makes for a more involved investment not all readers are interested in making. I, however, ate these pages. The horror of the times isn’t lost on me, my family has a history rife with Russian occupation and bullets, after-all Russia invaded Hungary. Poverty, hunger, cruelty, war, death, civil unrest- it feels like my own family history. Choosing which side your loyalty lies in a divided country is like choosing your own poison. People talk big who don’t understand living in fear and this novel certainly sheds light on the terror of the powerless.

There is a line about Kitty branded in my head, ‘she was a survival artist’, and the truth is every woman in the Jashi family has to be with their rotten circumstances or curse… “tomato, tamahto”.

I was riveted from the start and urge readers to dig into this novel full of riches. You can’t shake more story out of it. I was exhausted with all the emotional hijacking and I loved every moment of it. I won’t gush in a long winded review, because you need that precious time to invest in this novel. The characters fall into such a deep abyss that it’s a wonder there is a descendant (Brikla, for whom this is all told) that made it through her family’s traumas at all. It’s hard to feel sorry for myself looking back on history.  I don’t say this often, but Nino Haratischwili is a hell of a writer. How do her characters occupy her head space, with all their desires, regrets, rage? Yes, read this book! Remember you have been warned, it is not a light read.

Available Now

Scribe

 

 

 

 

 

Let the Willows Weep by Sherry Parnell

49024454._SY475_

With her voice long hardened from smoking Kent cigarettes, she spat out commands and insults that tore at your heart. I guess my father left before there was nothing left of his.

Children are victims of their parents circumstances, more often than not. The leaving between their parents feels more like abandonment of them, particularly when left behind with the domineering person one parent fled. I love a good southern fiction, and the willows will weep for Birddog Harlin, whose own mother has endured a rage that hardened her when her own father fled her mother’s meanness long ago. A slamming door echoes through the decades, turning a little girl into a hard woman who doesn’t have empathy for her own child, Birddog.

Birddog is nothing but a disappointment to her mother, protected by her beloved older brother Denny ( who seems to give the only scrap of niceness in her life), more often than not she is dodging her  rival, other brother Caul’s inborn meanness. Naturally the boys can do no wrong; the sun rises upon their shoulders, Denny’s in particular. Birddog adds to her mothers worries, fighting with boys, often covered in mud, her messiness the reason her mother can’t invite respectable ladies over for tea. Nothing like her beautiful mother, who her father admires so, despite her disappointment with the meager life his job as a miner gives them. Certainly not the low down job she ever wants her boys to do. Her adult life is just as tough as her youth was, slaving all day with chores, feeding her family, raising an impossible, disobedient, little girl are just some of the complaints that fill the air between she and her husband. Birddog knows her father feels shamed by her mother, but at some point her rage will always turn to her instead. When he defends his daughter Birddog it only strengthens her wrath.

Her mother wants nothing more than to enjoy tea with the ‘refined ladies’ of the town, just another thing a miner’s pay will never afford her. Worse, the gossip she is positive her shameless daughter inspires with her unladylike behavior makes that an impossibility. Birddog knows the truth of how things stand, as well as her father does. That just they don’t even exist in the eyes of polite society. If not for Daddy’s intervention, life would be nothing but darkness. Mother’s desire for better makes it impossible to feel and see just how much her husband adores her, and after a tragic turn of events, it’s too late to change things.

Weighted down by a deep blanket of grief, the children now have to step into adult decisions to keep the family afloat. Choices narrow for Denny as steps into his father’s shoes, Birddog’s mother is still jealous of the bond she had with her father, and a parting gift seals the distance between them. Caul comes into his own and seems to sail further from them, everything changes and mother fears all her children leaving. On the same breath, afraid of being left alone, she rips into Birddog- who still can’t live up to the sort of daughter she desires. Laziness won’t be tolerated, and soon Birddog is forced to take a job working for Ms. Tarmar who will teach her more than sewing, share her wisdom with her and have more room for compassion than her own mother.

Love finds her older brother Denny, and it finds Birddog too. Nothing is more doomed than forbidden love, as she will soon learn when she meets a caretaker named Samuel and his sweet, childlike brother Diggs. If only one could love away from the eyes of their ‘own kind’. This is another shame she’ll bring upon her family, and no one will forgive it. For a time, this man will open her eyes and heart to genuine love and kindness. But as he tells her, “there ain’t no place for that kind of love in this kind of world.” They don’t know how true his words are, and what love will cost both of them, body and soul.

This is how people become hardened, the world will beat you down, if you don’t know how to rise. No one escapes the pain loving brings, and maybe Birddog isn’t so different from her mother after-all.

Let the Willows Weep is about poverty, love, intolerance, shame, racism and family dysfunction. Rage is a circle that even the wisest who wish to escape can become trapped in. How is one to hope when life just keeps bringing you nothing but grief and loss? Love takes such strange shapes, it gives and takes indiscriminately in this sad tale. For those who love southern fiction with enough grit to make your eyes water.

Published October 2019

 

 

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982: A Novel by Cho Nam-Joo

46041199

Jiyoung’s lack of response to his lecture prompted the father to say, “You just stay out of trouble and get married.”

Jiyoung’s abnormal behavior is first detected on 8 September. Suddenly she seems to be channeling other women, to the point she downright becomes them. Shrinking in her own life, even sucking her thumb, becoming infantile again one night next to her newborn, something is really wrong. Sometimes she is old, and in another eerie instant she is her dead friend from college who tries to tell Jiyoung’s husband that she needs a break, some support, and maybe a little praise- raising their child. Is his wife losing her mind? Is she having a nervous breakdown? Then it’s too much, she insults her in-laws when she voices her own mother’s feelings, admitted that Jiyoung is exhausted and wouldn’t it be nice for a change for her to be able to give time and energy to her own family. How dare she speak up, in any woman’s voice? This is forbidden, women do not give their in-laws a talking down to. They respect their husband, his family, they cook, clean, serve with a pleasure, fulfilling every expectation. It is dishonorable to demand  special treatment. It is frightening what is happening, what is wrong with her, why is she speaking for other women? Not quite herself anymore? Why is she insulting her in-laws in such a way, she should be honored to cater to their needs!

He seeks the help of a psychiatrist for his wife, who doesn’t quite recall anything out of the ordinary. It is through her past we begin to see what it means for Jiyoung, submitting to men, from her cherished brother to her in-laws, and husband. How a woman’s needs always ranks below the male. The girls learn to make do with whatever is available. So ordinary, this special treatment for the sons, that nothing seems unfair or imbalanced this is just the way of their culture. Grief filled births are sorrows women face, producing girls in place of much preferred boys. Abortion, often the solution to unwanted female fetuses in the 90’s and 80’s are one solution but they leave terrible scars of their own on the body and the soul. Mother always working hard at odd jobs but that is the least of her weight, caring for her mother-in-law and children without complaint. In her youth, forced to work in a factory, often women sick with illnesses from such work, all in support of the male siblings and husbands.

Oh Mistook, her mother, stood no chance for her big dreams. Despite her fantastic grades and promise, her future was open for only sacrifice, in supporting others. As Jyyoung learns, boys have the freedom to brutalize and bully. Children stuff there mouths to stay in line at lunch, boys are always elected over girls as class monitors. There is a sexual imbalance, girls the unwanted children. Even clothing alone confines them, playing sports in school, wishing for a more realistic, comfortable dress code. But nothing feels worse than sexual harassment, touched inappropriately by the male teachers, and not a thing to be said about it. You just take it all, don’t you?

In Korea, through her childhood and college, there is only so far she can rise. Always it’s the male students who get recommended. She truly works hard, does her very best, behaves honorably, yet it comes to nothing really. Her mother doesn’t want her settling for marriage, to continue on the backwards way of women having no career, no dreams. Despite fighting, working hard for her place in her career, the men still get paid better- it’s a huge gender pay gap. When she marries, gets pregnant, it’s still a boy everyone is hoping for. What of the sacrifice to her career, to being the one that is the stay at home parent, certainly a given for the mother? She speaks without her own voice, because women aren’t meant to be heard. It is only through others she can speak up about this discrimination, sexism, and misogamy.

Is it postnatal depression that makes Jiyoung become other women, from time to time, or is it the state of being a woman in the world in general? What a hassle these women are with their demands, their exhaustion, when they should just buck up and carry on just like their mother and grandmothers before them. What does the doctor know, he himself needs female workers whose childcare doesn’t interfere with a successful business. So much for change.

A feminist movement indeed, how far they’ve come, how far they still have to go.

Publication Date: April 14th, 2020

W.W. Norton & Company

Liveright

The Second Home: A Novel by Christina Clancy

48566502._SX318_ (1)

“I tell her she needs to learn how to be in the present.” Brad said, “The present is a hard place to be sometimes.”

Families, someone once said, are like countries. They have their differences, their war zones, their isolated places. There are secrets that are swept under the rug or kept under lock and key. Some change every relationship, some bring siblings closer. Summers can bring new beginnings or dreadful endings, and for one family a summer changed everything. The story begins with Ann reminiscing about her parents as she meets the realtor planning the sell the summer home her parent’s owned in Cape Cod, “the house felt like it was less a place they’d left behind than a place they’d planned to return to.” Shivering with memories, she knows it’s vital she has the place up for sale in time for the summer people. She and her sister Poppy will split the proceeds, Noah will have money for his college fund, the financial boost will make their lives easier. She happens upon a family photo and in it, Michael. Michael, their adopted brother- as Ann feels the picture like a burn in her hands, immediately the reader knows there is a story there.

Due to the suddenness of their parents death, there is no will. But surely, despite having two houses to sell, both Poppy and Ann will be in agreement. Poppy lives a life “like a long summer vacation”, constant to nothing. There is a bite in that thought, in a sister who doesn’t seem to be present enough. But what about Michael, the adopted son? Where is he in all of this? If they have to lie about the title being in the all clear, so be it. With that decision, we are in the past.

Michael enters the Gordon’s lives as more than a visitor, still feeling like an outsider. The beautiful house, unfamiliar to the type of world he lives in, seems to be ‘buzzing with life’. He learns their family traditions, their history, all ‘the stuff of legend’ right away, and despite the fact he should feel lucky that they saved him from the fate of a foster home upon his mother’s death, he sometimes feels like they rub their perfect lives in his face. That fact that he doesn’t belong in their perfect world is only more apparent when they run to the shore and his hesitates in terror, rather than plunging in like Poppy. It is then that he runs away from the ocean, telling Ed and Connie find he just wants to go back to the house but the family have news that will fill his heart with their love. But with any blessing, there is always a catch, and it makes family life complicated for the young teen.

Ann is 17, cringing under the watchful, protective eyes of her parents when she starts working for The Shaws. As a nanny/helper, it isn’t long before she gets a little too close to the couple and their children. privy to grown up problems, emotions. She is growing up too fast for her own good, learning adult secrets that are better left unknown.  Poppy spends the summer on her own, learning to surf, making new friends, the early days of her bohemian style. Put off because the family seems to run without her approval, even if she loves Michael it would have been nice to voice an opinion. A common woe of many last born children in a family. Michael notices that Ann seems obsessed with the Shaws and their big house, big lives. Irritated by the handsome couple eclipsing their importance in Ann’s life, feeling bored, lonely until Ann saves him again with an opportunity, a job working for the dreaded Shaws. It is when he meats Jason, the Shaws gardener and begins working for him that he too finds a passion in this ‘grunt work.’

Their summer begins with so much promise, but there are snarls in this perfect season and by the end of it, they will carry a bitter seed back home. Manipulation, lies, betrayal and leverage. When you love someone to the core, you’ll do anything to secure their future, even if it means destroying your own. Michael learns the hard way what being family means. Liars hold all the cards, and know just how to deal them so they remain the winner. People don’t get to the top without playing dirty. Ann is naive, but she goes from being this caring, sweet, strong willed girl who is the reason Michael is with the family at all to losing all sense of intelligence. Of course, fear plays a big role here, still… something just didn’t follow for me.

Just what did Ed and Connie do wrong in their parenting to cause such an unraveling? There is nothing but distance between the children, great distance for years!

The present, Michael is back and making a claim on the house. The story as it’s been told is falling apart, Poppy is once again shocked to find herself the last to know the truth. Ann hasn’t always been honest, and what she believed about Michael and about her nephew Noah’s origins may have all been a big lie. Does an heir who walked out on the family, breaking their parent’s hearts really deserve the chance to stake his claim? What makes it a solid women’s fiction pick is the seduction and abuse, that I don’t want to go too deeply into. It’s so easy to lead a young girl where you want them to go, that part is sadly too common. Still, in some ways the villain has an easy time of it.

This is a complicated tale about the love, desire, abuse, and loss one family must endure. The loss isn’t just in the death of Connie and Ed, but the closeness and support siblings should have had. Can the truth come too late? All it takes is one carefully constructed lie to change the direction all the children take. It’s sad, the wasted time, the broken hearts. It’s a good story, even if I found what happened a bit hard to pull off but life is stranger than fiction so you never know. I felt Ed and Connie would have gotten to the bottom of everything, but that’s just my take. I wish there was more time spent with Ann, Poppy and Michael as siblings before the rot set in, so it would be easier to understand the pain Poppy felt too. I actually liked Poppy’s role, in so many families the youngest is left out of the important decisions, and stories (especially involving sordid things), which often makes them feel adrift. So it made sense she later floats through her life. A good read.

Publication Date: June 2, 2020

St. Martin’s Press

My Dark Vanessa: A Novel by Kate Elizabeth Russell

44890081

I assume I’ll be the one he turns to in ten or fifteen years, whenever his body begins to break down. That seems the likely ending to this love story: me dropping everything and doing anything, devoted as a dog, as he takes and takes and takes.

The above lines stood out for me more than any other in this gorgeously written novel. Make no mistake, ambitious and bright , fifteen-year old ‘nymphet’ Vanessa Wye becomes a devoted dog to her much older teacher, Mr. Strane. Hungry enough to have convinced her parents she would flourish at Browick, a boarding school that lures students  with high college acceptance rates and a wonderful “social fabric”, we witness her in 2000 at the dorm move in date for her sophomore year. Something happened to break the bond between she and her one close friend, Jenny. The pain of it hovers in the air as the only thing promised this year is abject loneliness. For Mr. Strane her loneliness seems like a choice, something he too likes. When she joins a club he heads up the two become closer, more so as he encourages her writing, something she has never shared with anyone else. It isn’t long before he is praising everything else about her, giving her the attention she is sorely in need of. Naturally, even at the age of fifteen, she knows grown man shouldn’t be giving such compliments to a young girl, and yet there is something so enthralling about his attentions, particularly when he begins to seduce her with snippets of literature, that reminds him of her. All the little intimacies grow until she is consumed by the fire he has built.

What girl isn’t in awe of a person who is able to engage her intellectually, especially Mr. Strane with his gift for all things literary? How does a girl not swoon when a man is filling her with praise, telling her she is beautiful, gifted, talented? A man who thinks about her all the time, tells her she is special.  Here is a lonely, intelligent, hungry girl who is suddenly the light in a grown man’s eyes, honed in on her alone. Oh the rest of us know just what he is up to, and she too knows this isn’t normal, but this could be different and not sleazy. She really could be special! It isn’t long before he makes her feel like a seductress, and he touches her with more than words.

You know it goes further, deeper than a little flirtation.

The book goes back and forth between future and past. It is 2017 and Mr. Strane is facing accusations from other students, Vanessa’s most recent relationship with Ira is in ruins and her future doesn’t resemble anything her entrance to Browick promised. What the hell happened? Is one of Mr. Strane’s accusers just a filthy liar, like Vanessa believes? What she and Strane had was not abuse, and she refuses to mar what they shared by labeling it as such. Strane needs her and time has not diluted her loyalty. That past… what the hell happened in that past where the young girl whom Mr. Strane felt would “take over the world” is now an adult leading a mediocre life?

In the past, we find her tormenting herself with every interaction she has with Strane. He wants me, he doesn’t want me. It is euphoric love for her, or something like it. His moods can leave her in a state of devastation or exhilaration, but everything is always her fault. Can it be criminal if you consent, if you want it? If he is equally as ‘tormented’ as her?  From her youthful perspective, it’s easy to forgive Vanessa for seeing things as she wants them to be. How else do adults get away with such things? I just kept thinking of a Dorothy Parker line from the poem Incurable, “But you, my sweet, are different”. Because when you’re young you don’t think the rules apply, not so much in your little rebellions, but in the stories that you know won’t end well. We tend to attempt to redefine what is truly happening into a more tasteful telling. In her mind, what they have together isn’t sordid nor dirty, despite the age difference and power dynamics. She carries this confusion into adulthood, still not understanding what exactly happened.

Where does the shame lie? Was he as devoted as her or were there other little loyal dogs? Was she just a fool to be had? Is this a story of being groomed? Vanessa’s ‘love’ story unfolds before the reader’s bewildered eyes, and it is provocative and engaging, often infuriating. Just what did he project unto her? The adults fail her, and why is that?

Therapy is only as good as the things you confront. How do you assign blame when you carry the shame on your shoulders and refuse to crack open the past? I spent most of my time blaming every single adult in the novel. Especially her own family.

I ached for Vanessa when she is young, begging to be an adult, awakened too soon, fouled even if she doesn’t know it yet. This book is going to trigger many people. I was pissed off for her, but unable to be too angry with Vanessa (as others will likely be) when she reached adulthood because this trauma has haunted her like a specter, preventing her from having genuine healthy relationships. She is still just that loyal devoted dog, her obedience automatic and under the guise of love. But we all have to wake up sometime! Nothing is more distasteful to me either as a woman than their intimacy when she is so young. There is nothing romantic in it when you look with adult eyes. Vanessa, through the years, is just on the edge of understanding what really happened, but to examine it closely is to discount all she felt, the good things too.

For some it takes extreme situations to look upon the scene of the crime, so to speak. But you have to be able to call it that. It isn’t hard to understand how the seduction sucked Vanessa in. How easy it is for Strane to control the story, because he is the true author of it all.  As Vanessa says, “My silence is so reliable.”  She doesn’t know the full story, but she will. This is an engaging, brutal story that left me reeling. Beautiful writing and I highlighted many lines like a mad fool. A shout out for the gorgeous cover too, may be my favorite in years. Read it, you won’t be able to put it down.

Publication Date:  March 10, 2020

William Morrow

You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here by Frances Macken

cover182228-medium

Evelyn can give us strength, but she can steal it away from us too when she feels like it.

Katie learns to make her own fun but always under the sway of the far more charismatic Evelyn, with Maeve completing the trio as someone Katie ‘endures’.  Katie and Evelyn are the closer of the two in an unbalanced friendship based far more on convenience “there aren’t many children along our road, so there isn’t much choice” and on Katie’s envy of  her bold, commanding ways. It is always through Evelyn the girls define themselves and no one more than Katie. Macken bares the painful dynamics of female bonds, when a girl is still an unformed thing, looking to others for clues of who she will become, often relying on another’s wisdom who seems to understand the world far better. A time when jealousies arise from pecking order of importance and friendships are as fevered as love. As with many small towns all the world over, someone is always the leader, the queen until someone more interesting comes along.

Evelyn can dish out mean criticisms, and understands the adult world far better than anyone. She is the authority on all things and she is Katie’s ticket to a brilliant future, they have big plans to leave the Irish town of Glenbruff when they’re old enough. But there are times when Evelyn can be overbearing, when Katie feels her inadequacy is exposed, usually by Evelyn. If she tries to be more, or get attention from a boy, no one can bring her down a peg better than her best friend. Yet Katie never fails to praise Evelyn, that is the best way to keep her close and happy.

Pamela is a threat, new on the scene, drawing all the attention that should be Evelyn’s. A talented dancer and pretty enough to have all the lads chasing her, naturally Evelyn can’t stomach her. “Life is exciting at the minute,” all this Maeve feels, and it’s all because of Pamela, throwing their small world into chaos, ruffling her cousin Evelyn’s feathers. Things change when Katie is forced to get to know Pamela which in turn tests her loyalty to Evelyn. There are disappearances and disappointments, secrets and lies. Too often we see people as they wish to be seen, rather than as they really are. Sometimes we hide behind other’s strength rather than searching within to discover our own. People have to earn confidences, and Pamela isn’t any different, has her escapades, secrets that Katie doesn’t understand, and may never get the chance to.

The future is upon them soon enough and with it broken promises, altered dreams. Katie has to learn to step out of her best friend’s shadow, to find out who she is and what she wants, needs. It requires distance from everything she has known but often when you leave it’s easier to ignore those you left. When you return, it is as if everyone has changed, or won’t let you be the person you’ve become and worse, accuses you of abandonment. Is it better to fold and let people tell you who you are or allow experience to ‘alienate you’ until you are chiseled into something new? Katie isn’t the only one trying to find herself, Maeve has a difficult history that comes into play as the girls grow up. Evelyn isn’t always as steady and sure as she seems, and Pamela… Pamela is a flicker, and yet comes to leave an indelible mark on the town.

It’s a quiet story about a small town in Ireland. There is a bit of a mystery and it isn’t solved in a flash. Much like real life, the truth is a long time in coming. After the incident occurs, time moves on, but the questions and wonder always hum beneath the town’s feet. Some are stunted, others flourish, it is about finding and understanding yourself and coping with the ways some friendships change you; how you both rely on and escape the people who may not be good for you. This is called growing up, and it can feel mean.

Publication Date: June 9, 2020

Oneworld Publications

Conjure Women: A Novel by Afia Atakora

neww

More profit to be made in curses than in her work mixing healing tinctures. More praise to be found in revenge than in birthing babies.

Slaverytime 1854 we meet Miss May Belle, a slave woman well known for crafting curses, because as she tells it, “Hoodoo is black folks currency.”  What other power is to be found than in such things? It’s another form of hope when drowning in desperation. In a time when other slavefolk were forced to work in  the fields, or on carpentering and cooking Miss May Belle has her hoodooing and healing (for various afflictions) as well as midwifery skills. She is the one the slavefolk turn to, and sometimes the white man as well; when what ails him is a shameful thing. Her own daughter Rue comes of age at her side, learning more than healing wounds, and birthing babies. She learns first hand about true love and passion watching her parents during her father’s brief visits and the abysmal pain and suffering of its loss. She also learns about the cost of freedom and ownership. Then she witnesses the consequences conjures take on a person’s body and soul. Through her mother’s gifts and skills she is able to weave in and out of the lives of their people as well as the home of their master and his family, prosperous landowner Marse Charles.

As a playmate to his spoiled daughter Varina, Rue has more freedom than afforded girls like her and is privy to a different life. Yet Rue learns her place well, always watching from afar the life that she knows divides them. When she forgets her place her mother is sure to do the reminding. Miss May Belle may be freer than most, but she still must abide by the unspoken rules of the white-man. The master’s child Varina loves to be wild and who better to be an “accomplice to witness her rebellion” than Rue. It always turns into punishments for her alone, for her mamma Miss May Belle has eyes and ears everywhere, and an uncanny way of knowing everything her girl gets up to. In order to keep her safe and under the care of Marse Charles she must teach her everything she knows, whether Rue wants to learn or not and that includes behaving properly, and colored little girls can’t run around fancy and free like Varina.

The story goes back and forth between slavery and freedomtime, Rue’s childhood and her turn at caring for the people her own mother gives up on after a horrific tragedy. Superstitions seem to guide the people, especially when a baby is born more like a pitiful creature, something that everyone feels is more like a curse than a bundle of joy. She has birthed every child in town since the end of slaverytime, more intimately involved in all their lives than anyone. But she knows firsthand how fast praise can turn to hatred, more so when a religious man comes to town. Everyone needs someone to blame their bad luck on, it’s so much easier than looking within. When the old ways no longer save you, maybe God can, but the bible doesn’t take with Hoodoo. Love itself can be as potent as a curse, as too can harboring secrets about the people in the town and Marse Charles’ family. Someone is always scheming, there is little comfort to be had. Gossip can cost anyone their standing, especially Rue. Running away can be dangerous but so can ‘digging in’, making a stand and fighting for your small place in the world. Rue will not run, even if Bruh Abel is set on her ruin. Even if the bible marks her as evil, fallen, in need of redemption. Maybe Bruh Abel isn’t so pure either?

Fear runs rampant among the people, curses aren’t enough, and every affliction can’t be cured. The woods are not always silent nor still, they too are haunted by memories, and possibly something else. Secrets seems to go there. So many decisions Rue is forced to make to protect others, so many wrong moves and yet nothing for herself. Will it ever change? Is she forever trapped in this life rooted in whispers, secrets, gossip, grief, curses, and conjures? What will the price of freedom be for Rue? Life is a heavy weight and what comfort can be found in her mother’s words? “Fix what you’ve done. Or live with it quiet.”

There are some things that one cannot live with and everything you have done will rise up. It’s an interesting historical fiction with a taste of magical realism, people help each other but also harm one another. Rue carries many burdens and tries hard to make things right. It’s written from the perspective of slavery, rather than ownership and it lends a far more authentic experience. This is a writer to watch! For those who are into cover love, how beautiful is the book cover? As I read it, I kept thinking someone will make this into a movie. Who knows? It’s a fantastic debut!

Publication Date: April 7, 2020

Random House Publishing