Afia Atakora’s debut novel, set in the rural South, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, is a complex exploration of the deeply held tensions and continual trials that infuse a small, isolated community of former slaves.
The story centres around Rue, who has inherited the position of midwife and healer from her mother, Miss May Belle. Practicing the kind of “practical magic” that keeps everyone healthy and sustains amicable relationships between members of the community, she is a solitary, stoic figure who quietly and unceremoniously binds this small group of families together.
After the death of their master, these formerly enslaved members of the plantation have continued to run things as as they’ve always been. But two events threaten to tear apart their relatively peaceful lifestyle.
When Lena Johnson is invited to participate in a research study that will pay all her bills and provide for a future that is beyond comfortable, it is an impossible offer to pass up. A college student whose grandmother passed away leaving a pile of medical bills, and whose mother, Deziree, suffers from a mysterious health condition that requires expensive care, Lena jumps at the chance to help contribute to the family’s survival.
But she quickly discovers that the experiments conducted at the research facility, located in a small midwestern town called Lakewood, are of a deeply strange and violent nature. Furthermore, all participants in the study are people of colour, whereas the researchers and observers are white.
In this deeply troubling novel, the treatment of marginalized peoples throughout American history is continually evoked, in particular, emphasizing the ways that black bodies have served, intangibly, as the site of exoticization and othering, and concretely, as subjects of violence.
The Great Lakes Shipping Company, the organization which operates the experiments, bestows a fake life upon Lena, to provide a front on those rare occasions that she is permitted to speak with her loved ones. Each day she receives a brief explanation of how she spent her time. In this fake life she learns Microsoft Excel, receives leadership training, and becomes involved in small office spats (who stole whose yogurt, and the like), while in her real everyday experiences, as a research subject, she undergoes various forms of torture, psychological and physical, while being forced to take round after round of mysterious pills. The most disquieting fact of all remains that no one who participates in these studies–not only its subjects but also a significant portion of those performing them–has any idea what the expected outcomes are, or what benefits they hope to provide.
Hello there! Hope you are all enjoying a warm and wonderful holiday time, sharing good food and good stories with dear ones, baiting Santa Claus with sugar cookies, and maybe cracking the spine of that novel that’s been sitting on your shelf for the last six months…
As for my household, we are delightfully non-mobile this year, and looking forward to a quiet Christmas with no work, lots of time with the kids (our favourite holiday tradition is to remove all limits on sweets and screen time and let everyone pile into blanket-covered mush heaps on the couch for days on end, it is AMAZING), and hopefully some sledding. If we play our cards right, there may even be some time for reading books that don’t have pictures!
If you’re looking for some recommendations, for now or for the new year, here is a little glimpse onto my bookshelf.
I had the great pleasure of reviewing Jana Beňová’s award-winning novella Seeing People Offa couple of years ago, over at Necessary Fiction. It is an excellent, genre-defying, language-experimenting work with a compelling woman at its centre. So I was very excited to pick up Away! Away! Which is similarly genre-defying, language-experimenting, and also driven by a woman character sorting through a love-life-liberty mire in a thirties-ish kind of way.
As you might have gathered from the title, the book is about forms of escape, both large and small. If you enjoyed Seeing People Off, as I did, this book will be pleasantly familiar. But it also shows a stronger emphasis on the prose-poetry form, and pushes the boundaries of what this form can do, narrative-wise. All of which is to say that, comparatively, this book is more abstract in terms of what (“actually”) happens, but perhaps even more precise in describing the impressions and feelings that accompany what happens.
A quick update on what’s been going on around here…
I wrote my last post on March 31, 2018, which in dog years is basically a lifetime ago, and in human years is also a pretty long time. While I kept reading (oh, I read so many things) I was also caught up in a very busy chapter of my own life. Which left not a whole lot of time to report back on my findings in the literary field.
Well, my kids are now sleep-through-the-night years old, and I have settled in at the (new) job (I started a year ago), and it seemed like a great time to get back to writing about books which, let’s face it, is the only thing I would do with my time if my time were entirely my own. (Reader, it is not.)
Some info about where life has taken me since spring 2018: