I wrote about my plans for reading to a Black History theme earlier this year. As Black History month is October in the UK, here’s what’s I’ve been reading since February – Black History month in the US – which got me started on this theme.
If Beale Street Could Talk – James Baldwin
James Baldwin is one of those authors I’ve long known I should read, but my commonwealth upbringing has always led me in a different direction. Having decided it was about time, am I ever pleased I selected this from his back catalogue.
The story? A tale of urban black life. Of two families linked by their children’s love. Told in the voice of Tish – 19 years old – in love and with child to her best friend. Only problem is that he’s in jail awaiting trial for a crime he didn’t commit. Why? Because he pissed off a local white cop.
You forget it’s a male author for Baldwin gets Tish’s voice so very right. The prose is achingly beautiful – at one point, I insisted my non-fiction reading boyfriend listen to one line that couldn’t not be read aloud. He was blown away too.
Read it. Seriously, just read it. Yes, it doesn’t get a neat ending and I even thought of deducting one star for that fact. But, I simply could not deduct anything from this wonderful piece of writing.
An American Marriage – Tayari Jones
Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year is another story of a black man in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. But that’s as far as the likeness goes. Baldwin has us really care for Fonny – the young man in the previous story whereas, with Roy in this story – not so much.
Roy’s a player, Celeste is talented and smart, Andre is her childhood neighbour and best friend. Celeste and Roy get married – somewhat to my surprise – but I guess lust can blind you. While still newly married, Roy is arrested for rape. At no point in the book is there a chink of doubt that he is innocent, but he is jailed for 12 years.
While in jail, Roy hears from Celeste how she is following her dreams and the plans he’s made for her success, and he feels angry and cheated. Via the medium of their letters, we watch as their relationship steadily falls apart. After a couple of years, the inevitable happens and Celeste calls time on their marriage, although she does not petition for divorce. Her family continue to pay for Roy’s lawyer and are eventually successful in getting Roy’s conviction quashed. But on Roy’s release, he discovers that Andre is no longer just Celeste’s best friend.
While initially presenting Roy as the badly done to (and in terms of the justice system he certainly is) we gradually see more and more of the person he really is – and that isn’t the person he’s presented himself as. Manipulative, self-entitled, disloyal and demanding, I felt nothing but relief when Celeste finally got away from Roy.
The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas
It was mid-September when I realised I’d not made much progress on my Black History month to-read list, so I dug this out from the unread depths of my Kindle.
In Thomas’s book, we experience an all too common tale of modern day America through the eyes of Starr Carter. A witness to the killing of her childhood friend by the police, the second violent death for which she has been present, Starr feels her life spinning out of control. Her family live in a particular part of town – somewhere her private school friends would consider the ghetto – so Starr keeps her two lives separate.
Her father, once part of a notorious local gang, was allowed to escape by doing time for the gang leader – his father. Her mother – smart and ambitious – wants to move; her father is equally determined to stay and save his community. But after that first killing, they send their children to a private school.
Starr’s Uncle Carlos is a cop. He’s chosen to live in a safer neighbourhood, thereby suffering the scorn of his brother-in-law. He also suffers the conflict which only a black cop can feel in such circumstances. Starr doesn’t want it known that she was ‘the witness’ to her friend’s killing. She gives her statement, believing her Uncle Carlos that it’s the right thing to do – but no action is taken. Slowly, she is drawn – despite the danger to herself and her family – first to give evidence in court and then to take action after her friend’s killer faces no charges.
The interesting dynamic – for me – is that between Starr and her white (and rich) boyfriend and her non-black private school friends. She doesn’t confide in them, believing they simply cannot understand the realities of life she and her community face every day, even dismissing her boyfriend with a “because you’re white” accusation. She is partly right and partly wrong, just like in real life. Thomas’s depiction of Starr felt authentic – likeable, flawed and fearful, but with an underlying strength of character. There is no doubting I will also read On the Come Up in due course.
Becoming – Michelle Obama
This is still a read-in-progress, or rather a listen-in-progress for I decided to go for the Audible option, to hear it narrated in the author’s voice. Sadly, I encountered issues with Audible (at my end not Audible’s) and so it remains unfinished. These issues are now resolved and I’ll be returning to it soon.
My opinion so far: Michelle Obama is an excellent narrator and has a strong voice – her personality and character come through loud and clear. I think it’s going to provide an interesting counterpoint to the previous three reads.
My Sister the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite
What happens when your beautiful and indulged younger sister turns out to be a serial killer? Do you protect her & cover up the evidence? Do you turn her in when she attracts the attention of the man you want for your own? Do you consider it normal because of how your father treated you all? How will it all end?
Based in Nigeria’s capital Lagos, this hit all the right notes, transporting me right back to my early teen years in Lagos. Nominated for a couple of big prizes – on the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist and longlisted for the Booker – there’s no doubting this book is a success. And it’s a really enjoyable read too.
Stay With Me -Ayobami Adebayo
It’s Nigeria in the 1980s where a Yoruba couple, who marry for love, have their lives blighted by infertility.
Yejide tries everything to get pregnant, even the far fetched and crazy, for she’ll do anything for her husband and his mother, and to prove her family wrong. She’s had every test going, as has her husband, but to no avail. At this point, I was presuming that the problem lay with her husband, that he was either lying about having the tests, or lying about the result. Whilst I was right …ish, the twist when it came was nicely unexpected.
Written in alternating first person, moving between Yejide and her husband Akin, the tale steadily and inexorably unfolds to its sorry conclusion.
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This is an experiment I intend to repeat for I enjoyed one excellent (5-star) read, three very good (4-star) reads, and one good (3-star) read. and there are oh so many more candidates. As you can see, I utterly failed in reading works by black British authors, so that is where I’ll be focusing next year.
What are your thoughts – on these books, on Black History month, and on the idea of reading to a theme?
© Debra Carey, 2019