Author: Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
Review by: Michel Gerebtzoff, consul general of Belgium in Atlanta
One of my great joys is immersing myself in a location with books that carry a strong sense of place. Here in Atlanta, my night stand is 50 percent Southern, the rest being largely U.S.-focused: History books, Southern Gothic, Imani Perry’s South to America (which I’ll read next) and other books recommended to me by local friends.
Opening one is a bit like putting on extended-reality glasses: They add another dimension to the intense experience of settling in a place, albeit for a brief few years.
Jeffers is a poet and professor rooted in Georgia and Alabama. This book, her first novel, has been a beloved companion over a few months earlier this year. I picked it up after hearing one of Jeffers’ poems late one night on GPB. I read it slowly and sometimes had trouble remembering all the characters’ paths but rejoiced in a supremely (to me as a non-native English speaker) well-written, haunting and unsettling epic.
We start our journey in central Georgia, in the early 1700s, amongst a Muscogee tribe that won’t be able to hang on to their land for long, but whose bloodline will flow down through generations to present day Ailey, whose struggles and coming of age story we also follow as the novel jumps back and forth in time.
Predatory behaviors and abuse, slavery, racism, class struggle, colorism underpin the “historical” part of the book and provide ample tension without, I feel, veering towards a political treatise where the characters are just props in a demonstration. It is not a funny nor optimistic novel, but it is deeply human, flaws and all, and sometimes oneiric. We see the vivid impact of past events and tragedies on the life of Ailey and her family, and she gradually becomes aware of this too.
Just living, coping isn’t enough for her. She discovers that she needs to understand history and politics, dig out the roots to find the resolution of her undefined feelings into her adult identity and ground herself.
As with all books, this one is probably not for everyone. It is slow and the themes aren’t new, of course, but maybe my lack of knowledge on local history fed my interest and helped me enjoy this novel with a fresher mind. I didn’t really become attached to any of the characters but found the evolution of central Georgia throughout three centuries as depicted in the book compelling. And I like being introduced to political concepts through fiction.
Finally, I really really liked the music and rhythm of the language, which is paramount for me to enjoy a book. Pick it up and see for yourself!
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Each year, Global Atlanta asks influential readers and community leaders to review the most impactful book they read during the course of the year. This endeavor has continued annually since 2010.
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