I know Gwendolyn Brooks mostly from her poetry, like most of us, and that she wrote one novel and it was this one makes a lot of sense. This is not a traditional novel. It’s mainly impressionistic, meaning meditations of a various set of ideas and vignettes and moments in the life of her protagonist Maud Martha Brown. We begin at the beginning with Maud Martha growing up and experiencing the joys of childhood, confusions at how the world works, seeing a gorilla at the zoo. We move into her adolescence and young adulthood. We see a various set of boyfriends and lovers. We see her dealing with birth and death. The full range of life. Each scene, which are told in a more or less chronological order involve a varying amount of detail about her and her life. Each has a contextual familiarity to it, but no one scene dominates the others.
Here’s what some of the writing looks like:
“Maud Martha, waiting, was quiet. It was pleasant to let her mind go blank. And here in the beauty ship that was not a difficult thing to do. For the perfumes in the great jars, to be sold for twelve dollars and fifty cents an ounce, and one dollar a dram, or seven dollars and fifty cents an ounce, and one dollar a dram, the calendars, the bright signs extolling the virtues of Lily cologne….”
There’s several scene that deal with specific moments of indignity, at the hands of lovers or in acute racist transgressions, but that’s not the bulk of what this novel is. Mostly, it’s the little moments of a life captured in fine detail with a meditative beauty to them. It’s such a peaceful and lovely novel to read, even in the moments of unpleasantness.