So screw the Pulitzer Prizes because they don’t release the nominees until the winner is announced, but August/September/October is my favorite part of the year because the Booker Prize and National Book Award release their longlists and we get a new Nobel Prize winner.
So I haven’t liked the change toward American books on the Booker Prize because I like to expand what books I am watching, but so it goes.
Of the ten books on the National Book Longlist, I have already reviewed two of them: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, which I pretty much think is the best book published this year, and The Leavers by Lisa Ko, which I think was ok, but had some serious flaws in characterization.
Of the remaining eight, I am reviewing two here.
Otherwise I will try to get to them soon, but a few haven’t come out yet, and might get dropped from the shortlist, in which case I might not ever read them.
A Kind of Freedom – Margaret Wilkerson Sexton – 4/5 stars
This book is about multiple generations in the life of a southern Black family, but hyper-focusing on two sisters and the children and grand-children that come from one of their marriages.
This book traces a very uncomfortable history in the United States as various, but especially Southern, Black communities deal with the targeted fallout and yet even more attempts to kick Black America to curb just as they begin to get another foothold. This time, it’s specifically the ways in which in the wake of the Civil Rights Act how forces within the legal system and economic system made sure that white America didn’t have to give an inch in their stranglehold on the resources in this country. If after Reconstruction came Jim Crow, and as Jim Crow’s fall started to allow some daylight to seep through we have the “War on Drugs” and its horrible and inhuman treatment of Black and Brown people.
This novel is not about this explicit history but more about how this history played out in Black families, and especially how even those lucky, hard-working middle-class families, with their strengths and their flaws, are not immune to a calculated system of racism. But! This book is not a kind of cultural torture porn. It’s about struggle.
The sisters in the opening section which takes place in the 1950s are simply trying to find a loving relationship. Because of the value of upward mobility in their family this places the men they love in microscope vision of a father (a doctor) who has strong intentions for his daughters’ futures. From this story, we skip around in time checking in with Evelyn’s daughter, struggling with drug addition in the 1980s and dealing with being a single-parent. And from there, we end with TC in 2010, an educated man who sells a little weed.
Throughout the novel is not the direct implication of guilt and crime, but more so the soft pressures of limited opportunities while a country gaslights an entire set of people about how it’s all their fault. All written with some incredibly powerful and authentic language and voices.
Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward 4/5
There are some obvious parallels between this novel and Sexton’s If you’ve read Jesmyn Ward’s second novel Salvage the Bones, you’ve already been prepped in the gritty realism on Gulf-region Mississippi and how the culture and landscape of its inhabitants creates the world of that book. Much of the same kind of atmosphere and writing is happening here, but this is a distinct work as well.
Particularly, the difference here is that we have multiple narrators telling the story. In terms of plot, we have the basic goings-on of a blended family in southern Mississippi, but the setup is that Jojo, the 11 year old son of a Black woman and white man, whose father is not around, whose Black grandfather is the main male influence in his life, and his white grandfather has barely ever met him and seems to not want much to do with him. He is searching. And he does not know what the world is and didn’t ask for this life. But he’s an absolutely innocent and sweet kid who deserves more from this world.
Another of our narrators is his mother Leonie, who helps to fill in the backdrop of this story, to give an adult understanding of the complicated relationships, and who drives the actual plot here, related to his continuing affection of dirt-bag Michael, her son’s father.
Lastly, we do get another adult outside observer who provides a kind of lens through which to see the story.
This is also a very good book. The biggest difference is that this one is told through first person, with light, but still present dialect. The books are similar, they are both good, and should make the shortlist for the National Book Award.