I dread writing this review. I hated this book. I’ll just get that out of the way. Hated it. Yet I hesitate. How can I eviscerate a book that contains lines like this:
‘Come on, son,’ Pop says. When he begins walking toward the house, I follow, trying to leave the memory of Leonie and Michael fighting outside, floating like fog in the damp, chilly day. But it follows, even as I follow the trail of tender organ blood Pop has left in the dirt, a trail that signals love as clearly as the bread crumbs Hansel spread in the wood.
. . . even though it’s a laugh, it doesn’t sound like one. There’s no happiness in it, just dry air and hard red clay where grass won’t grow.
That’s poetry, and the book is filled with it. Jesmyn Ward is a wizard with language. I was so mesmerized by the writing that I didn’t notice right away what a huge problem it created. The action takes place between the Louisiana bayou and a state penitentiary in the Mississippi backwoods. The story is mainly narrated by two characters: Leonie, a drug-addled high school dropout, and Jojo, her thirteen-year-old son. They’re dirt-poor and uneducated and may not have even heard some of the words they use, let alone use the kind of sophisticated, poetic phrasing that Ward uses.
To me, that’s the biggest hazard of using first-person narrative. You’d damn well better be sure your character could actually think or speak in the way you speak through them. Otherwise, the illusion fails, and the whole thing falls apart. Third-person could have made a huge difference for this book.
But those fucking ghosts.
I was onboard with the ghosts for quite a while, as long as she treated them as figurative, as the personal vision of each narrator. I totally bought that these characters believe in ghosts and folk magic, but then near the end, there was a huge ghost clusterfuck where everyone saw everything, even characters who supposedly weren’t able to see ghosts.
In the end, I just didn’t buy the telling of the story. The underlying story itself? Pretty damned compelling, but it was ruined by the narration and the ghosts. I can’t help but wonder if all of the positive reviews and impressive awards were based on what this book could have been rather than what it actually was. I absolutely loved what this book could have been. I hated what this book actually was.