If Beale Street Could Talk is sublime. For those who saw the movie, not everything in the novel stays the same, there are some scenes that I assume were cut for time. I thought that the way this ended was pretty perfect though.
This book is told from the POV of 18 year old Tish. She is dealing with the effects of her fiancee Fonny being locked up after he was accused of rape. You think that this would be simple until you read the long winding road that led them to this point.
Tish’s voice in this story is strong. Through her we get to see her first look at Fonny when they were kids and when they became something more. You get her frustration with how things are right now. And you get how she loves him. More than that, you get to see how Tish’s family loves her. Her mother, father, and sister end up being Fonny’s family too.
We also get a look at Fonny’s family and his two sisters, mother, and father. There could have been a whole other book about them. Every one that appears in this book is fully developed though. I don’t know how long it has been that I read something that I could say well that was great, this person is great, and I can see this person in my head.
Baldwin doesn’t tell this story in a linear fashion, but it works. We go from the past (when Tish and Fonny met) her remembering the first time they went to church, and then back in the present with her telling her family that she is pregnant. And then we jump back again to see how happy Tish and Fonny were before they had a night that changed everything. The writing isn’t lyrical. It is raw and in your face.
“Tish,” she said, “when we was first brought here, the white man he didn’t give us no preachers to say words over us before we had our babies. And you and Fonny be together right now, married or not, wasn’t for that same damn white man. So, let me tell you what you got to do. You got to think about that baby. You got to hold on to that baby, don’t care what else happens or don’t happen. You got to do that.
“Unbow your head, sister,” she said, and raised her glass and touched mine. “Save the children,” she said, very quietly, and drained her glass.
That baby was our baby, it was on its way, my father’s great hand on my belly held it and warmed it: in spite of all that hung above our heads, that child was promised safety.
“I don’t know,” Frank said, “how God expects a man to act when his son is in trouble. Your God crucified His son and was probably glad to get rid of him, but I ain’t like that. I ain’t hardly going out in the street and kiss the first white cop I see. But I’ll be a very loving motherfucker the day my son walks out of that hellhole, free. I’ll be a loving motherfucker when I hold my son’s head between my hands again, and look into his eyes. Oh! I’ll be full of love, that day!”
The flow of this book was perfect. At times I was smiling, in tears, or full of despair, or hope. Baldwin puts you through the ringer. You want Tish and Fonny to have a different end to their story, but we all know what the end is going to be, what is has to be when you are talking about two black kids in love in the 1970s in America. Heck, have things changed? Baldwin shows you colorism, racism, sexism, police brutality, and one wonders have we come far enough?
The setting of If Beale Street Could Talk is New York in the 1970s. You get to see how hard it was/is for a black man and a black woman at that time.
The ending is left with us waiting for a new life even though we know that the life that Tish wanted is now gone.