This is another book, or here author, that I learned about from reading the collected letters of Ralph Ellison. He comes into those letters when Ellison is asked to give notes on a book about to be published by an imprint that Toni Morrison is running in the early 1970s and Ellison is so enthusiastic in his reaction to the book that they ask to use it for the book’s introduction. That’s high praise as Ellison is a thorough and skilled reader and many of the letters give those notes on works he’s been asked to read.
This is not that book, though I bought it as well, but a later novel. This book is incredibly challenging in structure and style, and in that way both frustrating and rewarding. In a way, it feels like a reaction to many books that have come out in the 20th century (I am specifically thinking about Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree in terms of the mythic, collectively-sourced Southern origin novel as well as books like Ernest Gaines’s The Biography of Miss Jane Pittman and maybe even Roots in terms of slavery narrative turned novel). The book begins with a young Black man attending his grandfather’s funeral and beginning to take down the personal history of his grandmother, born into slavery and then in a way “sold off” to her husband. This history is sometimes told to the grandson in sweeping, conversational and impressionistic dialect, and sometimes reflected upon by the grandson, and sometimes in the form of documents. The language of the various narrative voices here more or less are easy to distinguish but are still incredibly complex in language, thought, and in narration choices.
The other elements of this book that I think really elevates it is the ways in which the book emphasizes the physical toll of telling history like this through the fading body of the grandmother, and also the physical toll of recording as the grandson sometimes needs to stop to buy more ink or that his hand hurts too much to continue. An incredibly complex and amazing novel in so many ways.