“History. Lived, not written, is such a thing not to understand always, but to marvel over.”
This is the first novel of J California Cooper, who was primarily known as a playwright for much of her career, and then a short story writer for about a decade before writing this novel. This is a short novel with a slightly artificial frame, but really strong and powerful writing throughout. The novel is narrated by Clora, an enslaved woman who is the daughter of another enslaved woman who was raped by her master, she and her siblings are all still enslaved. Early in the novel we learn that Clora plans to kill herself and her children in order to end their suffering, but the plan goes awry only killing her. In her spirit form she continues to watch the lives of her children and their children from beyond the grave giving us their stories and insights into their lives and choices. This takes us past the Civil War into the first few decades of the 20th century.
The novel, which has some similarities to Toni Morrison’s Beloved, is pretty unsparing in its depiction and commentary. It also evokes that very uncomfortable feeling we get from the perspective of history (and Beloved absolutely swims in this) which for me is that because history happened a certain way, and we can see that from our future place, that history was or could have ever felt as an inevitable force, rather than a story about what did happen. So much of history is written in this kind of teleological style where the future feels promised, because it happened to be what did happen. In novels like this, and slavery feels this way to me, where reality is basically a dystopia, why does it always feel like “if only she could have held on a little longer” and that only works because we know about the little longer.