Nobody’s Magic by Destiny O. Birdsong

Nobody’s Magic is a promising debut novel by a clearly talented author. Destiny Birdsong’s compelling and vibrant storytelling is certainly immersive. She also has a knack for rendering a strong sense of place as Shreveport, Louisiana almost functions as a character itself. The dialogues too flow easily and ring true to life. The novel is divided into a triptych structure, each one revolving around Black women with albinism. While they do share similar experiences, they each had their own distinguishing voice. We begin with Suzette, a sheltered 20 something who begins to bristle against her father’s domineering rule. She wants to learn to drive, go to college, work and do all of the things her peers are doing. Her father however is unwilling to let her grow into herself and goes out of his way to control her. Her mother is on her side but she too ultimately has no choice but to comply with her husband’s demands. When Suzette begins to experiment with her sexuality things come to head and she is forced to confront what she is willing to do for her own independence. I liked the author’s non-judgemental approach to Suzette’s sexuality and her desire for self-fulfilment (which could have easily been depicted as selfishness). While the author does underline the privileged existence that Suzette has led so far, she also includes scenes in which Suzette is discriminated against and or treated as other. Is she to blame for her own naivete when her father has kept her away from the world? The following narrative follows Maple who comes from a very different background than Suzette’s. Maple’s mother has recently been murdered and Maple is still reeling from this loss. Her grandmother is unwilling to accept that her mother was very much a ‘free-spirited’ individual who would go on to lead a ‘risqué’ lifestyle. Maple eventually gets to know Chad, someone who is also grieving a loved one. The last narrative is about Agnes, an older woman who becomes involved with a security guard. After a failed interview Agnes makes a dangerous choice that will lead her on the run with this security guard. She seems to be using him to protect herself from the consequences of her actions, he seems to believe that because she has albinism she is ‘magic’. I didn’t really get this last narrative nor did I find Agnes a particularly sympathetic character. I thought her behaviour somewhat irrational and didn’t find her to be a fully fleshed-out character. Still, out of these three stories I really liked the first two. They were engaging and thought-provoking and I appreciated how realistically imperfect the main characters were. But the third one tonally was just eeh…and had a rather meandering narrative. While the first two stories do follow a coming-of-age type of narrative this last one was just stale-ish. Still, Birdsong is certainly an author you should keep your eye on and I look forward to reading whatever she writes next.

my rating: ★ ★ ★½

Revival Season by Monica West

“Papa had carefully cultivated our belief in him. He never said it outright—Believe in me as you believe in God—that would have been obvious blasphemy and idolatry. But he was the all-consuming presence that had filled my entire life, taking up all the space in the house and in revival tents. In its absence was a black hole that seemed bigger than the presence that had inhabited it.”

Thoughtful if sad Revival Season is a novel about faith and healing. Written in a quietly elegant prose Revival Season paints an intimate, if troubling, family portrait. The Hortons are an Evangelical Black family. The pater familias is a renowned preacher who has healed and saved hundreds of souls. Miriam, his fifteen-year-old and our narrator, has been brought up under his rigid rule. She’s homeschooled, seems to exclusively interact with members of their church, she has to dress modestly and comport herself in a respectful way. Miriam is used to this way of living and doesn’t long for a different lifestyle. She looks up to her father and is close to her mother, she cares for and is responsible for her young sister Hannah, who was born with cerebral palsy, and she gets on as best as she can with her brother. Every year during the summer the Hortons travel across the South for ‘revival season’. The previous year Reverend Horton was involved in an altercation, one that Miriam has tried hard not to dwell on. But when her father’s healing powers fail him once more Miriam becomes once again witness to his violent outbursts. When they return to their hometown Miriam is unable to forget what she was. Over the course of a year, Miriam becomes painfully aware of how dangerous her father is. As her faith in him begins to waver Miriam discovers that, unlike him, she now has the ability to heal others. Forced to hide her gift from her father, Miriam has to decide whether to keep her healing a secret or cure others and risk her father’s ire.

Revival Season presents readers with an intimate look at a family that is unravelling. Monica West does a fantastic job in capturing Miriam’s voice. Not only does Miriam’s tender narration convey her young age and sheltered upbringing—without making her sound wholly naïve—but it is also succeeds in being introspective and perceptive. In articulating Miriam’s conflicted and shifting feelings towards her father West demonstrates great sensitivity. I could sadly relate all too easily to Miriam and found West’s nuanced portrayal of her father to be incredibly realistic. In fiction there is a tendency to paint abusers as one-dimensional monsters, but in real life things are not so clear-cut.
As the narrative progresses West explores Miriam’s faith in God and her self-belief. As Miriam is forced to question the image that she has of her father, she begins to tests the boundaries and rules he had long imposed on her. During this time Miriam also learns more about her mother’s past and begins to see her in a new light.

I think part of me did find the narrative to be slightly slow-moving and I did find myself wishing for a story with a broader scope. I was also a bit disappointed by the lack of revivals (ever since watching Carnivale and True Detective i have been oddly fascinated by them, go figure). Most of the narrative (70-80%) takes place in Miriam’s home and her father’s church, which resulted in some rather limited scenery. I think my lack of faith (i know i know, i am heathen) also played into my not being wholly captivated by what I was reading given the amount of Bible passages we get and that one of the novel’s primary concern is Christianity. Readers with stronger ties to Christianity will probably be able to appreciate this novel more than I was.
Last but not least, we get the dreaded “I released the breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding” line which I have come to despise. Scratch that, I feckin hate it.

In spite of my reservations about the novel’s pacing and ‘breadth’, I can say with certainty that this is a well-written (- that one line) and poignant debut novel, one that should definitely appeal to fans of Purple Hibiscus (which is also narrated by a fifteen-year-old girl who lives in a religious and abusive household).

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★¼

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The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett — book review

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“At first, passing seemed so simple, she couldn’t understand why her parents hadn’t done it. But she was young then. She hadn’t realized how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.”

Brit Bennett’s second novel is a tour de force. The Vanishing Half gripped me from the very pages as I was instantly transfixed by Bennett’s subtle yet penetrating prose.
Bennett is a brilliant storyteller. Not one word is wasted, or so it seemed as I had the distinct impression that her writing was simultaneously concise and striking. Bennett’s prose effortlessly moves from present to past, as her story traverses decades (from the 60s to the 80s) and transports us from the small-town of Mallard in Louisiana to LA or New York. Bennett maps the lives of many characters, who inhabit markedly different worlds, focusing in particular on the lives and voices of the Vignes women.

“The Vignes twins left without saying good-bye, so like any sudden disappearance, their departure became loaded with meaning.”

Most people regard twins, particularly identical twins, as a source of fascination. Bennett, fully aware of this, adds a layer of depth to the mystique of twins by making the Vignes embark on drastically different paths. After witnessing their father’s lynching at the hands of white men, the Vignes have little love for their small-town, and aged sixteen they flee to New Orleans. Things don’t go as planned however and the twins become irrevocably separated. While Stella returns with a daughter to the hometown she so longed to escape, Desiree passes for white and marries a wealthy white man. In spite of this, their bond keeps them tethered together and even as the years go by the Vignes twins struggle to reconcile themselves with the loneliness of their ‘twinless’ existence. Their respective daughters share little in common. While Stella’s daughter Kennedy enjoys a life of privilege, Desiree’s daughter Jude is discriminated for her dark skin by her peers and the adults of her community.

“The hardest part about becoming someone else was deciding to. The rest was only logistics.”

The Vanishing Half tells a heartbreaking and relevant intergenerational tale. While Bennett does not condone the decisions and behaviour of certain characters, mainly Jude and Kennedy, she never condemns them either, revealing instead how viciously deep-rooted racism is. While Stella can enjoy the freedoms that come with being white (and wealthy), her fear of discovery causes her to adopt racist attitudes towards other people of colour and to inculcate racist beliefs in her own daughter.
Like her mother at her age, Jude is eager to leave the confines of the ‘narrow-minded’ Mallard. In college she tries to overcome the insecurities and self-hatred instilled in her after years of being othered.
While the Vignes twins and their daughters may occupy opposing realities, they grapple with similar questions of identity. Stella, Desiree, and Jude, who are alienated by their society because of their race and class, long to belong. Yet, they often sabotage their own attempts to connect to others (Stella’s attempt to bond with her black neighbour ends catastrophically).

“It scared her, how badly she wanted to belong to somebody.”

Bennett navigates the way in which race and class shape the way in which we are seen and treated by others. Her characters are vividly drawn, and it is their contradictory feelings and desires that make them all the more real. Bennett’s narrative doesn’t favor any one perspective, and in doing so allows her readers to form their own opinion of a character’s actions.
The relationships the characters have with each other are fraught. While most Stella, Desiree, Jude, and even Kennedy to a certain extent, all desire to fit in or to form meaningful connections, miscommunications abound as they are unwilling or unable to expose themselves to others.

“He was always doing that, trying to coax her further outside herself. But she felt safe like this, locked away.”

In Bennett’s novel love isn’t neat or easy and identity is an evolving process, her observations on race, class, and family are truly compelling. She touches upon a myriad of topics (poverty, abuse, trauma, unknowability) with thoughtfulness and clarity. To white people like me (I grew up in a really homogenous and racist country) the America Bennett depicts is both disturbing and illuminating. While there are many horrific scenes in The Vanishing Half, I encourage readers to read this novel. Characters such as Reese, Jude, and Early alone are worth knowing. Interspersed in the various narratives there are tender moments of genuine affection and understanding (Jude’s relationship to her mother and Reese are truly heart-rendering).

“You could live a life this way, split. As long as you knew who was in charge.”

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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