Tara M. Stringfellow draws on this tragic past and the experiences of her own family to construct the sweeping plot of her debut novel, “Memphis.” It’s a story that goes back and forth through the decades, from World War II to the war in Afghanistan, following the struggles of three generations of resilient black women.
Jenna Bush Hager recently picked “Memphis” for her “Today” book club, saying “it will fill you with joy and hope.” But the path to that joy is through decades of trauma, and for much of that time, hope is all these characters have. Indeed, Stringfellow has a lush, romantic style that is often the only counterbalance to the dark details of his story.
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The novel’s jumbled timeline initially feels like a challenge, but the chapters are clearly dated and named as they focus on a grandmother, her daughters, and grandchildren. Readers will see that Stringfellow demonstrates the erratic moves in history, the false starts and reversals and, yes, the moments of progress that are reflected in our haphazard march toward realizing King’s vision for America.
At the center of the story is a house “which stretched out in every direction in a wild southern maze” – like this novel. The first time we see it, Stringfellow turns the dial on her poetic language: “Honeysuckle attracted baseball-sized hummingbirds,” she writes. “Bees the size of hands buzzed, pollinating the morning glories, giving the yard a sense that the green expanse itself was alive, buzzing and moving.”
This is a hand-built home by the legendary family patriarch, Myron North. Born in the 1920s, Myron served in World War II, then returned to Memphis to become the city’s first black homicide detective — only to be reduced in the ways of so many victims of Southern racism. But the house he built remains, a monument of support to his love and his work, an anchor and a fortress in a city that goes through decades of racial strife.
The novel opens in 1995. Myron’s daughter, Miriam, returns home to live with her younger sister, a woman who has never left Memphis or pursued her dreams but has no apparent resentment towards her brother. lavish. Fleeing a violent husband, Miriam is accompanied by two young girls and knows how lucky they are to have access to this old family home where they can start over.
There is, however, an irreducible problem with Miriam’s plan and, I think, with Stringfellow’s novel.
In the first chapter, we learn that during Miriam’s last visit, her then 3-year-old daughter, Joan, was raped by her sister’s 8-year-old son. Now this boy is a teenager, and Joan is so terrified to see him that she immediately wets herself. She will spend the next few years living with him, sharing the same bathroom, trying to avoid looking at him, struggling to protect her little sister from the horror she has endured.
Try as I might, I could never get past the shocking implausibility of this move. It’s not like Joan’s sexual abuse is her horrible secret. The family knows about Joan’s rape. Stringfellow says Miriam was always scared of her nephew and “didn’t want him around her daughters,” which makes moving in with him seem particularly reckless.
I don’t want to criticize the plot per se; fiction should be free to reach the infinitely bizarre events of real life. The problem, really, is that “Memphis” never commits to the extensive work of making this gruesome event psychologically compelling. In all other respects, Miriam is a concerned and caring mother, but she spends more time explaining why she left her abusive husband than justifying why she moved in with her deranged nephew, who continues to become more brutal. And young Joan’s residual anger towards her cousin seems simple and too self-aware.
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It is ultimately clear that these things must happen for Stringfellow to craft a redemptive story of forgiveness. But along the way, she fails to sufficiently deal with the lasting damage and complications of incest and sexual abuse.
Fortunately, other parts of “Memphis” are more compelling and subtle. With his richly impressionistic style, Stringfellow captures the changes that transformed Memphis in the second half of the 20th century. She recounts the exasperating, sometimes deadly, humiliations that black veterans endured after serving their country overseas. And she has a particularly keen ear for the conversations between friends that hold this community together. It includes the civic function performed by retail stores, hairdressers and churches, all the small organizations that bind families into larger groups, bulwarks against a rising tide of gang violence and gun deaths.
The most charming, if not the most inspiring, element of “Memphis” is the story of Joan’s artistic ambitions. Although the young woman is talented and benefits from dedicated teachers, she lacks what every young creator needs: the feeling that someone like her could, in fact, succeed. Miriam thinks Joan should become a doctor so she’s never dependent on a man. During one of their many arguments about it, Miriam’s exasperation turns to taunting: “Name me a successful artist with a gloomy face. With boobs. Name a famous black woman artist. Keep on going. I’ll wait.”
Joan can’t think of just one name. But amidst all of its other plots, it’s the story of a young woman realizing that one day this name could be hers.
Ron Charles writes about books for the Washington Post.
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