"There's all different types of ways to leave somebody. Maybe it's sadder that she's there, and she just feels far away."Wilkerson Sexton's debut novel follows three generations of a New Orleans family from the depths of 1940s Jim Crow up through the ravages of Katrina and the War on Drugs. Despite being only 250 pages long, the novel has massive range and Wilkerson Sexton weaves amongst the three story lines effortlessly, giving us depth and connection in short vignettes. The narrative arc is heartbreaking and riveting, and the depiction of New Orleans is nuanced and almost as interesting as the characters' evolution.
The novel starts us off in the thick of WWII with Evelyn falling for Renard, an orphaned, penniless student and disappointing her father, a black doctor who wants more for his daughter. Renard goes off to war to help fund his education and to try to build a space for himself in an America that seems to reluctant to claim him. This sets up the two central tensions of the novel: the private push and pull of parents and their children and the historic riptide of racism and discrimination which drags the characters back no matter how hard they strive for more.
Evelyn and Renard have Jackie who falls for charismatic Terry. Terry, after climbing his way to a successful job as a pharmacist falls prey to the crack epidemic, and leaves Jackie and their son T.C. to fend for herself. T.C., despite his mother and grandmother's best efforts becomes entrenched in drugs and is caught in an endless cycle of incarceration. The fierce, almost self-destructive love these mothers feel for their children is a thread throughout the novel, as is their frequent inability to express that same love effectively. The central heartbreak is that everyone is trying so hard to break the cycle, to do the right thing, to rise above, and it just never quite seems to be enough.
The circular narrative, turning from decade to decade, sets us up with the idea from the start that the backslide is going to keep dragging these characters, especially T.C., back. The women for the most part seem to find solace in their roles as partners and mothers, but each of the men seems to struggle to find his place in the world. Their struggle to provide for their families through the various societal barriers set up to hold them back seems to destroy each of them in different ways, but the men all seem far more broken than their female counterparts. Evelyn's father, the earliest and most successful of these men, is hyper aware of how tenuous his position is, and that awareness is almost as painful as the others' inability to climb as high.
New Orleans is its own character here, and her evolution over half a century is beautifully and tragically documented. The devastation of Katrina felt especially potent and Wilkerson Sexton's ability to capture enormous pain in a single detail shone through in the Katrina chapters:
They were halfway to Alabama when the Levee broke. Daryl, his brother from another mother, the friend he'd walked to school with every day for 15 years, had decided to ride it out. They got word three weeks later that his body was found in his house under a moldering sofa.Her sentences pack serious punch and stick with you: bodies under moldering sofas are hard to forget. Wilkerson Sexton gives this same, surgically precise and sharp treatment to each of the historical aspects of the narrative; she doesn't shy away from or gloss over the atrocities, but she doesn't overblow them either. This is a personal account, not a journalistic one, and it feels that way.
It isn't all bad news; each generation is able to find redemption at least on some small level. There is hope in each new generation, and T.C.'s son leaves us with a glimmer that things could be on the upswing. Maybe.
This is the part where I admit that I got to read this because Margaret is my friend and asked me to read an early copy. I am so so so impressed with this novel--with its scope and its specificity, with the joy and the pain contained therein. Read it! Tell your friends to read it! Push it on your friends who read only dead white dudes! In a world where the "bootstraps" narrative continues to rear its ugly head in discussions of race and inequality, it's a powerful, well-written reminder that hard work is rarely enough.