A fantastic debut novel by poet Tara M. Stringfellow - highly recommended!
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Memphis, 1995. Joan North is standing on the steps of the home that her grandfather, Myron, built for his family. She’s been brought here, with her younger sister Mya, by their mother Miriam who has packed up what she can into their van and run away from her abusive husband. Miriam’s sister, August, now lives at the family home with her son Derek.
Memphis weaves across timelines from 1937 to 2003 as we also meet Hazel, Miriam and August’s mother, in flashbacks. She and Myron are living in the Jim Crow South and dealing with racism and racist violence on a regular basis. In 2003, not much has changed for her daughters and granddaughters who, between them, experience rape, domestic abuse and racism.
Miriam is determined to provide for her daughters and begins to study to become a nurse, working during the day and studying in the evening. She won’t recognise Joan’s artistic talent, pushing her to study and find a more stable career. In her mind, there are no successful Black female artists. Joan however has a real talent, honed over years of drawing and is encouraged in her art by a supportive teacher.
The men in Memphis feature but the focus remains on the five North women. Derek, August’s son, has shown troubling tendencies since he was young and, to avoid spoilers, I won’t go into detail about a shocking incident involving Joan. Miriam’s husband Jax, whom she met in 1978, is a Marine. She falls instantly in love with him and moves to an Army base in North Carolina after they are married. Over the course of their marriage, cracks appear and Jax becomes violent.
Whilst this synopsis perhaps gives the impression that Memphis is a bleak read, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The determination and courage of each of the women is a beacon of light and each of them is utterly compelling. I rooted for each of them throughout but particularly Joan who has to overcome her own childhood trauma to blossom and become the artist she truly is.
Stringfellow’s writing is beautiful - each of the characters is drawn very evocatively and believably. Her tone and voice are very strong and she quickly builds a sense of place.
If there is one aspect of the novel I question it’s whether Miriam would have Joan staying in the house and close to Derek when there has been a disturbing incident between them in the not-distant past. I appreciate that she is presented as not being able to afford many options but I did just wonder if a mother would really keep her daughter in this situation for the years that she does. This is just a slight quibble in an otherwise excellent book.
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