Red at the Bone — a rich portrait of a 20th-century American family
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A Brooklyn brownstone, May 2001. It’s Melody’s 16th birthday party, but it’s more than just a party: it’s a coming-of-age, a formal entry into adulthood.
Jacqueline Woodson sets a joyous scene on the opening page of Red at the Bone: “Black fingers pulling violin bows and strumming cellos, dark lips around horns, a small brown girl with pale pink nails on flute.” The beginning of this novel is full of colour as Melody prepares for her grand entrance: there are the pink and green colours of her grandmother’s college sorority, the black and gold of her grandfather’s fraternity; her own red lipstick, “charcoaled eyes” and her dress, pristine bridal white.
But the reader swiftly discovers that the threshold of womanhood on which Melody stands is more complicated than it seems at first glance. The band is playing Prince’s “Darling Nikki” — “I knew a girl named Nikki, I guess you could say she was a sex fiend” — but only as an instrumental: Melody’s mother, Iris, won’t allow the words to be sung. And that white dress was not bought for Melody: it was bought for Iris herself. But when it came time for her ceremony, Iris was already pregnant with Melody; instead of proud celebration, there was secretiveness and shame.
As Melody narrates the early scenes of the book she senses in her body how difficult her feelings for her mother are: “There was something moving through me like a razor in my chest — I didn’t know then if it was rage or sadness or fear.”
Red at the Bone is a nuanced portrait of shifting family relationships, jumping back and forth in time and moving between the characters’ different voices. Woodson is a writer accomplished at shifting from one register to another: she is a National Book Award finalist for her adult fiction, and a four-time Newbery Honor Winner for her books for young people. So it is perhaps no surprise that the pressure and urgency of Melody’s teenage self draws the reader into the novel: but we will hear from Iris too, from her parents, Sabe and Po’Boy; we will witness the love that Aubrey, Melody’s father, shows her as she grows up; see too the love that Melody shows towards Malcolm, her best friend.
Underneath it all runs the vexed and violent history of the US. Sabe’s family lost everything in the Tulsa massacre of 1921. The Oklahoma riot began with accusations that a black man had assaulted a white woman; the result was that a neighbourhood and business district, Greenwood — known as the “black Wall Street” — was wholly destroyed; an estimated 300 African-Americans were killed.
In Red at the Bone, Sabe recalls how her grandmother’s beauty shop was burnt to the ground; they burnt her grandfather’s restaurant too and nearly killed her own mother. “Imagine them trying to set a two-year-old child on fire,” says Sabe. Melody knows she is “part of a long line of almost erased stories”; Iris names Melody after Sabe’s grandmother who so narrowly escaped death in Tulsa. Stories may be hidden, but they will come to light.
The US has been subject to all kinds of violence: the novel is set in 2001 for a reason, though it would be unkind to give that reason away. With passionate precision Woodson paints the aches and pleasures of all kinds of love: parental love, the love of friendship, sexual love.
After Melody is born Iris leaves her daughter in the care of her parents to go to college in Oberlin, Ohio; suddenly she is in a majority-white community. But it’s at Oberlin that she meets Jam, a beautiful and compelling woman; their swift romance is fierce and heartbreaking.
It is our fractures that make us who we are. Melody’s family has learnt that the system is not on their side: Tulsa, and everything that came before and after, has taught them that. They keep their material treasure — gold — not in a bank but hidden beneath a stair in that Brooklyn brownstone, protection against the rainy day they know is sure to come. By the end of the novel the nature of this wealth seems different than it did at the beginning of the book: as we have come to know its characters and their lives, it is their stories, not their gold, that gleam out from the darkness all around.
Red at the Bone, by Jacqueline Woodson, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£14.99/Riverhead, RRP$26, 208 pages
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