I just finished reading this novel, and I must first admit that it took me a while to get into it. Or rather, that I kept putting it down, despite loving the characters, the scenes, the subject matter -- basically everything about it. Which is weird, right? To love a book but not feel compelled to keep turning pages. I think there were two things going on.
1) It's not a fast-paced book. It's just not. I think it should be okay for a novel to have a slower pace, but I also think the last year of spending a lot of time online has...shortened my attention span a bit? I'm having to work at reading novels again, at letting myself settle into slower pacings. This is not a fault of the book, it's a fault of me. If you're only interested in fast-paced books, then maybe this isn't the book for you -- but then you'd be missing out.
2) It's also a hard book. By which I mean, there's some rough material in here -- sexual violence, racial violence. She doesn't let you off easy on any of it. It's a fantasy novel set at the turn of the 20th century, one that starts in the Georgia swamps and moves to Chicago. Given the time and place, the violence is not surprising, and is in fact central to the book's themes. The violence was also, at times, hard for me to read. So there's that.
But all that said, the book is amazing. I can see why it won the Tiptree Award. I'm half in love with the main characters, even when I want to pick them up and shake some sense into them. Perhaps my favorite part is the dialogue, which is oblique and subtle and dense and brutally honest. The settings are gorgeously depicted, and I'm sure meticulously researched.
I felt like Hairston gave me a window into another time and place -- a time that was miserable and despairing, often enough, but also full of hope and joy and love, despite it all. And full of wonder, especially the wonder of the theater. Hairston is a playwright and theatre professor as well as a novelist, and her love for theatre, for what it can do for people, just shines through this book.
"'I cannot speak for poetry...I cannot speak for singing and dancing and telling good stories....It's what I do, like easing someone's pain if a leg is cut or broke, or bringing a baby into this life. Who can tell you what it's like to give birth?'***
All the mamas and grandmamas in the room murmured and nodded at this.
'Being on stage is a conjuration for sure. There's magic in show people, I won't deny it. Why would anyone come see a show if there wasn't? Don't we believe in actors more than someone walking by on the street? 'Cause there's a poem in your body up on stage. Ain't there, I mean, isn't there beauty and magic in an osprey soaring high? Don't it make your heart feel free? But I can't tell you what that means. You have to come see me or do it your ownself if you don't like my shows -- or even if you do. We make the world up, in our dreams and in our songs. Would you have a life with no music, no poetry, and just the factory snarling at you, just the blood and guts on the killing floor or dirt and filth running down the laundry drain? Would you have nothing but chicken-coop comedies and Wild West lies?'"
You should read the rest for yourself.