I don’t mean to make it sound like I climbed Mount Obama (formerly Boggy Peak, Antigua) or something, and the last third or so of the book went rather quickly actually, but I do feel like I read something rather epic.
That’s a good thing.
Still, there were times when I was reading Bernice L. McFadden’s Glorious when I felt like the span of the novel was problematic, like it was trying to do too much, there were so many individual stories of a single life wrapped up in this one, actually quite average-sized book. By the time I got near the end, however, I appreciated what, I feel, it was trying to do; not tell this or that distinct story from interesting chapters in this one individual’s life – *spoilers ahead*
a young girl is raped and her family destroyed in the fallout in the deep South,
a young girl from the rural South grows up fast and falls in lesbian love when she hits the road,
a young teacher has a scandalous affair with a student,
a young black couple fall in and out of love in early 20th century New York against the backdrop of the Garvey movement including an assassination attempt on the great leader,
the first black FBI agent grapples with the conflicted position he finds himself in,
a young writer is the darling of the Harlem Renaissance before she becomes both victim and villain of literary theft,
this or that high society white person and their problematic relationship with race,
a former celebrated writer hits rock bottom as America falls in to the Great Depression,
an unusual friendship is formed between an old black domestic and the young white girl whose family she serves, and both are forever changed;
each with potential for a full novel’s arc.
Really, though, what I started to get, the closer I got to the end, was that this book is more of a full biography (with all of the coming of age, first loves, romances, adventure, career, growth etc.) that a full life entails. More than that, it is really the story of the African American, and specifically the African American female artiste, through main character Easter’s journeys away from and back to where she started. And in a sense from boxer Jack Johnson’s defeat of Jim Jeffries in 1910 to the 1960s civil rights era, this is the story of America – achieved with only one major time jump.
Sometimes the point of view felt pretty solidly Easter’s, sometimes it moved about, and that I had some issues with as well, but that may have been my mind seeking a pattern it could hang its hat on – and this novel was like improvisational jazz (a la Thelonius Monk) in its defiance of any set rhythm. But in as much as there was a central point of view (which there wasn’t always), this was Easter’s story – but again, really the story of (Black) America in the early 20th century.
I don’t know a lot about Nella Larson but I wasn’t surprised to discover in the acknowledgments at the end (good spoiler-sensitive decision to place them at the end by the way) that a favourite of mine, Zora Neale Hurston, and Larson were the book’s chief inspirations – and that in a way this book does what the likes of Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens began before it, reviving their literary legacy.
It’s a good read and, though there were times I felt a bit meh, one that I found emotionally engaging when it counted – I had to put it down near the end at one point because I got so mad in anticipation of what I could see coming (because we know this story! And the unfairness of it! in a country that has not yet really confronted its history and reality of racism). I will say this though *spoiler alert re ending* it popped the bubble on my rage before novel’s end, leaving a feeling of fragile hopefulness about race relations and the future of the African American/African American artiste. Not resolution, not satisfaction, but not despair either; rather therapeutic release and possibility.
As with Sugar, previously reviewed, McFadden does a really good job in making the recent history of which she writes touchable, seeable, feelable. The imagery is vivid, the historical notes solid and interestingly montage-y, the rhythm of the language has a beauty and musicality, and seductive layering, that you see for the first but not the last time in the opening sequence when it connects the Johnson fight worlds away to the traumatic, catalyzing incident in young Easter’s life, suggesting a connectivity between everything (or if not everything, unlikely things) that’s really thought-provoking. Historical figures, like Johnson, Garvey, many from the Harlem Renaissance, and others are worked in seamlessly and original characters claim their space in the reader’s imagination as well. Shortcomings include what feels like loose-ends in that some characters, Rain for example, kind of disappear back in to the scenery when Easter’s arc with them is done but without satiating my curiousity about them. Overall though, the language is beautiful and striking, Easter has an interesting life, and the world she moves through is rich; and Easter in the end feels like someone of that time, not just of that time in the novel, but in reality, and her journey all too sad and familiar.
I definitely look forward to reading more by McFadden, especially her award winning most recent Book of Harlan.
The main page of my Blogger on Books lV series can be found here. The main page of Blogger on Books V can be found here. To check out my books and see what reviewers and readers have been saying about them, go here and here.