Langston Collin Wilkins

Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s third novel, On the Rooftop, is a welcome disruption, both to literary trends and in her own publishing career. In a time of immense social upheaval, when many African American writers are foregrounding issues of race, economics and oppression in their books, Sexton chose to write a novel that centers on Black ambition and resiliency.

“With [my previous two novels], it felt like most of my interviews were sociological conversations,” Sexton says from her California home, “but I wanted to be talking about the work.” So for On the Rooftop, she didn’t have a rigid agenda. Instead, her novel emphasizes “the endurance and the joy of a community . . . while also drawing attention to the history of the issues and the fact that they still continue to exist.”

Set in 1950s San Francisco, On the Rooftop focuses on the multifaceted yet endearing Vivian, who has complicated relationships with her three daughters, Ruth, Esther and Chloe. The widowed Vivian dreams of stardom for her musically gifted daughters, who sing together as the Salvations. The young women are popular performers at a local spot called the Champagne Supper Club, and Vivian has hooked the attention of an enigmatic talent manager. 

However, just as the Salvations are on the cusp of fame, Vivian’s aspirations are challenged by personal trauma and their neighborhood’s changing landscape. Her daughters are also beginning to prioritize their own desires over their mother’s prescribed plan. Loosely inspired by Fiddler on the Roof and told from multiple perspectives, On the Rooftop is a masterful examination of family and community that celebrates the legacy of Black dreams and determination.   

“The music really exemplified the endurance of this community. They came here with so much optimism.”

Readers of Sexton’s previous historical novels will recognize On the Rooftop‘s exploration of the often-complex relationships between mothers and daughters. “I can’t escape it,” Sexton says. “There is just so much to be mined. They are such primal relationships, and even the best ones are fraught.” 

In the novel, Sexton describes Vivian’s feelings about motherhood with care and nuance, successfully avoiding tropes and instead creating a character who embodies very specific personal and cultural dynamics. Vivian is a Louisiana transplant who lost her husband, Ellis, long ago, and whose own musical dreams were stunted by her difficult life. This is not, however, your typical parent-living-through-their-child story. “I feel like Vivian has some challenges around when to let go, but I think she ultimately does learn to do so,” Sexton says. “At her best level, she has learned when it’s time to step aside, and I think that’s what parenting is—surrendering to the child’s metamorphosis into an adult.”

The distinct relationships between Vivian and each of her daughters reflect their divergent personalities, histories and ambitions. Vivian puts much of her faith in Ruth—the eldest, the quintessential rock, the de facto leader of the sisters. Ruth has a strained relationship with middle sister Esther, who dreams of making an impact but has conflicting ideas about how to do so. Chloe, the youngest daughter, yearns for her mother, sisters and community to recognize her gifts. 

Sexton notes that despite their differences, all four women are ultimately searching for the same thing: security. “I love that through each of the girls, you get a different window into what security means,” she says. “The goal is for all of them to feel safe in their own separate worlds.” 

The past is ever-present for each of them, and nodes of memory function as creative forces, influencing the women as they navigate generational trauma, interpersonal violence and grief. Vivian, for example, grapples with recollections from her Louisiana homeland and the aftermath of Ellis’ death. As Sexton notes, these memories catalyze Vivian’s goals for her daughters, her self-esteem and her ability to love again. 

“I feel like honoring the memories that you hold is a symbol for the entire book,” she says. “For Vivian . . . she has these painful memories of segregation in the South, of humiliation in the South and of her father’s tragic death in the South. She can’t forget those memories. She can’t erase them, and she can’t bury them. She has to somehow continue to hold those memories and almost transform them into something educational for herself in order to allow this new world to enter into her space.”

Vivian’s memories were also an important factor in Sexton’s writing process. After setting her previous two novels in her hometown of New Orleans, the author wanted to explore the Bay Area, her home of 15 years. The former lawyer, who has a degree in creative writing from Dartmouth College, was cautious, however, feeling that she had yet to possess the cultural authority to imagine her adopted home. “It made sense to me to make Vivian someone who had been born in Louisiana, so we were both coming from the same place,” Sexton says. “She was basically a visitor. Her lens and my lens are not any different.”

During the 1950s, San Francisco’s Fillmore District was considered the “Harlem of the West,” a nod to its similarity to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s. The Fillmore’s Black community began to emerge during what is known as the Great Migration, a national trend of northern and western movement as many African Americans left the South in search of new residential and occupational opportunities and to escape the horrors of Jim Crow. The predominantly Black neighborhood became the center of San Francisco’s vibrant jazz scene, where transcendent legends collaborated with local musicians in the many clubs that lined the streets. 

 “Our ancestors have done it, and our descendants will do it. We’re not all alone in this.”

Sexton has a personal connection to the Great Migration. Similar to her characters, members of her own family moved from Louisiana to California in the 1940s and ’50s. When Sexton arrived in the area decades later, these family members welcomed her with open arms, allowing her to immediately feel a sense of community in her new home. She inscribes this sentiment into On the Rooftop

“I love that they brought Louisiana to the Bay Area,” Sexton says, “and that they created this mini-community that was an echo of their own that they had left back home, [where] they could access all of the sources of comfort. . . . They founded the same churches that they would have gone to back home.”

In the novel, Vivian and her daughters dream of musical stardom as a way to secure liberty in the face of racial and economic oppression, and as the Salvations channel their existential angst into jazz and blues numbers performed at Black-owned Fillmore clubs, they share stages with iconic musicians such as Dinah Washington and Lena Horne. While brief, these cameos ground the story in very real historical dynamics. From blues to jazz to gospel and hip hop, music has been the lifeblood of Black people in America, conveying emotion, building community and offering pathways to freedom. Music feels like its own character in On the Rooftop, a vibrant entity that seems to breathe, occupy space and impact social activity.

Margaret Wilkerson Sexton author photo
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, author of ‘On the Rooftop’

“Setting [On the Rooftop] in the jazz era really enlivens the book,” Sexton says. “The music really exemplified the endurance of this community. They came here with so much optimism and so much hope, you know, to work in the shipyards. They had more money than they ever had before. They re-created this community so it felt like home. And this musical scene was part of this.”

In the book, the community’s camaraderie and stability are undermined by white businessmen who begin buying up property in the area. For these businessmen and their partners in government, the Fillmore was a blight, despite being a strong Black residential and business base. Some property owners sold out for a quick windfall, while others resisted until the seemingly benevolent offers turned into harassment. Some continued to fight, as Esther does in the novel.

This process, known as “urban renewal,” affected African American communities across the country in the 1950s and ’60s and is an antecedent to present-day gentrification. While some Black neighborhoods were wiped out through this process, others were able to persist and still exist in some form. With On the Rooftop, Sexton hoped to present a portrait of community resiliency for contemporary neighborhoods resisting gentrification. 

“I want people to be aware of the fact that it’s been around for a long time and that it continues,” Sexton says. “We need to start having conversations, and we need to start creating policies that preempt it, right, that abolish it. And I want people to experience the joy and the endurance of a community that has undergone it and still continued to flourish.” 

Sexton’s work entertains and inspires at the same time, and with On the Rooftop, she urges us to find comfort in the triumphs of our past. “I hope that it will relay the security of knowing that we’re not all alone in this,” she says. “Our ancestors have done it, and our descendants will do it. We’re not all alone in this. We kind of have a blueprint for how to fix it and how to heal ourselves in the process.”

Photos of Margaret Wilkerson Sexton by Smeeta Mahanti

In the third novel from the author of A Kind of Freedom and The Revisioners, the sweetest song comes from the heart of San Francisco's 1950s jazz scene.

Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s third novel, On the Rooftop, is a creative exploration of family, community and resilience set in San Francisco’s historically Black Fillmore neighborhood in the 1950s. 

Told from multiple perspectives, the novel centers on Vivian, who came to San Francisco from New Orleans after the death of her husband, the father of her children. She works a good job as a medical assistant, but past traumas and current precariousness prevent her from feeling true comfort. She puts most of her energy toward shepherding the singing careers of her three daughters, Ruth, Esther and Chloe, who perform as a group called the Salvations. Vivian dreams of more for her daughters and tirelessly pushes them to practice on their building’s rooftop in preparation for their shows at the Champagne Supper Club.

Vivian’s daughters have their own dreams, however. Their mother believes the eldest, Ruth, has the most star potential, but Ruth’s hopes are a bit more modest. Middle daughter Esther is searching for her own voice while grappling with past traumas. Chloe, the overlooked youngest, is grasping for recognition in both her professional life and personal relationships. Amid all this, their Fillmore neighborhood is being threatened by an urban renewal program that would dismantle the physical and symbolic community. 

Loosely inspired by Fiddler on the Roof, On the Rooftop is a refreshing work of historical fiction that provides a window into Black life outside of the direct prism of racist oppression. While the specters of racism are present in the story, Sexton chooses to center themes of motherhood, memory, music and hope. She has carefully imagined a compelling social world built on the very real cultural dynamics of the legendary Fillmore neighborhood, known as the “Harlem of the West” for the vibrant Black community within its borders. 

On the Rooftop is a quiet page turner that can serve as a beacon of hope in any trying time. 

On the Rooftop is a quiet page turner that can serve as a beacon of hope in any trying time.

A year after his acclaimed bestseller, Blacktop Wasteland, S.A. Cosby returns with the equally gripping but more complex Razorblade Tears. Set in rural and urban Virginia, the story centers on the thorny partnership between ex-convicts Ike, who is Black, and Buddy Lee, who is white. The duo is drawn together by the unfathomable murder of their sons, Isiah and Derek, a married couple who lived a relatively innocuous life. Fueled by law enforcement’s lack of interest in solving the case, as well as by their own personal guilt, Ike and Buddy Lee set off to uncover who killed their sons and unleash their own brand of vigilante justice.

Razorblade Tears is simultaneously a contemplative mystery and a stunning thrill ride. A master of his craft, Cosby balances incredibly complicated characters with enveloping suspense and some of the most captivatingly violent scenes that you will ever read. At the same time, Razorblade Tears features poignant, purposeful social commentary as Cosby takes a critical yet sensitive look at homophobia, racism, classicism and toxic masculinity. Ike and Buddy Lee’s quest puts their lives at risk but also challenges their senses of self and understanding of the world. Their self-interrogation and personal transformation prompt readers to examine their own sociopolitical standpoints.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: S.A. Cosby on writing the literary blues.


Cosby’s writing is both fearless and sympathetic, exhibiting his formidable intellect alongside vivid imagery, sharp wit and intricate plot lines. Razorblade Tears transcends genre boundaries and is a must-read for anyone looking for a mystery that provokes and thrills in equal measure.

A year after his acclaimed bestseller, Blacktop Wasteland, S.A. Cosby returns with the equally gripping but more complex Razorblade Tears.

In his debut novel, Mateo Askaripour offers a witty yet thrilling examination of the complexities of race in corporate America. The novel centers on Darren Vender, a 22-year-old Black man who shares a Brooklyn brownstone with his mother and works as a shift leader at Starbucks. Despite graduating at the top of his high school class, Darren did not go to college and seems to lack ambition. That changes after a chance encounter with Rhett, the CEO of a buzzy tech startup called Sumwun, who invites Darren into the ruthless world of corporate sales.

At Sumwun, Darren’s attempt to climb the corporate ladder is met with multidimensional racist resistance. Sumwun’s director of sales and Darren’s direct supervisor, Clyde, is a quintessential racist. He disproportionately criticizes Darren and employs incredibly demeaning language while doing so. However, Sumwun also features more subtle forms of racism. For example, white employees often remark that Darren resembles Black celebrities who look nothing like Darren—and who look wildly different from each other.

While fighting for his upward mobility at Sumwun, Darren risks alienating his family, friends and himself. Eventually, an unfortunate incident rattles the foundation of Sumwun and sends Darren on a life-changing and culture-shifting journey that is full of twists, turns and some truly profound messages.

Black Buck is an ambitious book. While being an intellectual and captivating work of satire, it also serves as an instruction manual for Black and brown people working in white-dominated spaces. Askaripour embeds tokens of wisdom in his well-crafted plot and delivers direct messages of advice and encouragement to readers. There is great risk in such ambition, but Askaripour is a fine writer and superbly executes his vision.

This is an entertaining, accessible and thorough look at America's race problem, a book both of the moment and one for all seasons. It’s a necessary read for those living under the weight of oppressive systems as well as for those looking to better understand their complicity within them.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: How Mateo Askaripour climbed the corporate ladder, then spun what he learned into fiction gold.

In his debut novel, Mateo Askaripour offers a witty yet thrilling examination of the complexities of race in corporate America.

After learning what it takes to make it in the corporate world, Mateo Askaripour spins that knowledge into gold in his riotous first novel.

“You’re likely in for a wild ride, and you will make mistakes,” says author Mateo Askaripour via Zoom from his home in Brooklyn, New York. “But as long as you learn from them and don’t judge yourself too harshly, you can retain a sense of self and still succeed.”

Askaripour’s comments reflect the central message of his debut novel, Black Buck, in which a young Black man named Darren attempts to navigate the punishingly racist corporate tech world without losing either himself or the love of his friends and family. With a complex yet accessible plot, rich characters and Askaripour’s sharp wit, Black Buck is a page-turning satirical examination of corporate racial struggle. And with its tips and tricks for achieving success in white-dominated spaces, the book also acts as an instruction manual for Black and brown corporate climbers.

“I wrote this book so that anyone who reads it, especially Black and brown people, would be able to take away a few gems on how to advance their own lives and the lives of those who they love.”

Askaripour’s professional life began in the same corporate tech world that he thoroughly deconstructs in his novel. The Long Island native was a prodigy of sorts, moving from intern to director of sales at a tech startup within a year. When he needed an outlet from the fast-paced and ruthless world of sales, he turned to the written word. His first two attempts at a novel fell short of the mark. Then in late 2017, he decided to write from experience.

“I realized that writing something that felt true to me meant that I couldn’t shy away from the things that were closest to me in my life,” he explains. Namely, sales, race and startups. In Black Buck, Darren’s quest to establish himself in sales causes internal and external turmoil. Forced assimilation, intrusive demands on his time and the stresses of racism create rifts in his relationships, self-identity and sense of control. There are moments when the reader struggles to determine whether Darren is a hero or a villain. That’s not a sign of any misstep on Askaripour’s part, though. Rather, it reflects the existential battle that Black and brown people face in these environments.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: The unique format of Black Buck makes for a great audiobook.


“There were times when I felt like I was mad powerful,” Askaripour says of his sales days. “I was 24 years old, managing 30 people and making over $100K. I had all these people looking up to me. In those moments, it’s so easy to forget that you’re Black. It was so easy to forget because you have some money and people are looking up to you. But then there were times when I’d hire a new person, a white man or woman, and I could tell that the first time I would ask them to do something or tell them to do something, they’d look at me strangely. Years later, I began to understand what those initial looks meant. They were saying, I gotta listen to a Black person? Especially this dude? Some of them never had to listen to a Black person in their life before, or even a person of color.”

Black Buck book coverAs Darren climbs the corporate ladder, some of the racism he encounters is overt, while other forms are stealthily inscribed into the culture of the company. Reflecting both his empirical understanding of the problem and his writing talent, Askaripour does an incredible job of showing how companies often use Black culture as a source of inspiration and mobilization while at the same time generating an internal culture of intolerance for Black people.

“They have this cognitive dissonance where they will take Black culture and use it to energize and further their interests, but how many Black people do they know?” he says. “And how willing are they to sit back and ask themselves whether they are helping or hurting these people that they never really think about?”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Black Buck.


Despite its grounding in racial strife, Black Buck is not a pessimistic novel at all. The African diasporic philosophy “each one, teach one” undergirds the book. Brought to America from West Africa, “each one, teach one” suggests that African Americans who have effectively navigated racial subjugation should guide and open doors for others in their community.

“I think we need to realize that until we’re in a position where Black and brown people are giving other Black and brown people those life-changing opportunities at such an exponential rate, there is going to be an obvious disparity, and there is going to be an imbalance. And that needs to change,” Askaripour says. “The ‘each one, teach one’ mentality is definitely a way to change that.”

For Askaripour, Black Buck is a form of service, an intentional attempt to positively affect the material circumstances of Black and brown people. “I wrote this book so that anyone who reads it, especially Black and brown people, would be able to take away a few gems on how to advance their own lives and the lives of those who they love,” he says. “It doubles as a sales manual for that very real reason. I feel hopeful that if someone reads this book and understands its journey, they would be able to better their lives and probably get an entry-level sales job. Yeah, man, ‘each one, teach one’ is not just essential to the book. It’s at the core of my life right now.”

 

Author photo by Andrew “FifthGod” Askaripour

After learning what it takes to make it in the corporate world, Mateo Askaripour spins that knowledge into gold in his riotous first novel, Black Buck.

In Deacon King Kong, the venerable James McBride’s first novel since winning the National Book Award in 2013 for The Good Lord Bird, a grief-stricken church deacon nicknamed Sportcoat shoots Deems, a 19-year-old drug dealer, at a Brooklyn-area housing project called the Cause Houses in 1969.

The shooting shocks the community of the Causes Houses and nearby Five Ends Baptist Church and triggers a chain of subplots that McBride explores in touching and intriguing ways. Such a web of interconnected relationships could produce confusion when from the pen of a less talented writer. McBride, however, gives every character finely tuned identities and experiences. Aside from Sportcoat and Deems, there is Officer Potts Mullen, a worn-down white beat cop who yearns for the heart of cynical yet warm-hearted African American pastor’s wife Sister Gee. Soup is a recently released ex-convict and Nation of Islam convert who seeks to heal the community that he used to hurt. Italian mobster Tommy Elephante, also known as the Elephant, is the neighborhood boogeyman who is pursuing a treasure hunt left behind by his deceased father. These subplots are tied together by a mysterious link that reveals itself over time.

These are just a few of the threads that comprise the web of experiences that generate the book’s ultimate protagonist, the Cause Houses. The characters are mere microorganisms; the Cause is the body. McBride imagines the project building not just as a setting but also as a living being that speaks, laughs, cries and, most importantly, loves. 

Deacon King Kong engages with serious issues including grief, poverty, drug use and gun violence, among others. At the same time, it is an incredibly funny novel. McBride’s comedic language and timing are precise and dynamic. Comedy is cultural, and in a truly exceptional move, he gives authentic comedic voices to characters with wide-ranging racial and cultural backgrounds.

Deacon King Kong finds a literary master at work, and reading the book’s 384 pages feels like both an invigorating short sprint and an engrossing marathon. It is a deeply meditative novel that leaves the reader swept up in a wave of concurrent and conflicting emotions. Deacon King Kong reaffirms James McBride’s position among the greatest American storytellers of our time.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: James McBride discusses creative freedom, the black church and examining race in fiction.

Deacon King Kong finds a literary master at work, and reading the book’s 384 pages feels like both an invigorating short sprint and an engrossing marathon. It is a deeply meditative novel that leaves the reader swept up in a wave of concurrent and conflicting emotions.

BookPage Top Pick in Fiction, October 2018

Leif Enger’s third novel, Virgil Wander, centers on the eponymous protagonist who lives in the quaint, rustic town of Greenstone, Minnesota. By day, Virgil begrudgingly works as the town clerk, but by night, he is the proprietor of the Empress, a fledgling movie theater that specializes in projecting its exclusive and illegal film collection. During a drive one snowy evening, Virgil’s car skids off the road and crashes into Lake Superior. Luckily, he is a saved by Marcus Jetty, the owner of the local junkyard. Virgil emerges from the accident with a fleeting grasp of language and flickering memories of his former life.

After his near-death experience, Virgil embarks on a journey of rediscovery through interactions with fellow townspeople, each of whom are engaged in their own respective voyages. There’s Rune, the affable Finnish kite-maker who is in town seeking information about his deceased son, Alec Sandstrom, whose death is central to Greenstone lore. Nadine is Alec’s widow, whom Virgil not so secretly pines for. Nadine’s son, Bjorn, seeks to both engage with and escape from his father’s memory. There’s also Jerry Fandeen, the lovable yet untrustworthy handyman trapped in a vulnerable situation. These select few are among the many characters that make up the body and communal soul of the small Minnesota community.

Greenstone and its townspeople share a heartbeat that has been thrown off-cadence by a sense of hopelessness. Struggles may vary from person to person, but they add up to a central thread of suffering that permeates the entire town. However, the story suggests that there is hope in this synergy. Collective precariousness can be transformed into collective uplift.

A book like Virgil Wander, with so many characters and subplots, can make for a convoluted read. But Enger does a truly masterful job of synthesizing these various components into a compelling and easily digestible whole.

Virgil Wander is a fast-paced, humorous and mystical novel about hope, friendship, love and the relationship between a town and its people.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Leif Enger for Virgil Wander.

This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Leif Enger’s third novel, Virgil Wander, centers on the eponymous protagonist who lives in the quaint, rustic town of Greenstone, Minnesota. By day, Virgil begrudgingly works as the town clerk, but by night, he is the proprietor of the Empress, a fledgling movie theater that specializes in projecting its exclusive and illegal film collection. During a drive one snowy evening, Virgil’s car skids off the road and crashes into Lake Superior. Luckily, he is a saved by Marcus Jetty, the owner of the local junkyard. Virgil emerges from the accident with a fleeting grasp of language and flickering memories of his former life.

Iain Reid’s philosophical sci-fi novel Foe tells the story of Junior and Henrietta, a married couple living on a farm in an undisclosed location sometime in the near future. They live a relatively isolated and quiet life that is structured around monotonous routine. Their domestic doldrums are upended by the arrival of Terrance, a mysterious figure who claims to work for a scientific outfit called OuterMore. He has come to tell the couple that Junior has been tapped to potentially participate in the Installation, a human settlement in outer space. Informed by Terrance that Junior’s involvement won’t be finalized for another few years, the couple returns to their normal existence.

Two years later, Terrance returns with news that Junior has indeed been selected to participate in the Installation program. The mission will require him to live very far away from the farm for several years. Stunned and confused, Junior is concerned about leaving Henrietta alone on their remote homestead. But Henrietta will not be alone, as OuterMore plans to replace Junior with a duplicate version of himself.

Furthermore, Terrance moves into the household to conduct interviews and collect observational data for the replacement. This new and bizarre domestic situation, as well as Henrietta’s mysteriously apathetic response to it all, perplexes Junior. The reader then follows Junior on an unsettling yet thrilling search for answers that ultimately culminates in a shocking final twist.

Foe is a philosophically bewildering and psychologically triggering novel. Reid’s depiction of Junior’s and Henrietta’s existential crises forces the reader to engage with questions of romantic relationships, identity, technology and the nature of humanity. Such an ambitious work risks being muddied. Reid, however, brilliantly executes his vision through short chapters filled with well-crafted internal and external dialogue.

With Foe, Reid has written a page-turning novel that will entertain you and have you questioning the very foundation of your existence at the exact same time.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Iain Reid’s philosophical sci-fi novel Foe tells the story of Junior and Henrietta, a married couple living on a farm in an undisclosed location sometime in the near future. They live a relatively isolated and quiet life that is structured around monotonous routine. Their domestic doldrums are upended by the arrival of Terrance, a mysterious figure who claims to work for a scientific outfit called OuterMore. He has come to tell the couple that Junior has been tapped to potentially participate in the Installation, a human settlement in outer space. Informed by Terrance that Junior’s involvement won’t be finalized for another few years, the couple returns to their normal existence.

In Southernmost, novelist Silas House tells the story of Asher Sharp, a young preacher living in rural east Tennessee with his wife, Lydia, and their adolescent son, Justin. After a violent flood tears through their town, Asher provides shelter for a gay couple despite the religious conservatism of the area. Asher’s generosity is influenced in part by the immense guilt that remains from rejecting his gay brother, Luke, many years prior.

Lydia immediately scorns Asher’s act of charity. His church congregation does the same. These acts of rejection cause a disconnect between Asher’s moral and religious principles, leading to a crisis of conscience that upends his life. His congregation removes him as pastor, and he leaves his wife. Asher’s moral conversion is further complicated by the fact that his zealot wife is awarded full custody of Justin. Fearing the loss of his sensitive son, Asher kidnaps Justin, and the two head for Key West, Florida, in search of freedom and new understandings—and in search of Luke.

Southernmost is a well-crafted work that is both emotionally and philosophically resonant. Using detailed imagery and rich dialogue, House allows readers to witness how the transformation of one’s moral foundations, no matter how noble, can disrupt a person’s sense of community and security. It is also a story of freeing the self from the captivity of our various societal structures.

House’s depiction of the contemporary South is vivid, accessible and incredibly enchanting, even during the book’s darkest moments. His complex characters quarrel with popular preconceptions and stereotypes of the region. The South of Southernmost includes areas that are inflexibly governed by dogma, while other spaces allow for autonomy and growth.

Southernmost is a remarkable meditation on faith, morality, loss and love—a transcendent work that has the power to entertain, educate and heal at the same time.

 

This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

In Southernmost, novelist Silas House tells the story of Asher Sharp, a young preacher living in rural east Tennessee with his wife, Lydia, and their adolescent son, Justin. After a violent flood tears through their town, Asher provides shelter for a gay couple despite the religious conservatism of the area. Asher’s generosity is influenced in part by the immense guilt that remains from rejecting his gay brother, Luke, many years prior.

Welsh author Carys Davies’ masterful debut novel, West, tells the story of Cy Bellman, a widowed British transplant raising his young daughter, Bess, in rural Pennsylvania in the early 19th century. When Bellman reads about the discovery of mammoth-size bones in Kentucky, he begins to feel discontented and restless. The bones captivate Bellman. He wants to see them in person and believes they belong to creatures that still roam the earth. He also needs a break from his mundane and rather depressive existence. Despite warnings and condemnation from family and neighbors, Bellman decides to head west, beyond the Mississippi River, in search of more mysterious fossils.

Davies juxtaposes Bellman’s journey with the story of Bess, whom he leaves behind in Pennsylvania. Deprived of a mother and a father, Bess faces the perils of life without stability and protection. She spends much of the story waiting for her father while attempting to avoid the nefarious attention of two local men.

While they are living two disconnected lives, Bellman’s and Bess’ stories intersect through the travels of a Shawnee youth named Old Woman from a Distance, who serves as Bellman’s guide on his western journey. Orphaned by both tribe and homeland, Old Woman from a Distance is a curious boy who is searching for his own type of contentment.

Davies’ economical approach, in the form of short chapters and concise prose, is incredibly effective. She offers just enough narrative for the reader to connect with characters and engage with the plot. But from chapter to chapter, Davies leaves much unsaid, which in turn leaves the reader feeling as vulnerable and full of wonder as the book’s main characters.

West is an engrossing work of historical fiction grappling with themes of vulnerability, longing and hope that transcend all contexts.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Welsh author Carys Davies’ masterful debut novel, West, tells the story of Cy Bellman, a widowed British transplant raising his young daughter, Bess, in rural Pennsylvania in the early 19th century. When Bellman reads about the discovery of mammoth-size bones in Kentucky, he begins to feel discontented and restless. The bones captivate Bellman. He wants to see them in person and believes they belong to creatures that still roam the earth.

In her debut novel, Akwaeke Emezi offers a haunting yet stunning exploration of mental illness grounded in traditional Nigerian spirituality. This semi-autobiographical work centers on Ada, a Nigerian girl of Igbo ethnicity whose nature is both human and divine. She was born with multiple selves, each under the domain of a different ogbanje, dark spirits of the Igbo belief system.

Though claiming dominion over Ada’s body and soul, the ogbanje lay relatively dormant until she moves from Nigeria to a small town in Virginia for college. While there, a violent sexual encounter with an Eritrean-Danish romantic partner unleashes Asughara, the mischievous, hypersexual and most dominant of the ogbanje. Controlling Ada’s thoughts and actions, Asughara sends Ada on a descent toward insanity that includes self-mutilation, multiple lost relationships and ultimately a total loss of self-control.

Ada’s story is told by her multiple selves through alternating chapters. Employing precise and poetic yet accessible prose, Emezi brilliantly crafts distinct voices for each of Ada’s selves and puts them in conversation with each other. The multiple perspectives and swift pace of the prose lead to calculated confusion in the reader that mimics the movement of Ada’s consciousness. As such, Emezi’s particular use of structure and language allows the reader to not only witness but also experience the battle of incongruent identities that define Ada’s mental instability.

Emezi’s fusion of traditional Nigerian spirituality and Western understanding of mental illness is well executed. She treats the ogbanje not as novelty or fantasy, but rather as legitimate sources of Ada’s strife. She balances multiple lands, ethnicities, perspectives and belief systems with the ease of a writer far beyond her age and experience. Freshwater is a brutally beautiful rumination on consciousness and belief and a refreshing contribution to our literary landscape.

In her debut novel, Akwaeke Emezi offers a haunting yet stunning exploration of mental illness grounded in traditional Nigerian spirituality. This semi-autobiographical work centers on Ada, a Nigerian girl of Igbo ethnicity whose nature is both human and divine. She was born with multiple selves, each under the domain of a different ogbanje, dark spirits of the Igbo belief system.

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