Tayari Jones' first novel, Leaving Atlanta, takes place in 1979, around the time of the infamous murders of African-American children in Atlanta, but this powerful new novel isn't what you might think. To her credit, Jones doesn't present us with the point of view of the murderer; the bloodiest thing that happens is a busted lip from a playground fall. Instead, ingeniously, Jones sees the events through the eyes of three schoolchildren, whose utterly ordinary lives are skewed by the fact that a shadowy killer is out there.
The children, who attend the same elementary school, are Tasha, whose parents' divorce is interrupted by the killing spree; Rodney, the class nerd whose bad relationship with his boorish father leads to tragedy; and Octavia, an intelligent child shunned for being both too poor and too black for her schoolmates. Yes, Jones does go unflinchingly into the color thing among African Americans. What's more remarkable is that she presents the voices of these children with rare precision.
In the midst of the horror, the three kids, all on the cusp of puberty, must still deal with their school's Darwinian social structure, including precarious contact with the opposite sex, adults who mean well and adults who don't and parents whose love for them is, to paraphrase Tillie Olsen, more anxious than proud. Jones grasps both the pain of having to sit by yourself in the cafeteria and the humiliation of poverty, the pleasure of a brand-new pink coat lined with bunny fur and the dismaying cliquishness of young girls. The children are so vivid and alive that one's stomach knots up with increasing apprehension from nearly the first page. "Please don't let any of these children be snatched," you pray, but, like Octavia, you find that not all prayers are answered.
The book's ending is one of the most quietly devastating this reviewer has ever read. Leaving Atlanta, which deals with the effects of serial murder, is simply brilliant a gentle and beautiful book on a horrific subject.
Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.