Kalisha Buckhanon, a protégé of acclaimed author Sapphire, has written a vivid but—be warned—surpassingly sad debut novel. Upstate explores the myriad trials that afflict the poor, especially the African-American poor: fatherlessness, abuse, drugs, homelessness and the appalling rate of incarceration of its young men ("upstate" is where most of the prisons are in New York). On top of this, there's the universal sadness of a young love that's doomed even though its young lovers, thankfully, aren't.
They are Antonio and Natasha, two teenagers from Harlem, New York, and Buckhanon wastes no time getting them in trouble. This epistolary novel opens with Antonio's first letter to Natasha from prison, which asks if she really believes he killed his father. She swears to be faithful to him, even though he faces 10 years in prison for the murder. Their exchanges are so passionate, so filled with declarations of steadfastness, that the reader almost believes they can pull this off.
In prose that vibrantly captures the way real kids from Harlem speak, Buckhanon reveals not only the lovers' Romeo and Juliet-like ardor, basic decency and innocence, but also their intelligence and ambition, especially Natasha's. She's a young teenager when Antonio is arrested, and her devotion to him begins to wane when she visits France on a student exchange program: the world opens up for Natasha at the same time it closes down for Antonio.
Buckhanon's depiction of prison as a system whose goal isn't rehabilitation but a stripping away of an inmate's humanity are brilliantly grim. But it's the promise of Natasha's love that allows Antonio to hold on to a fragment of his dignity while he's inside, even as he feels that love slipping away. "Your love made me feel like a human being in my darkest hours," he writes her when he's out and they're both grown up. Upstate, for all its sorrow, is a book worth reading.
Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.