Tayari Jones' first novel, Leaving Atlanta, dealt with the sorrow and horror of the Atlanta Child Murders of the early 1980s. Her new novel, The Untelling, though focused on one family, tells a story no less wrung with grief.
When Ariadne Jackson was around 10 years old, her father and younger sister Genevieve were killed in a car crash that Jones describes with quiet, matter-of-fact horror. Ariadne, her mother Eloise and older sister Hermione survived, physically unscarred, but psychologically mangled. The damage sometimes manifests in roundabout ways. Eloise's quirkiness she chose her daughters' names can turn mean; she can bake BB's into cornbread, or capriciously lock her daughters out of the house. Hermione has married her father's best friend and her relations with her stepdaughter, a woman who's older than she is, are icy. Ariadne's father died when she was on the brink of puberty, and it seems that her very womanhood has been compromised. This problem has especially sad consequences for her relationship with her boyfriend Dwayne. Also, like her mother (who was holding baby Genevieve on her lap during the car accident), Ariadne carries an unwarranted but overpowering burden of guilt: she blames herself for refusing to comfort her father during his last moments of life.
Jones surrounds these unhappy women with other well-drawn characters. There's Cynthia, the homeless crack addict; Rochelle, Ariadne's roommate whom Ariadne envies for her smooth relationship with her fiancé; and Keisha, the sweet but naive pregnant teenager who attends Ariadne's literacy class. Even Ariadne's father, though only seen in glimpses, comes across as sweet, gentle and flawed. Jones' writing is graceful and lucid, and though the story ends unhappily, it doesn't end in despair. The Jacksons are strong women; they have survived, and will continue to survive. The Untelling is a poignant story about the often cruel randomness of life, and how one woman in particular copes with it.
Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.