Ayana Mathis’ outstanding sophomore novel, The Unsettled, separately follows a mother and daughter, Dutchess and Ava Carson, in the mid-1980s as they fight to build lives with a sense of stability, family and home.
Dutchess, a former nightclub performer who found a husband and a hearth in Bonaparte, Alabama, is struggling to save her adopted historically Black town. Racist violence has already claimed her husband, Caro, who was murdered by local whites decades earlier. Now, gentrification and a mysterious new visitor threaten to rob Dutchess of what she believes is her lone legacy: the land on which she has lived for 40 years.
Meanwhile, her daughter Ava embarks on a different quest: In the wake of Caro’s death and Dutchess’ near self-destruction, Ava wanders to Philadelphia, where, after a failed marriage and a stay in a squalid women’s shelter, she finds herself once again in the arms—and under the influence—of Cassius Wright, a charismatic former Black Panther and the father of her son, Toussaint. Along with a handful of other acolytes, Ava and Cass create Ark, a haven for Black people in search of economic and political freedom. But Ark soon becomes a house of horrors as Cass becomes increasingly tyrannical.
For both Dutchess and Ava, the stakes of making and keeping a home are high, and their willingness to go great lengths to achieve their dreams often causes unspeakable pain for the people who love them most. Their greatest hopes for redemption might lie in Toussaint, who is his mother’s secret and could ultimately be his grandmother’s salvation.
For readers who loved Mathis’ blockbuster debut The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, The Unsettled is another tale of a dynamic family and the aftereffects of intergenerational racist violence, but these new characters have voices and stories all their own. In short but perfectly paced chapters, Toussaint, Ava and Dutchess tell of not only their disappointment and despair but also their dreams, crafting a heartbreaking tale about Reagan’s America that deftly weaves the past and present into the possibility of a bright, if still-unfolding, future.