April 16, 2024

While We Were Burning

By Sara Koffi
Sara Koffi’s While We Were Burning is a searing thriller that dares readers to question their own perspectives on everyday, casual racism.
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Anyone who thinks we live in a post-racial world clearly hasn’t been paying attention. The highly justified anger over Black pain inflicted by white privilege is undeniable—but what happens when one grieving mother decides to exact revenge? With notes of Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Othello, Sara Koffi’s While We Were Burning is a searing debut with a complex and compelling dual narration that dares readers to question their own perspectives on everyday, casual racism.

In the suburbs of Memphis, Tennessee, Elizabeth Smith’s life looks perfect, but appearances are deceiving. Her marriage is hanging on by a thread, her lifelong struggle with insomnia makes even getting out of bed a challenge, and the other white women around her—including neighbor and co-worker Patricia—don’t feel like real friends. When Patricia is found dead, strung up in a tree while still wearing her Halloween costume, Elizabeth plunges even deeper into despair. Enter Brianna, a stunning and kind Black woman whom Elizabeth hires as her personal assistant, and who quickly becomes a close friend and confidante. But unbeknownst to Elizabeth, Brianna has her own agenda: After the death of her beloved teenage son due to a 911 call from Elizabeth’s neighborhood, she’s out for blood, and she’s certain Elizabeth can get her closer to her goal. Then there’s the unexpected twist of Brianna’s attraction to Elizabeth’s husband . . .

Author Koffi, who hails from Memphis herself, seeks to explore unlikable female characters and “humanize Black women by giving them space on the page to breathe.” Hopefully, this accomplished debut is the first of many books where she will have the opportunity to do just that. Both Elizabeth and Brianna are fully realized women, fighting personal and societal demons and, in Brianna’s case, trying to survive in a world that would rather have her dead, or at least quiet and submissive. Beginning and ending with a bang, with a host of grisly surprises in between, While We Were Burning provokes deep thought and frustration, posing the fervent, urgent question: When will justice truly be served?

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