“I don’t need you to be mad that it happened. I need you to be mad that it just like… happens.”
I have been holding fire on reviewing this book for a few weeks because it is a – a difficult, problematic novel in my view. A novel which is almost good, almost dealt with its topic and theme effectively, is so much harder to review than a novel which was just bad.
Let’s focus on the plot: Emira Tucker is a twenty-five year old African-American who is somewhat drifting through life, not quite able to settle into an allegedly adult life, but who has found some peace and comfort in her job as a baby sitter (cum nanny cum child minder, the name and label are potent) through the delightful child Briar. Briar’s mother, Alix Chamberlain, is a hyper-privileged middle class white woman, making a living through being an influencer, I suppose, on social media and a motivational speaker and a writer.
The novel revolves around these two women and they are both deeply flawed. I found Emira’s perception of the adult world in monetary terms – and specifically an obsession with Health Insurance – uncomfortable. And Alix was simply unpleasant beneath her successful veneer: she is intolerant of others; she is distant from and dismissive of her eldest child Briar and clearly preferring her youngest; she seems unhappy with her own weight; and the strange obsessive maternal / pseudo-romantic crush she develops on Emira is strange. There was a shallowness to both of them – which is perhaps a critique of the society into which they were born and through which they have to navigate.
Into that relationship, we have two other incidents which mould the narrative.
The first is that Alix’s husband, a newscaster, makes an ill-judged comment on the news which could be judged as racist, as a result of which a brick is thrown through the Chamberlain’s window. Alix calls Emira at 10 o’clock at night, whilst she is out at a friend’s birthday party and been drinking, to take Briar out of the house whilst they wait for the police. She takes Briar to a local supermarket, where a security guard detains her, suspicious that a party-clad black woman has a white child with her at 10pm.
The second incident is that witnessing the supermarket debacle is Kelley, who films the incident and encourages Emira to go to the press with the footage or to sue the supermarket. These suggestions fall on deaf ears and Emira wants to put the incident behind her and carry on with her life. They do, however, see each other again and start to date. Coincidentally, Kelley had also dated Alix in High School and their relationship had ended messily.
The novel explores the social awkwardness between Alix, Emira and Kelley – culminating in a wonderfully uncomfortable Thanksgiving Dinner! According to our narrator – who slides in and out of omniscience and a conversational tone at times
Kelley Copeland completely ruined Alex Murphy’s senior year. Back in the spring of 2000, before she became Alix Chamberlain.
Which seems a tad hyperbolic, once we discover what actually happened. Sure, it was clumsy and embarrassing and poorly managed, but weren’t everyone’s early break ups clumsy and poorly managed? Maybe that is more of a reflection on me than anything else… and maybe I’m being heartless and lacking empathy, but the facts didn’t seem to quite live up to that narrative build up, even in Alix’s version of events, and we are never (at least not until the very end) quite sure who acted badly.
The novel also explores race intimately, and is full of the micro-aggressions – and just aggressions – faced by people of colour in America, and in the West generally. It is not simply that inciting incident at the grocery store but Alix and her husband and Kelley are all stepping over the border into racist territory – Alix’ possessiveness over Emira and sense of entitlement that allows her to snoop through her phone notifications and manipulate her, and, yes, provide her with a uniform; her husband’s comment that the “Let’s hope that last one asked her father first” in response to a flamboyant effort by a black student to invite a girl to the Homecoming Ball; Kelley’s preference for, or fetish for, black company over white and black girlfriends over white girlfriends.
When Alix accosts Kelley at work and confronts him about his relationship with Emira – two white people feeling entitled enough to control the emotional and intimate life of a black woman with neither her knowledge nor consent – Reid describes it as
participating in a losing game called “Which One of Us Is Actually More Racist?”
And the sight of these two people – two “woke” white people – playing this “game” is deeply deeply uncomfortable.
And beneath this triangle between Alix, Emira and Kelley – and perhaps most heart breaking – is another love triangle between Alix, Emira and Briar. That Thanksgiving Dinner is awful for poor Briar too, and the effect on her of the novel’s trajectory is never quite fully explored.
There is so much going on in the novel that is important and emotive and vital… but none it is quite melded together effectively nor explored quite deeply enough once we reach the conclusion.
In fact, the novel’s conclusion in general is just… weak. The relationship between Alix and Emira reaches its climax – televised live – somewhat explosively, amid some rather unconvincing grandstanding by Emira’s friend Zara. And the novel just sort of peters out at that point and drifts away… Almost as if Reid was unsure how to finish it. There was one conclusion I thought might happen – a delivery of a promise made in the opening chapter perhaps – and I was rooting for it, but Reid did not deliver. Part of me wonders whether the ending was different in an early draft and she was forced to change it by editors and publishers….
I can see why the novel gathered the attention it did at the time it did, and its themes and ideas are vital now, but as a book it was rather underwhelming.
Plot / Pace:
Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus
Date: 7th January 2020