By David Canfield
September 23, 2019 at 10:00 AM EDT
Riverhead Books

Red at the Bone

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“Listen.” Jacqueline Woodson repeats the command across several perspectives in her sublime new novel Red at the Bone, examining the fractures within an African-American family. As it begins, 16-year-old Melody is half the age of her mother, Iris, who abandoned her after high school to reclaim her freedom. “Maybe all over the world there were daughters who knew their mothers as young girls and old women, inside and out, deep,” Melody narrates. “I wasn’t one of them.”

Shortly after we meet Melody, whose spirit hums with love and beauty even as Woodson undergirds her story with a deep sadness, Iris gets a voice of her own — the first of many instances in which Red at the Bone deepens and surprises. In one bruising section, focused on Iris shortly after leaving Melody behind as a teenager to pursue a life of her own, “the tragic comedy of memory” replays. “Her mother flinging the box of pads, then lunging for her, screaming as she slapped and pulled at her daughter’s hair,” Woodson writes. “Iris wrapping her arms around her belly and sinking into a silent mass against the cool bathroom tiles. Her mother’s fists and prayers pummeling down on her.”

In slim chapters, Woodson (Another Brooklyn, Brown Girl Dreaming) flashes back in time to pivotal moments in these women’s lives; realities of race, gender, and class shape who they become. The same goes for Melody’s father, grandparents, and other loved ones. This short novel contains immense empathy for each member of its wide ensemble. Thus, as Woodson covers nearly a century, from the 1921 Tulsa race massacre to 9/11, her grasp of history’s weight on individuals — and definitive feel for borough life, past and present — proves to be as emotionally transfixing as ever. A-

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