The Sentence review: Louise Erdrich captures the quietly simmering fury of summer 2020
How soon is too soon to relive a global trauma? Even now, as the coronavirus stubbornly lingers in the United States, fiction set against its arrival — and the rest of the tumultuous backdrop of 2020 — is steadily rolling out. After winning a Pulitzer Prize for last year's The Night Watchman, inspired by the life of her grandfather, Louise Erdrich releases a follow-up that's as timely as it is unexpected: a pandemic ghost story.
The protagonist of The Sentence is Tookie, a Native woman living in Minneapolis who, after a truncated prison sentence — the survival of which she credits to constant, insatiable reading — finds a steady life married to her great love and working at an independent bookstore. (In a little meta twist, the store closely resembles Erdrich's own Birchbark Books, and the prolific author lends her first name, and a familiar-sounding book tour, to a minor character.)
The death of one of Tookie's regular customers, Flora, disrupts her hard-won equilibrium — not because Flora's gone, but because she refuses to leave, her bracelet-jangling ghost browsing the bookstore daily. After COVID-19 hits, and the murder of George Floyd rouses her devastated city to action, Tookie must confront everything that haunts her, spectral and otherwise.
Tookie's voice is genuine and humorous, her perspective rich with history, literacy, and quietly simmering fury. Erdrich's fictional account of Tookie's pandemic experience, as singular and as universal as anyone's, resonates with strange and familiar detail ("We were selling many copies of very few titles," she notes, conjuring visions of rows of White Fragility) but doesn't blend consistently with her tale of the phantom Flora. The world-altering events of 2020 did not, of course, mesh tidily with the happenings of anyone's life, but for the purposes of following Tookie's journey, the many layers of The Sentence, expertly stacked though they are, begin to obscure one another as the novel goes on.
"We were a haunted country in a haunted world," Tookie observes late in the book. The literature grappling with these latest demons may still be imperfect, but the writing — and reading — is part of the exorcism. B
The Sentence (Harper) is out Nov. 9.