My Rating: ★★★★☆
In its synopsis, Red at the Bone is said to touch on a number of important issues—namely “sexual desire and identity, ambition, gentrification, education, class and status, and the life-altering facts of parenthood”—and while I do see those issues portrayed well in the novel, the heart of it for me is the question of what happens when a mother rejects motherhood and chooses instead to strike out on her own in the world as a woman. Red at the Bone succeeds in exploring this with nuance and insight.
The novel opens with sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming-of-age ceremony in her grandparents’ brownstone home in Brooklyn. This seems to be a strategic choice on Woodson’s part, because this functions both as an indication of the family’s social status and as a plot device for getting all the important characters in one place. In particular, it obliges Iris, Melody’s mother, to return home, but it’s evident from the start that Melody and Iris can’t get off on the right foot with each other. Their tense conversation before the ceremony dredges up Iris’s own memories of when she was sixteen, ceremony-less and pregnant with Melody. From here onwards, the narrative moves seamlessly between the past and the present as it explores how the families’ lives changed when Iris became pregnant.
To be honest, if I’d known that the story had a “teenage pregnancy” component, I would’ve been hesitant to pick this up. I have this impression that teenage pregnancy in fiction is often depicted as depressing and prone to victim-blaming on one end, or schmaltzy and inspirational on the other. Fortunately, Woodson moves beyond both these portrayals by not making Iris a passive victim of her circumstances, but rather a character with agency. Iris has the quiet self-assurance of someone who knows her own mind and trusts her own instincts, and it shows in her actions: she was often the one initiating sex with Aubrey; she chose to have Melody against her family’s wishes; and later on she decides to leave her young family to go to college, knowing that Melody would be well-cared for by her parents and by Aubrey. Here’s what was going through her mind when she left for Oberlin:
As she stood at the window looking out, she felt even farther away from Brooklyn and everything she’d known. She had expected this feeling to be a stinging in her chest, a heaviness, but it wasn’t. It was a freedom. A letting go. Even early on she knew she could never be happy at home again. She had outgrown Brooklyn and Aubrey and even Melody.
In the midst of Iris’s newfound freedom, though, there remains a seed of doubt. After this quote, she thinks to herself, “Was that cruel? To be the child’s mother but even at nineteen have this gut sense she’d done all she could for her?” Despite all her self-assurance, then, Iris seems concerned about being perceived as a “bad” mother, and I can’t help but wonder if Aubrey would have thought the same thing had their roles been reversed. Somehow, I don’t think so, and even if he did, it would be ‘normal’—it would be cruel but not uncommon for an unmarried man to leave the woman that he’d gotten pregnant. Society is far harder on bad mothers than it is on bad fathers. That’s why I find Iris to be such a fascinating and complex character—she makes choices that serve her own well-being instead of her family’s. It’s a simple yet radical move for a woman to make.
I’ve spent a good portion of this review talking about Iris because she was the most compelling figure to me, but Woodson fleshes out all the family members well. The story alternates between the perspectives of Iris, Aubrey, Melody, Sabe, and Po’Boy (Iris’s parents), and Woodson has a remarkable attunement to each character’s voice, so each perspective feels distinct.
However, for all the depth that Woodson was able to pack in a little under 200 pages, I still wish that she’d explore Iris and Melody’s relationship more. I would’ve wanted to understand how Melody would reckon with Iris’s decision at different stages in her life, and if she would ever come to understand Iris’s motivations. There was another relationship in the novel (I can’t say more without giving it away) that was also resolved too hastily, when I was still hoping to see how that aspect of Iris’s identity would play out.
I also have two other quibbles with the book. First, it really annoys me when dialogue is rendered in italics instead of being encased in quotation marks. I never understood why authors do that. And second, it’s off-putting for me when children speak in a “poetic” register. The opening paragraph of the story was beautiful, but later I found out it was actually Melody’s perspective, and I don’t think teenagers speak like that.
Those are just minor issues, though. All in all, I loved Red at the Bone, and I get the feeling that it’s a book I’m likely to read again. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves reading family sagas and novels about motherhood and identity.
Reviews for the Women’s Prize 2020 Longlist
- Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – ★★★★
- Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams – ★★★
- The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – ★★½
- Girl by Edna O’Brien – Will not read; no rating
- The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel – Will not read; no rating
Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments!
Find me on Goodreads! | Read from March 10-11, 2020