Something you may not know about me: despite my fairly high degree of confidence in my own intellect in many domains, I actually don’t think I read very well. Which may sound really. strange, coming from someone who regularly reads well over a hundred books a year. The thing is, my greatest weakness as a reader is that I’m a very surface-level guy. While I can handle complex narratives, I have to be in the right mood for them, and the fact that I read so fast can really hurt my comprehension if I’m not deliberately paying careful attention to what I read. This means that I tend to stay away from anything that, broadly classed, might be literature, which I nearly spelled litratcher in order to convey a sort of condescension toward the entire concept. If a novel feels the need to tell me it’s a novel on the cover, that’s a sign that it may not be for me. You know what never says “a novel” on the cover? A book with a dragon or a space ship in it. Not once. Not never. The closest to an exception I can come up with is John Scalzi’s Redshirts, which some editions of declare to be “a novel with three codas,” and which I think Scalzi put on the cover more as a lark than anything else.
In short, whenever I read literature, I always feel like I’m missing something; that there is some theme or some Hidden Meaning or some Deeper Symbolism that I’m not seeing, either because I’m being sloppy or the book is just smarter than I am. Is it there? No idea. But I’m convinced it’s there and I just can’t see it. This may be a sign that I’ve been poorly served by my English teachers; I have a copy of A Tale of Two Cities from high school that has a big chunk of the first page circled and the word “foreshadowing” written next to it, and as someone who has read that book as an adult I have no idea what I thought the foreshadowing was or what it might have foreshadowed. I still can’t handle Jane Austen.
Afia Atakora’s Conjure Women needs to become part of The Canon, because it belongs next to books by Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. That’s it. That’s the review. The book is magnificent. You should read it. I took my time with this one, because I wanted to savor it; normally it’s a good sign if I read a book in a day, and this one took several because I didn’t want it to be over with too quickly. It’s set in and around the Civil War, on a plantation, and the two main characters are mother and daughter, so the book alternates between the two of them, jumping back and forth between just before the war to just after it. A third significant character is Varina, the daughter of the former landowner, who has a bond with Rue, the daughter of the pair, and her story weaves in and out through theirs in a way that isn’t really typical of– here’s that word again– literature set in this time and place. Both Rue and her mother are … well, the title Conjure Women does the job to some extent; they are healers and midwives, and while Rue in particular is generally at some pains to think of her work as entirely natural and (though she doesn’t use this word) scientific, those around them generally don’t, and the book does have just a tinge of the supernatural around it to keep genre-obsessed dopes like me interested. Everything’s just a little better with a little hoodoo sprinkled on it, as my mom never once said in her life.
Every so often someone will ask me, generally not in especially good faith, why I do things like decide I think I’ll read 52 books by women of color this year, when I could … not, I guess. Well, this is part of it; I might not have looked at this book were I not focusing on a certain kind of author, and I’ll freely admit that had Afia Atakora been Ahmad Atakora I probably wouldn’t have bought it. (That said … a man couldn’t have written this book, but that’s not quite the point I’m making.).
In other words, the reason I work on diversifying my reading is that when you go looking for new and/or different reading experiences, you get them, and this book all by itself kind of pays off the whole experiment. Go read it.