Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
Published by Riverhead Books, 2019
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Told in small vignettes, and coming in at just shy of 200 pages, Red at the Bone is testament if ever it was needed that a vast word count is not necessarily required to successfully craft a sweeping family saga. Opening at the coming-of-age party for 16-year-old Melody, the scant narrative jumps back and forward through time, shifting perspective between Melody, her parents, and her grandparents, to explore the complicated dynamic between them all; one that simmers with equal parts tension and fierce love.
The crux of the novel is that Melody was conceived when her parents were just 15. Whilst her father, Aubrey, embraced the situation wholeheartedly, finding genuine meaning and joy through parenthood, her mother, Iris, felt unprepared and stifled by the sudden responsibility. With Iris choosing to step away from the family, focussing instead on continuing her education and exploring her own identity, she and Melody have always had a fraught relationship. The novel is definitely at its strongest when it homes in on this particular dynamic, with Woodson making some wonderful yet subtle commentary on the expectations of gender.
That said, it’s impressive how many themes she manages to touch on, with the family’s experiences throughout the years inviting commentary on the likes of class, race, love, and sexuality, without ever feeling rushed. It also takes skill to balance several viewpoints across a highly non-linear timeline, without the reader ever feeling lost, but Woodson pulls this off as well. As for the prose itself, I found myself torn. It’s undeniably beautiful, with some gorgeous passages and wonderfully perceptive moments of human observation. On the other hand, it can feel overdone at times. This is particularly true in first-person sections where characters are waxing lyrical about each other with unrealistically flowery language, and in the brief yet no less irritating chapter where a character vividly remembers their own birth. It was these moments that hindered me from submitting myself wholly to the characters; my ability to see the author through her work stopping them from ever feeling like real people.
Whilst being wary of spoilers, I will also say there’s a particular plot development at the end that didn’t quite sit right with me. I’ve seen several readers say they found it impactful, so it’s likely a personal thing, but I couldn’t help but feel its sudden and largely unexplored inclusion was emotionally manipulative; a quickfire means of adding additional unearned weight to the narrative without actually contributing to any of the previously established themes.
Overall, in spite of its flaws, I found this a very pleasant read. While characters and plot points beyond the central mother and daughter may not stay with me, the heartfelt look at the complexities of family, and the brilliant air of melancholy and nostalgia that hangs over the whole thing just might.
You can pick up a copy of Red at the Bone from Book Depository by clicking here.
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