THE PLOT: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson is about a family reacting to teenage pregnancy. On the day of sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming of age party, her parents and grandparents reflect on their family history. In particular, Iris – Melody’s mother who became pregnant at fifteen – is at the centre of everyone’s thoughts. As each chapter changes point of view to a different family member, they remember the shame and joy that accompanied Melody’s entrance to this world. And, at the heart of this book they grapple with parenthood and what it really means.
RATING: I’m giving this book three and a half stars, but I understand why others would give it a higher rating. It’s a powerful book, which brought tears to my eyes. Expertly written, Woodson is clearly a master of her craft. Her ability to tell this story and create such vivid characters in under two-hundred pages is impressive. However, it was too literary for my tastes and I found the act of reading it very stilted due to the layout of each paragraph.
GOOD BITS: There are lots of wonderful things about this novel, but I enjoyed the characterization and relationships between characters the most. The tense relationship between Iris and Aubrey (her baby daddy), and Aubrey’s relationship with his mother were particularly moving. The way the novel switches between POVs gives you a real sense of the difference between what people show and what they feel, and insight into why they react the way they do.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: I’ve ruminated on it and my problem with this novel is that there’s not enough forward action. In each chapter characters move backwards through their memories, but this often feels fragmented and doesn’t sustain the narrative. For the most part, what kept me reading was the desire to understand why Iris struggled to be a mother. However, the stilted storyline coupled with the sparse writing style meant I kept drifting and daydreaming while I was ploughing through this book.
OVERALL: This novel reminds me of Milkman by Anna Burns – I respect what the author has created, but it wasn’t quite for me. On the whole, I enjoyed the characters and although there’s not much description of the setting, there’s tons of atmosphere. In some ways, the constant tension and deep sadness made the act of reading this novel raw and emotional. I felt this novel deep inside, as if it was scratching at me, turning me red at the bone. So, I’d recommend it to people who like emotion and atmosphere, literary novels and character studies, those interested in family dynamics and sexuality.