THE PLOT: ‘Memphis’ by Tara M. Stringfellow is a multi-generational family saga about Black women in the American South. There’s Hazel – the matriarch and grandmother whose story starts in 1937 as she finds and loses the love of her life. Her daughter Miriam, who flees her abusive husband in 1995 and is determined to raise her children alone. And, finally, Miriam’s daughter Joan – who must cope with the generational trauma but is the one with the power to break the cycle. Set against a sweeping backdrop of the biggest historical events in the 20th century, this is a story of pain and love and the incredible strength of African-American women.
RATING: This novel is pure beauty. As you read, you can feel the warmth of Memphis and the hear the sound of Anita Baker. It is a triumph which I cannot recommend highly enough. This book has an unusual structure, with multiple point-of-view characters that change frequently in a non-linear timeline. This could be disconcerting to some readers and I wish we could have sunk into some of the storylines more for a satisfying character arc rather than snapshots of their life. However, if you allow yourself go with the flow, I promise you won’t regret buying this book.
GOOD BITS: You can tell that the author is a poet from the very first line. The writing is haunting and lyrical with descriptions you could eat. The use of language to immerse the reader in the book is very accomplished and I feel like Tara M. Stringfellow deserves her flowers. But, most importantly, I loved the characters. They made me cry and scream and laugh. They are multi-faceted – not completely perfect but wholly human. I felt like I understood them and they will be a part of me forevermore.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: The roving point of view and non-linear timeline worked extremely well in the opening of the novel because it built tension and made the reader ask a lot of questions. However, I’m not sure it worked in ‘part three’, as the book began to feel disjointed rather than giving the reader the answers we had been waiting for. Changing both the point of view and time period for each chapter also meant the characters had to fill in a lot of backstory (explaining what had happened since we last saw them) rather than remaining in scene. Despite my concerns around the 70% mark, the book managed to stick the landing with a satisfying ending.
OVERALL: I’d recommend this book to lovers of ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing,’ by Jesmyn Ward, ‘The Vanishing Half’ by Brit Bennett and ‘Black Cake’ by Charmaine Wilkerson. There is something about the rich writing, which is reminiscent of the true greats and I believe Tara M. Stringfellow could sit proudly alongside Toni Morrison. Stringfellow still needs space and freedom to experiment with structure and plot, but when she gets it right – and she will get it right – it will be unique, wondrous and fearsome to behold.
Thank you to ED PR and John Murrays for a #gifted copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. ‘Memphis’ is published in the UK on 7th April 2022 and is available to pre-order now.