Since her groundbreaking autobiography, “Brown Girl Dreaming,” Jacqueline Woodson has used spare prose to tell rich, multilayered stories in a fraction of the space other writers require.
Her new novel, “Red at the Bone,” is another shining example of her prowess, this time geared toward adult readers. Coming in at just under 200 pages, “Red at the Bone” centers around two Brooklyn families from different social classes that are joined together by an unexpected pregnancy. The book opens in 2001, on the evening of 16-year-old Melody’s coming-of-age ceremony in her grandparents’ brownstone. As Melody makes her entrance to the soundtrack of Prince, she wears a custom-made dress that was sewn for a different young woman – her mother, Iris – whose ceremony never happened.
Moving forward and backward through time, Woodson relates the history of each family member to show how they arrived at this time and place. The story explores education, class, racial prejudice, sexual identity, and the life-changing experience of parenthood, all with electrifying passages that demand to be read and reread. This is a novel, true, but the writing is pure poetry – searing, honest, poignant, at times heart-breaking. Woodson touches on the Tulsa race riots of 1921 and the fires of 9/11, always through the eyes of characters who illustrate what it’s like to be black in America.
“Every day since she was a baby, I’ve told Iris the story,” Melody’s grandmother says. “How they came with intention. How the only thing they wanted was to see us gone. Our money gone. Our shops and schools and libraries – everything – just good and gone. And even though it happened twenty years before I was even a thought, I carry it. I carry the goneness.”
“Red at the Bone” is both personal and universal, an example of an extraordinary writer with a lot to say and the talent to say it.