Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow book review

Memphis has played a complicated role in America’s racial history. In the mid-19th century, thousands of enslaved Black people were bought and sold at the market owned by Nathan Bedford Forrest, who later became a Confederate general and then the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. In the mid-20th century, Memphis was so central to the fight for civil rights that Martin Luther King Jr. went there during the sanitation workers’ strike to preach “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” The next day, he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel.

Tara M. Stringfellow draws on this tragic past and the experiences of her own family to construct the sweeping plot of her debut novel, “Memphis.” It’s a story that moves back and forth across the decades from World War II to the war in Afghanistan following the struggles of three generations of resilient Black women.

Jenna Bush Hager recently chose “Memphis” for her “Today” show book club, claiming “it will fill you with joy and hope.” But the path to that joy leads through decades of trauma, and during much of that time, hope is all these characters possess. Indeed, Stringfellow has a lush, romantic style that’s often the only counterweight to the grim details of her story.

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The novel’s scrambled chronology initially feels like a challenge, but the chapters are clearly dated and named as they move to focus on a grandmother, her daughters and her grandchildren. Readers will come to see that Stringfellow is demonstrating the erratic movements of history, the false starts and reversals and, yes, the moments of progress that are reflected in our haphazard march toward realizing King’s vision for America.

At the center of the story is a house “that spanned out in all directions in a wild, Southern maze” — like this novel. The first time we see it, Stringfellow turns up the dial on her poetic language: “The honeysuckle drew hummingbirds the size of baseballs,” she writes. “Bees as big as hands buzzed about, pollinating the morning glories, giving the yard a feeling that the green expands itself was alive and humming and moving.”

This is a house built by hand by the family’s legendary patriarch, Myron North. Born in the 1920s, Myron served in World War II and then returned to Memphis to become the city’s first Black homicide detective — only to be cut down in the way of so many victims of Southern racism. But the house he constructed remains, a sustaining monument to his love and labor, an anchor and a fortress in a city making its tumultuous way through decades of racial strife.

The novel opens in 1995. Myron’s daughter Miriam is coming back home to live with her younger sister, a woman who never left Memphis or pursued her dreams but bears no apparent resentment toward her prodigal sibling. Fleeing an abusive husband, Miriam has two young daughters in tow and knows how lucky they are to have access to this old family house where they can start again.

There is, however, one irreducible problem with Miriam’s plan and, I think, with Stringfellow’s novel.

In the first chapter, we learn that the last time Miriam visited, her then-3-year-old daughter, Joan, was raped by her sister’s 8-year-old son. Now that boy is a teenager, and Joan is so terrified to see him that she immediately wets herself. She will spend the next few years living with him, sharing the same bathroom, trying to avoid looking at him, struggling to protect her little sister from the horror she endured.

Try as I might, I could never get beyond the shocking implausibility of this move. It’s not as though Joan’s sexual abuse were her own horrible secret. The family knows about Joan’s rape. Stringfellow says that Miriam always feared her nephew and “did not want him anywhere near her daughters,” which makes moving in with him seem particularly reckless.

I don’t mean to criticize the plot, per se; fiction should be free to reach for the infinitely bizarre events of real life. The issue, really, is that “Memphis” never commits itself to the considerable work of making this ghastly event psychologically persuasive. In every other way, Miriam is a concerned, attentive mother, but she spends more time explaining why she left her violent husband than justifying why she moved in with her disturbed nephew, who continues to grow more brutal. And young Joan’s residual anger toward her cousin feels uncomplicated and too fully self-conscious.

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It’s eventually clear that these things must come to pass so that Stringfellow can engineer a redemptive story of forgiveness. But along the way, she fails to contend sufficiently with the lasting damage and complications of incest and sexual abuse.

Fortunately, other parts of “Memphis” are more convincing and subtle. With her richly impressionistic style, Stringfellow captures the changes transforming Memphis in the latter half of the 20th century. She conveys the infuriating, sometimes deadly humiliations that Black veterans endured after serving their country abroad. And she has a particularly good ear for the conversations among friends who hold this community together. She understands the civic function played by retail stores, hairdressers and churches, all the little organizations that tie families into larger groups, bulwarks against a rising tide of gang violence and gun deaths.

The most lovely, even inspiring element of “Memphis” is the story of Joan’s artistic ambitions. Although the young woman has talent and the benefit of devoted teachers, she lacks what every young creator needs: a sense that someone like her could, in fact, succeed. Miriam believes Joan should become a doctor so that she need never depend on a man. During one of their many arguments about this, Miriam’s exasperation boils over into taunting: “Name me one successful artist with a dark face. With breasts. Name one Black woman famous artist. Go on. I’ll wait.”

Joan can’t think of a single name. But amid all its other storylines, this is the tale of a young woman realizing that someday that name may be her own.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post.

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