Monday, August 25, 2008

The Untelling

I finished Tayari Jones’ The Untelling a couple weeks ago and it’s only the vagaries of making the transition from summer back to teaching that have kept me from writing up my enthusiasm for the book.

I knew from the combination of humor and passionate ethics on her blog that I would love her novel; her reading at the Girls Write Now benefit only confirmed that feeling. It was just a matter of getting to the book…

There is so much to love about this novel. Ariadne, the protagonist with the burdensome, ambitious name, is a young Spelman grad, drifting through her twenties. She doesn’t really know herself if her job teaching literacy for a community organization is a testament to her commitment to social justice or a symptom of her lack of ambition. She has a nice boyfriend, a locksmith and this character, Dwayne, is one of the book’s real pleasures: a lovely, lovely, settled young man, utterly confident of himself and his place in the world in all kinds of ways that unsettle Aria.

Tayari is really genius in writing about class: the scene in which Aria sits and watches as the pregnant teen from her literacy class does calligraphy to address envelopes for her roommates wedding invitations is so rich. A regular middle-class girl, newly graduated from college but without family money to draw on, Aria looks in wonderment at both women and sees clearly how strange each is to the other, and, most distressingly, how far she is from either. This seems utterly right to me: so often, we skate along assuming equality and suddenly someone mentions their sailboat, or that they’ve reached the time of the month when it’s down to Ramen and tuna, and we’re brought up short—or, worse, see that we’ve brought someone else up short. Again and again in The Untelling, Tayari captures those economic complexities and brilliantly articulates the specific prism of the young, gifted black women who’ve gone to Spelman and remained in Atlanta, expecting their Morehouse man, expecting a lot of themselves, and caught in a richly conflicted relationship to all the various neighborhoods of their city—this one too bourgie, that one too ghetto, this one uneasily gentrifying, that one stubbornly down at the heels.

I don’t want to spoil the book for you because I think you should read it yourself. I know it’s a few years old now, but seek it out. I gobbled it. It’s an important book, a lovely book, with a real plot, rich characters, and a deeply satisfying ending.

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