Occasionally Woodson prioritises beautiful language over believability (Melody, at 10 years old, announces that the park she’s in “feels like it’s in the past tense”). But this tendency towards the poetic is excellent elsewhere: schoolchildren constantly defined by racial difference “blend into a single child” when the news of 9/11 hits.
Some characters resonate more than others — I could have happily read a whole novel from Iris’s perspective. That said, Woodson brings all the voices together expertly, switching to third-person narration as the novel comes to a stunning close.
Black women and their sexuality – what is projected on to it; its weight, beauty and ease – are at the heart of Red at the Bone. Woodson seems to understand that there has never been a way for youth or love or desire to play it safe. A young girl’s sexuality is hers to discover, and not her parents’, nor her lovers’, to assume or take away. It is the mystery that keeps unravelling, like blood, truth and memory.
Red at the Bone is bookended by tragedies – its chronology begins with Tulsa and ends in the aftermath of September 11 – but it is not bound by them. If there is a moment that anchors this novel (and its family), it is that spring afternoon of unfettered celebration – Melody in her white dress – generations of stories rising from the ashes: survival stories, love stories, stories of profound, quotidian kindness. Woodson glides gracefully between them, dancing to the music of time. It is no accident that her novel begins with a joyful orchestra, or that its story is carried by a Melody. “Look how beautifully black we are” she entreats us. “I am a narrative, someone’s almost forgotten story. Remembered.” If there is a remedy to the “goneness”, this is it.
Red at the Bone is pure poetry, filled with incantatory repetitions, soaring cadences, burnished images. There is laughter and spirit, “fire and ash and loss”, blocks of gold hidden beneath squeaky stairs. It’s a story laden with stories, too. As Sabe says, “If a body’s to be remembered, someone has to tell its story.”
Woodson does just that, weaving a narrative whose specificity yields an undeniable universality. We grownups have been missing out.
Red at the Bone is a nuanced portrait of shifting family relationships, jumping back and forth in time and moving between the characters’ different voices. Woodson is a writer accomplished at shifting from one register to another: she is a National Book Award finalist for her adult fiction, and a four-time Newbery Honor Winner for her books for young people. So it is perhaps no surprise that the pressure and urgency of Melody’s teenage self draws the reader into the novel: but we will hear from Iris too, from her parents, Sabe and Po’Boy; we will witness the love that Aubrey, Melody’s father, shows her as she grows up; see too the love that Melody shows towards Malcolm, her best friend.