Book Review Time: Memphis

(Warning: This novel contains subject matter that may be triggering for certain audiences.)

Memphis, by Tara M. Stringfellow resonated with me on many levels. As an African-American woman with strong southern roots, the sights, sounds, and smells rendered by this debut novel prompted memories of my own childhood. Early mornings on summer vacations, sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen, watching as she chopped and diced, seasoned and stirred. My grandmother, known to me as Mimi, presented a formidable image, as she loomed over steaming pots and frying pans, preparing a breakfast comparable to a courtly feast. Salmon croquettes, fried okra, cheesy grits, perfectly scrambled eggs, crispy slabs of bacon. These delicious and hardy meals were cooked with a maternal sense of duty. Food is love. Nourishment is protection. Reflecting back on it, I recognize the beauty of those moments. My pride and appreciation for the matriarchal foundation of Black-American culture is immense. The powerful presence of mothers, grandmothers, and aunts within the family and the greater community, give credence to the child-rearing belief that it does, in fact, take a village.

Memphis is the story of three generations of women, and the family home they have resided in for several decades. Over the years, the North family has experienced heart-wrenching tragedies. Acts of domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault have darkened their history. Adding to their troubles is the persistent scourge of gang violence, racism, and police brutality which plagues their North Memphis neighborhood. The novel begins with the return of Miriam, the eldest daughter of Hazel North, to the family home. Miriam, along with her two young daughters, Joan and Mya, are escaping a violent domestic situation and seek refuge and safety in the most reliable place they know. When they reach their destination in Memphis, they’re welcomed home by August, Miriam’s sister. In spite of the circumstances, the reunion appears gratifying. That is until Derek, August’s teenage son, enters the room. The atmosphere immediately becomes strained. And the look in 10 year old Joan’s eyes is one of abject terror. It is soon revealed that years prior, Joan was assaulted by her older cousin, an event that understandably has haunted Joan and tested family ties. What follows is an account of the eight years that Miriam, August, Joan, Mya, and Derek live together in the house built many years before as a gift to the matriarch of the family, Hazel. In addition to the main timeline, Memphis has flashback sequences that provide expanded context and reveal the complicated nature of the family’s history. A history heavily impacted by dictates of the Jim Crow South. Much of the story centers around Joan; her childhood trauma, the absence of her father, and her pursuit of artistic dreams.

Art at its best exemplifies truth. Something raw. Elemental. Stringfellow captures truth and belts it out with a voice that is unrestrained and fearless. Her characters are rich and complex, speaking in such a way that a single line reveals volumes. Stringfellow also effectively demonstrates the intricate nature of family relationships. Events can complicate love at its root. It takes strength and great care to survive the disruption. Luckily, the North women are true survivors.

There was, however, a strong sticking point for me with this novel, and it was something I never could quite hammer out. I had difficulty with Miriam’s decision to allow her two daughters to live under the same roof as her disturbed nephew. I understood Miriam’s options were limited. She was escaping an abusive environment herself. And money was scarce. I also understood that the reprehensible crime committed by her nephew occurred only once, years before. But despite the efforts put in place to keep him separated from the girls, Derek would always remain a threat. An ominous shadow in a house built with love. I just couldn’t wrap my head around a mother putting her daughter in a situation where she would have to face her abuser on a daily basis. 

Criticisms aside, I do feel that Memphis is a worthy novel. It is a story of mothers and daughters. Of heartache and survival. A testament to female strength and independence steeled by love and nourishment. A tribute to black womanhood, and the gifts that lie within us, awaiting expression.


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