Praisesong for the Widow – Paule Marshall (1983)


As part of JOMP’s Black History Month recognition, this novel was a fine way to kick off the month-long project. It also happens to be one of the Viragos that I’ve had on my shelf for absolutely AGES and so it checked all my boxes, even more so when I had finished it because it was REALLY good. (Sorry. Got a bit shouty there for a second. It’s that good.)

This novel focuses on a few days in the life of a well-off African-American woman who impulsively decides to leave a Caribbean cruise, but is uncertain why. She has a strong feeling that she has to leave, but why does she give in the impulse? That’s the spotlight of this great feminist novel – what exactly is going on with protagonist Avey Johnson? “It’s completely out of character…” according to herself and her friends. But jump ship she does.

It’s an ethereal novel, very dream-like in places with time and scenery floating by at odd times. I found this to be unnerving at first, but once I gave into the flow of the writing and went along with it, it seemed as though it could not be written in any other way. Most of the novel is written from the POV of Avey – her thoughts, her dreams, her ideas, her experiences – and as the story progresses and we get to know her, her actions start to make perfect sense as the pages fly by.

Avey is a widow, her former husband fairly rule-bound and straight-forward, upwardly mobile and with fairly successful grown-up kids, all of which makes it even more perplexing why she suddenly jumps ship on the small island of Granada, without tickets or a plan or her friends. She seems to have done everything “right” as a middle-class African-American woman of the time – married carefully, raised the children, kept the house… And yet, for the first time during this cruise, she has been unsettled with memories of her childhood holidays with her great-aunt in the south with whom she danced on the beach and reached towards Africa…

By decamping from the expected cruise trip, Avey finds herself with a day to spare before her plane can take her back to New York and as she wanders around Grenada’s port town, she’s bombarded with new experiences and new languages, with different people and with different experiences, none of which really fit into her life as it was previously lived.

Avey ends up meeting an older Granadian man who invites her to travel along with him and other islanders back to his native island of Carriacou where they return every year to reconnect with family and community. And it’s here in Carriacou where Avey finally pieces together the puzzle that she’s forming in her head, where the trance-like feelings that she’s been experiencing and which she experienced with her great-aunt as a child would be clarified…

It’s a novel rich in colors, sounds, music and dancing. It’s a novel about returning to your roots and understanding your past in order to live your future, and it’s a novel about respecting things that may be hard to understand when you first meet them. One could also argue it’s about expected gender roles and expectations as well, as this experience only occurs now that her husband has died and she is with other female characters (her friends).

I loved this book which should be no surprise as I’ve loved the other two Paule Marshall books I’ve read (Brown Girl, Brown Stones  and Merle and Other Stories ), and this novel was a super way to kick off Black History Month.

Next up is….


Devoted Ladies – Molly Keane (M. J. Farrell) (1934)


This was one was from the Virago Modern Classic series, books which have been on one of my shelves for Way Too Long. Choosing a Virago can sometimes mean an uncomfortable read in that the characters (and the stories) can be rather prickly. Perhaps that’s only me? This one was no different as most of the characters were thoroughly unlikeable and mean to each other (both men and women equally were mean to just about everyone else), and yet, despite this, I almost enjoyed this unpleasant and rather sour read in the end.

Jane and Jessica are together and have been together long enough to be an accepted couple in their circle of friends. However, Jessica is a very boorish and spiteful person, especially to the person that she supposedly loves – Jane. Jane, in turn, is quiet and scared of Jessica’s sharpened tongue, but is resigned to spending her life in this abusive relationship. Any efforts to escape from Jessica have never ended up well, so perhaps safer to stay? The unhappy couple are surrounded by a small grouping of sycophantic friends and servants who continue to play their lives out whilst pretty much ignoring the couple’s dysfunction until one day, a friend brings new blood to the fold in the form of a successful Irish business man and farmer, George Playfair. (There’s some irony in the last name.)

An affair grows between the quiet Jane and Playfair, and when Playfair is in an accident one day, it is enough to ignite the ember which sets into motion a dual of the hearts for Jane. Who will win and get to keep Jane’s heart? For surely she is not strong enough to choose of her own accord.

I’m not going to give the plot away, but suffice to say (and this being a Virago), the end is not all fluffy and warm. Nevertheless, it was a very satisfying conclusion to come across and once I’d finished the read, I closed the book with a contented sigh. Despite such detestable characters, this was a good read – prickly but good.