Book #07

Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow

In the summer of 1995, ten-year-old Joan, her mother, and her younger sister flee her father's violence, seeking refuge at her mother's ancestral home in Memphis. Half a century ago, Joan's grandfather built this majestic house in the historic Black neighborhood of Douglass--only to be lynched days after becoming the first Black detective in Memphis. This wasn't the first time violence altered the course of Joan's family's trajectory, and she knows it won't be the last. Longing to become an artist, Joan pours her rage and grief into sketching portraits of the women of North Memphis--including their enigmatic neighbor Miss Dawn, who seems to know something about curses.

Unfolding over seventy years through a chorus of voices, Memphis weaves back and forth in time to show how the past and future are forever intertwined. It is only when Joan comes to see herself as a continuation of a long matrilineal tradition--and the women in her family as her guides to healing--that she understands that her life does not have to be defined by vengeance. That the sole weapon she needs is her paintbrush.

This is a beautiful celebration of the power and strength of black women. Stringfellow paints a picture of the women of the North family, spanning three generations. We see their joys and tragedies, some seeming to repeat themselves, and witness these women continually applying resilience and solidity to protect themselves from a world which threatens their safe existence.

Stringfellow’s characterisation here was my favourite thing of all. Yes, she gives us these strong women, but we’re also shown how this world affects them, how it judges and belittles them, and how the world itself has forced them into strength. Each of these women are so diverse in personality, brimming with their own desires and motivations, with their longings and regrets. We see their community, their coming together, their deep understanding of each other. It’s truly beautiful, a novel full of life and vivid pictures.

There’s so much heartbreak and woe here, mixed in with love and protection, all of it important to read and understand, particularly as a white woman. Memphis seems to have burrowed its way directly into my heart; it’s such an important and powerful novel for all of us to either learn from, or to relate to.