A review by magnumladonna
Memphis, by Tara M. Stringfellow

challenging dark inspiring sad fast-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Plot
  • Strong character development? No
  • Loveable characters? No
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? No


This book was a FAIL for me. Here's why:

MEMPHIS is a hollow narrative about a place, at the expense of both character and morality. Clothing, geography and architecture are described with far more detail, attention and insight, than any character or event. So much focus on how things look, how beautiful, how miraculous, how glamorous they are, flattens what is meant to be a gritty, hard-hitting narrative, crushing out any depth of perspective it might have had. Initially, it seemed cinematic, but two hundred pages later it feels superfluous & superficial, like a missed opportunity to make a thoughtful commentary on what's actually happening as opposed to trying to make everything "pretty" or "glamorous" when it's not.
Spoiler(Why is Hazel wearing a MINK COAT in 1968 when she is allegedly poor & dependent on her community? Why does Miss Dawn have locs in the 1930s? Why so much emphasis on August's melodramatic black widow outfit when she gave the egregious & unrealistic monologue at Derek's sentencing? Or Miriam's pretty privileged pink suit @ the pediatrician's office to to show that she & her husband are Respectable Black Folk™, not to be overlooked like the underprivileged brokies, wink-wink??)

Scenes float past about inflammatory, triggering topics such as
Spoilerchild rape and domestic violence. But they aren't tackled with any nuance or depth, at all. I fail to understand why Joan and Mya are forced to live with a rapist and why the topic of child on child rape is sprinkled in so indelicately, just a plot point with no firm moral stance or psychological exploration of its effects.
Men are alternately demonized or idolized, with nothing in between. A few monologues spoken by men in this book are shoe-horned in—probably by request of the editor—an attempt to add dimension to the wife beater Jax, two of which aren't even spoken by him but by his best friend and brother instead. 

Rampant classism— I mentioned this before (Miriam @ pediatrician's office) but the author seems to think that the characters needed to "earn" their story, so despite their poverty, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, etc, respectability politics and exceptionalism prop up their pain, making them "good people" or rather "good women", deserving of a better life. For a story that uses poverty and marginalization as some of the primary themes, all of the characters are exceptional, the exception to one rule or another, the absolute BEST at what they do and thus, privileged.

Our MC(?) Joan is indistinct and difficult to care about. She doesn't have a personality outside of her trauma—which is a criticism that can also be extended to her mother Miriam, her aunt August, and grandmother Hazel. They fail to spring to life or distinguish themselves in any way that would make them feel like REAL people. (I could actually rant about this.) 

The book got worse and worse over time. The lush descriptions had me thinking this would be a simple fun ride, but the descriptions become tediously overwritten. The constantly shifting timelines that go back and forth and bounce from the perspectives of Joan, Miriam, August and Hazel robs the plot of any coherence, weakens the characters, and scrambles the narrative thread like eggs. EXAMPLE: 
Spoilerwhere did August and Bird's (love story?) come from? It also felt like something added in the editing stage. It felt bizarre and out of left field. Why were we supposed to like the twin brother of a man who beat his wife, just because he pistol whipped a white waiter at their wedding for being white?? Come again??
And because of the structure of the book, that scene was not followed by any immediate action—we don't get any follow up until 20+ years later, with chapters focused on different characters & time periods in between. Is there even a fictive present at all?? 

At the end, historical events filter themselves into the plot in a way that felt like a forced attempt to create a logic behind the structure. The moments of "healing" and "inspiration" happen over the course of a few pages, rather than gradually throughout the course of the entire narrative.

MEMPHIS: Well when we run out of plot at least we have *insert historical moment* to talk about. 

There's SO MUCH more I could say about this book's failings, big and small but I will just end it with these small annoyances—

page 20: "She had never seen anyone that dark. He was the color of a lonely street in the middle of the night. Almost indigo."
page 102: "He was the color of indigo. Hazel had never seen somebody that midnight dark before."

page 177: "Men and death. Men and death. How on earth y'all run the world when all yall have ever done is kill each other?"
Spoiler(What a GENIUS hot take coming from a woman whose son is going to prison for killing WOMEN & this is the reason why HE should not be put on Death Row?)

This book wants to be deep so badly, but apparently this author just doesn't have it like that outside of making cliché'd statements in thinly veiled Southern vernacular to make it appear profound—"Don't send my boy to death row. I did the best I could. Motherhood is an anchor. It had devoured me entire.." 

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