Lots of Americans reacted to the election of Donald Trump with baffled rage, incoherent contempt or visceral aversion. For her part, Tara Stringfellow resolved to try to write the next great American novel. The result is Memphis.
Many readers might feel they know Memphis without ever having been there, whether from Elvis' Graceland, Beale Street's jazz, sentimental tales of the Mississippi or bitter memories of Martin Luther King's assassination. Those folk have missed out; the city is even more vibrant and intriguing than its rich literature suggests.
Stringfellow's Memphis is concentrated on "a Southern symphony all conducted on a quarter-acre plot". She is referring to a family home, "a wild Southern maze" where most things which matter occur on the porch or around the kitchen table.
Readers are introduced to three generations of the North family, the first born in 1921, the last in 1988. Chronologically, the story commences in 1995, winding back and forth until an ending in 2003, thus covering the eight years in which the multi-generational North family lives together.
These Norths, women "full of mystery and magic and humour and grit", are also said to be resilient, determined and strong. In fact, their qualities are praised so exuberantly that Stringfellow sometimes over-loads the language and over-hypes the emotion in her tale. The world beyond the house and its family intrude only occasionally, often awkwardly. That is especially true of an account of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.
Nonetheless, Stringfellow, formerly a poet and a lawyer, can also bring the skills of those crafts to her creation of moments "when passion and precision are one". She lyrically captures an auntie with skin "so dark it reflected all the other colours surrounding it".
As for nature, in this case Tennessee's Smoky Mountains, "blue mist clung to the mountains like a lace shawl". One white mechanic is permitted a wry rustic aphorism: "Between meat and God, the only thing man needs is duct tape".
Stringfellow is at her best when her characters pick a fight, as they often do. The most compelling confrontation occurs without violence, in a local police station.
A woman is teased and taunted for her looks and skin colour before she delivers lunch to her husband, a detective. In turn, he tightens the tension a few notches by confessing that he is not permitted to arrest white suspects.
The switches and escalation in mood are dramatically handled and quite poignant in their impact. As one woman remarks of the singer, Divine, Stringfellow gets heartbreak.
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