Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson — book review

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“They say you don’t remember early stuff, that you’re just suddenly six and having your first memories. But that’s not true.”

At its heart Red at the Bone is a novel about familial relationships. The story opens in 2001 during sixteen-year-old Melody’s ‘introduction’ to society. We soon learn that she is the product of a teenage pregnancy and that her parents come from two very different backgrounds. Her mother’s family is relatively privileged, while her father was brought up by his single mother.
The narrative explores the way the various members of this family feel towards Melody and each another. Chapters narrated or focused on Melody often detail the resentment she feels towards her mother while the chapters focusing on Melody’s mother usually take us back to the early stages of Melody’s life and depict the way Melody’s mother struggled to reconcile herself with the life and status of a young mother.
Woodson deftly captures the difficult, and sometimes incongruous, feelings and desires we nourish towards our families. The chapters swiftly switched from character to character and the shifting perspectives (from 1st to 3rd) worked perfectly in that they allowed us to view the characters inside-out. Relationship between past, present, and future as they explore or survey their feelings and memories. The multiplicity of voices makes the narrative a plurivocal one, one in which each character can express their own thoughts and views. We see the way these various characters approach or are changed by their parenthood, as well as the way in which their different upbringings shapes their worldview.
Each voice evokes with brilliant veracity a particular character so that within a few lines we would know who was the narrator was. My favourite sections were narrated by Melody’s maternal grandfather: there was such love and affection emanating from his words that I had to hold back tears. The story
Still, while I do think that Woodson’s writing style could be lyrical, I did find that when the characters, or the narrative, recounted their sexual encounters or described their romantic/sexual desires towards a certain person, the writing could become quite sickly, acquiring an almost over-sentimental and icky quality that decreased my attention and involvement towards the storyline.
Also, I wasn’t particularly satisfied with a certain plot point. The plot as such meanders from past to present, seeming almost unfixed or unfazed by things such as as sticking to cohesive timeline or structure, and yet, all of a sudden something derails the course of these meandering narratives….I’m not sure why the story had to make a direct connection with (view spoiler). It seemed almost to have been used to shock readers as it was included in an almost oblique manner. Which is a pity as up to that point Woodson’s novel struck me as being very considerate.
Nevertheless, I think I probably would recommend this one. The grandfather’s chapters alone are worth the read

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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