Caroline Spalding, Features Correspondent
Review: The Love Songs Of W.E.B. Du Bois By Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
The joy of literature is the power it can have to inspire in the reader a deeper understanding or perception of something to which they might previously have given no consideration. In the outstanding debut novel by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, we are invited to consider not just the lingering prejudices faced by those of African American heritage, but beyond that, the tensions that exists within communities, and what may be uncovered when we look to our own pasts. Jeffers’ novel is hugely insightful, and informative, yet we don’t feel as though a student in a lecture theatre. Instead, it is as if we are being led by a kind-hearted intellectual who genuinely wants to share their knowledge, and be a companion, guiding us, in the very same way that W.E.B. Du Bois (d.1963, an American sociologist, historian and writer; the first African American to earn a doctorate) guides Jeffers’ protagonist, Ailey Garfield, through this complex but enthralling novel.
In the book, Jeffers charts the map tracing the route from Ailey’s past to present, epitomising the notion that we are but a product of our history. We are invited into the lives of a family, the narrative journey moving forward as we witness our protagonist come of age. The challenges she faces are unique to her own existence yet also relevant to a broader demographic, and all the while we are reminded how history repeats, and characters alive in the past have resonance, their actions leave a legacy in the present.
The novel’s narrative timeline begins almost four centuries earlier, and it opens with the first ‘song’ – these are chapters that segue between the main storyline of the present. They take us back to recount the unknown history of Ailey’s predecessors – beginning at the time of slavery, travelling the complex path out of enslavement, through tyranny, displacement, and recurrent prejudice. Jeffers gives lyrical voice to these ghosts; we are thrust into their company, and we quickly understand their emotional temperatures. Jeffers provides us with context, we soon come to grasp the wider societal tensions, and even if we can’t empathise, we are at least aware of the rules and conventions that prevailed.
In the past, as in the present, we see society as a complex melting pot of identities, cultures and customs. We are reminded that America began as a multicultural society, how, even now, the blood and legacy of native Indians still permeates; how the African Americans who arrived as slaves, forged their own paths to integrate, to marry, and to breed.
At 800 pages long, it is not easy to capture succinctly all the narrative themes and questions the book poses the reader. It is Ailey’s story, who, as a historian, is tracing her own lineage and heritage, whilst searching for a sense of belonging.
The novel’s length may dissuade a less ardent reader, but this is a journey I’d encourage you to take. The novel is clearly the work of a writer who has given time and passion to her research. Facts of the past are gently peppered into the prose, we learn not through a dull, academic treatise, but by hearing her characters give opinion to, and often heartily debate, events of yesteryear. And it is in these exchanges that we see Du Bois as a silent companion: Ailey’s Uncle Root, perhaps her dearest relation, wholeheartedly advocates the discourse of Du Bois, and it is this influence on Uncle Root that in turn influences Ailey. As said, we delve deeper than a dusty textbook: Ailey is rediscovering the real lives of real people, whether four hundred, or forty years previously. In the unlikely event that you cannot connect with the characters, despite their vibrancy, the book would be worthwhile just for the enthralling immersion into the history of America.
In a recent interview, Jeffers talked of both the beauty and the pain that is captured in the prose. Beauty emerges in the lyrical dialogue; we enjoy the spirited exchanges, we want to join their laughter, we recognise the strength in the bonds that connect them, yet we understand their sadness - pain is such a recurrent theme. Trauma haunts each generation, whether it be attributed to slavery, sexual abuse or drug addiction. The most difficult passages are written with great care; they are not intended to shock or disturb, but instead we feel a sympathy - these are secrets we are invited to share.
Jeffers’ prose is emotive, evocative and compelling throughout. A number of highly pertinent themes underpin the narrative, but we are also given a much broader perspective. For example, I had not truly been aware of the concept of ‘colourism’ yet it was fascinating to see how this plays out in the lives of each generation. It was curious to witness the response of communities to changing terminology, especially the transition from ‘negro’ to ‘black’, and subsequently to ‘African American’.
A successful poet, this is Jeffers’ first foray into prose, and I am glad to learn that it will not be her last. Another novel is in progress, and she recently reassured an interviewer, with a giggle, that the next will not be quite so long. Here is a writer of undoubted skill, her passion to inform as much as to entertain.
The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois
is published by 4th Estate, an imprint of Harper Collins