A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In the tense days before the American Civil War, in the swamplands of the Maryland shore, a wounded slave girl and her visions of the future tear a community apart in a riveting drama of hope and redemption. Kidnappings, gunfights and chases ensue in this extraordinary story of violence, tragic triumph and unexpected kindness.
Well, that’s certainly a blurb to get you going before you’ve had your breakfast. And for a long time afterwards too. What can I say? For a literary book, I actually quite enjoyed this one. It didn’t entirely grip me and I kept laying it down and floating off and reading other books now and again, but I did always come back to it. Much like a soap opera where you can give it a miss for a week or so, come back and still pick up from where you left off. Though, interestingly, I didn’t skip anything. Equally interestingly (if that is indeed a workable phrase at all), in spite of the fact that the text has absolutely no speech marks (which is one of my all-out literary no nos), this didn’t annoy me quite as much as I expected it to. Somehow, here, the sense of distance and strangeness engendered by the missing speech marks added to the feel of the novel. Which just goes to show that even I can admit to being wrong. Once in a while.
The one thing that did annoy me, however, was the rather too small font size. Can publishers not afford paper any more? I appreciate Song Yet Sung is already 350 pages long, but really I could have handled 400 or so just for the joy of a readable font. Alternatively, we reviewers on the sharp end would appreciate it if publishers could issue magnifying glasses along with review copies to avoid unnecessary eye strain.
Anyway, back to the review. I enjoyed the characters here, though actually the heroine was the haziest of them all. McBride seems happier, or at least more comfortable, with his peripheral characters, and I instantly warmed to the strangely rough charm of Denwood the slave-catcher, Kathleen the landowning take-no-nonsense widow and – probably much to my shame – Patty the evil slave-trader. However I redeemed myself by only liking Patty for a page or two until she started being seriously nasty. And, in my defence (m’Lud), I have to say that it’s always nice to see a woman in charge. Plus the sudden burst of energy when she arrived on the page was utterly gripping and I may have been confused by it. Along these lines, I also found myself being deeply disturbed one night when I woke up with the sudden and horrific realisation that my favourite characters in this book are in fact all the white ones, and I spent a good half-hour or so blinking myopically at the bedside clock and wondering if I was in fact a literary (or indeed any other) racist. God forbid. Then again, maybe I’m even more deeply prejudiced than that, as I do automatically assume that redheads from Essex are probably going to be better than anyone else in the known universe. If given a chance. Alternatively, when choosing a character to like better than another, am I simply indulging my natural instinct towards something or someone similar to my own culture? Hard to say, but at the very least my internal debate did make me consider my reading habits and vow to widen them. Good on McBride then.
Keeping to the characters for the moment, I’d also issue a word of warning – there are quite a lot of irritating points of view changes within scenes in this book, and so you need to be prepared for the clunkiness and confusion of that approach. One would have thought McBride would have known better than this, or that some kind editor would have told him, but obviously not. Deep sigh. However, on the plus side, this book is enormously visual. With every sentence, I can see the film taking place. It would indeed make a great film – all those wide, sweeping vistas, all that terrible trauma and tension, all that violence and hope against the odds. Or perhaps it already is a film? Really, I don’t get out much … If so, I bet it’s good. Or will be.
Set against this, I think it’s a novel where backstory is actually of key importance – something that would be hard to convey in filmic terms without the use of flashback. McBride interweaves his characters’ stories with the present that they inhabit and barely uses actual flashback sections at all – an interesting and very appealing choice. Here’s Denwood reminiscing:
He had been someone important once, with important thoughts, who had owned up to part of something good, but he could not remember what it was, or who was part of it, or why, or what it was that he had been, and why he did it, and did not care to. Life had exploded in his face and left emptiness, and he’d fled the eastern shore thinking the explosion would subside and the emptiness would be filled with joy somehow and that he could run from the raging silences that roared across his insides, only to discover that he was running in the same direction as the emptiness …
Perhaps this is where I feel that Liz, our main heroine, suffers as we don’t get to understand much of where she’s come from. What’s important to her are her dreams and the glimpses of the future – a future nobody can really interpret – that these bring her, particularly in terms of the future of both free and enslaved blacks. A minor character says this to Denwood:
I have faith in this woman, she said. I got faith in what the Dreamer knows. She dreams the future. She got magic.
So Liz inhabits, in essence, an entirely different world from those around her, a factor that adds greater tension to the narrative. Indeed she almost becomes a mythic type of figure – in which case the literary choice to shroud her in mystery makes sense. She needs to seem impressionistic, not real.
What does however tie Liz to the world of the novel and keep her there is the lyrically described natural world she dwells in:
Every sound she made, every splash, every cracking leaf and snapping twig, made her feel as if she were walking in the loudest swamp God ever placed on this natural earth. The mourning doves overhead cooed so loudly that she suppressed the impulse to cover her ears. The earthly things that floated into her vision, the old logs that floated past, the discarded pines she fell over, the burping frogs and colorful snakes that slithered about in the stinking, decaying bog in which she’d suddenly found herself, seemed to point her in a specific direction, as if to say, Here, this way.
Somehow, the landscape acts as an anchor tying her into the text, whereas, for the other characters, it is their backstory that acts as their anchor. In any case, America as a land comes most fully alive when seen through Liz’s viewpoint.
I also found myself fascinated by the mysterious codes used by the blacks, free and enslaved, to communicate with each other. It’s almost as if another type of story – one not told in words but by signs – is being played out just beneath the surface of what you can read. Here’s a minor character communicating by using the code:
She grasped the rope hanging off the boat’s bow and tied five eye-splice knots in it nonchalantly, placing a collar beneath each knot by wrapping the rope three times from right to left, in the same direction as the sun, from east to west. She did it so carelessly and nonchalantly, that to anyone watching, it looked as if she was doing it halfheartedly.
And it is indeed this sense of a multi-layered and ultimately unknowable world that seeps through the whole of the novel, both in terms of character and plot. Even with all this, McBride expertly takes all his plot strands and very different characters and brings them together for an ending that is perfectly pitched and perfectly right. It is this multi-faceted perfect pitch that captured my interest and brought me back to the book whenever my reading attention strayed. It is this that also puts the novel somehow in a class of its own and makes it well worth the length of the journey taken to read it. It made me think and it’s still making me think. I’d recommend you try it.
Song Yet Sung by James McBride (Sceptre Press, 2009), ISBN: 978 0340 976432)
[Anne is often out of tune but does at least know how to use speech marks. For items in a readable font, please click here.]