I don’t read a lot of literary fiction. But when I do, I know I’m in for a thought-provoking read. This novel did not disappoint in that regard.
Synopsis (Goodreads): Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.
When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.
Review: I feel like I’m going to fail to try to write this review because I don’t have the words to describe how this book made me feel. It made me feel A LOT. But I’m going to try anyways.
This is an an incredible novel for a lot of reasons. For one thing, the writing is absolutely brilliant. The author has a way of keeping the words simple but making them convey so much meaning. I loved that the author gave very realistic portrayals of everything in the book; not a single thing was downplayed or glorified. From the description of a long car ride to the intensity of a drug high, every minute was real. It allowed me to slip into the story and live it along with the characters.
With this story, we are given 2 perspectives. One is Jojo, a 13-year-old who watches everything and feels the need to protect his younger sister – especially from their mother. We also see through the eyes of Leonie, Jojo’s mother, who wants to do the right thing and struggles with being the good daughter and mother that she wants to be. Through their points of view, the author brings in the issues of race, family, and addiction. Now, these are all very difficult topics to raise; not only does the author not shy away from them, she also doesn’t pass any judgement. That’s what I loved about this narrative – there was nothing one-sided to it. Every issue is explored so deeply and through so many interactions that it soon becomes evident that there is no clear-cut way of looking at things. It is easy to dismiss things and label them to make life easier, but the author refuses to allow the reader to do that.
I also really loved how the author incorporated magical realism into this literary fiction novel. I’ve always been a big fan of magical realism, and when it’s done right, it can be the most wonderful thing in the world. It was done right here. Both Leonie and Jojo find themselves haunted by the ghosts of young boys; for Leonie, it is her brother who passed away as a teenager; for Jojo, it is a boy who died as an inmate and carries the ugly history of racism and slavery within him. Reading about these interactions made my heart pound, and I could feel my emotions running parallel to that of Leonie and Jojo. It was very well executed.
If you can’t tell already, this is a 5/5 star novel for me. The writing was gritty and engaging, the characters were vivid and emotionally-charged, and the story was haunting. If you haven’t read this novel, you should definitely change that right away!