Review: Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow

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In the summer of 1995, ten-year-old Joan, her mother, and her younger sister flee her father’s violence, seeking refuge at her mother’s ancestral home in Memphis. Half a century ago, Joan’s grandfather built this majestic house in the historic Black neighborhood of Douglass–only to be lynched days after becoming the first Black detective in Memphis. This wasn’t the first time violence altered the course of Joan’s family’s trajectory, and she knows it won’t be the last. Longing to become an artist, Joan pours her rage and grief into sketching portraits of the women of North Memphis–including their enigmatic neighbor Miss Dawn, who seems to know something about curses.
Unfolding over seventy years through a chorus of voices, Memphis weaves back and forth in time to show how the past and future are forever intertwined. It is only when Joan comes to see herself as a continuation of a long matrilineal tradition–and the women in her family as her guides to healing–that she understands that her life does not have to be defined by vengeance. That the sole weapon she needs is her paintbrush.

This book isn’t one I’d generally pick up, but I honestly really enjoyed it. I ended up listening to the audiobook which I really enjoyed, and the narration captured my attention pretty much instantly too. I like how this book had a non-linear timeline changing between the women of multiple generations, and even though I didn’t exactly know which generation I was following at all times, I still enjoyed it.

This book honestly enthralled me from the start and I found the narration and writing really easy to follow. We begin in 1995 and travel back through time, flicking between each narrative. Although this could be a little confusing, I almost felt like the intertwining of the characters and reflection of their stories on one another could have been purposeful.

walls shook with the laughter. Laughter that was, in and of itself, Black. Laughter that could break glass.

The writing in this book was beautiful, and the way the experiences of these women was portrayed almost brought me to tears in places. This book explores many difficult topics including rape (off the page), lynching (off the page), domestic abuse and racism. In my opinion, these topics were handled well and reflected throughout the story.

The relationships between the family members/women were beautiful to read about and are very central to the story. This book feels as though it aims to encapsulate a Southern Black female experience, and I liked how it focused on this one central city.

Laughter that could uplift a family. A cacophony of Black female joy in a language private to them. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this book, although it was very bleak and difficult to read in places. I also appreciated the fact the acknowledgements were included in the audiobook, because listening to them honestly brought tears to my eyes and added another layer to the story for me.

★★★★
4 out of 5 stars

-Beth

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