Thursday, January 29, 2015

Review: PRAISESONG FOR THE WIDOW, by Paule Marshall

Praisesong for the Widow, by Paule Marshall. Published 1983 by Plume. Literary Fiction.

Praisesong for the Widow is one of those books I've had lingering for a long time, one of those "I should really read that someday" deep backlisters that I finally got around to after moving to New York and having a lot of subway time to read all those books I've been meaning to read. It was well worth my time and yours, too.

Paule Marshall's book tells the story of Avey Johnson, a well-off African-American widow who abandons a Caribbean cruise with her similarly well-off friends for a spontaneous excursion to Grenada and its neighboring island of Carriacou. When she gets off the boat she intends to be on a flight home the next day but she ends up going on another trip, participating in the annual "excursion" of the Carriacou natives and their descendants to that island. Over the course of this time she reflects on her life, her marriage to Jay and its highs and lows, how she got to this place of privilege and how she can reframe her remaining years to bring her back to a more genuine sense of herself and her place in the world.

The narrative moves between the years of her marriage and the days of the excursion. We see her happy young years, the sacrifices her husband made to secure their affluence and the toll it all took on their relationship and on the two of them as individuals over the years. In her mind she reaches back to her childhood and a time when she saw the ghosts of African slaves on the way to their deaths. This moment had a before-and-after impact on her and she longs to understand its meaning and figure out how to incorporate that lesson in the flow of her life.

This book is one of those modern classics you should definitely make time for. A kind of fictionalized memoir, it touches on themes of identity and the impact of the large waves of history on individual lives. Regret, memory, acceptance and family are the threads interwoven in its panels, as well as love, individuality, the definition of success and the American dream. I like that Avey's experience doesn't cause her to reject her life but think of ways to open it up and enrich it. It's a wonderfully wrought story of society and the ripples each of us makes.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.