by James McBride
Can a man write a woman’s story? Well, of course he can. One only has to read Ian McEwan or Wally Lamb to know that. Their female characters are fully formed recognisable women. Alas, not everyone is Ian McEwan or Wally Lamb.
The front cover of Song yet sung suggested a female lead written with depth and emotional heft. In hindsight, the front cover suggested nothing other than what I read into it – the sideways, shrouded figure of a long necked elegant woman. The blurb on the back had me feeling suspicious about the book’s quality. There were references to heart-stopping chases and goodies and baddies painted in uncomplicated, figurative and literal, black and white.
Song yet sung had been sitting on my book shelf for a long time and I thought it was time I gave it a try. Given the story, it should have been an enthralling, emotional, tense read. A young woman, a run-away slave on the Maryland coast in 1850, is haunted by dreams of a future for African Americans that she cannot understand. Her fellow slaves are frightened of her, believing her a witch, and she is pursued by two competing slave catchers. Her fantastical dreams are instantly recognisable to the reader as scenes from African American life in the 20th Century and she dreams of another dreamer who we soon realise is Martin Luther King Jr.
But this is no Beloved. Despite the tense chase scenes, close shaves, near misses, and a race against time to find a missing boy, I found myself drifting off, easily distracted or feeling sleepy after reading even only a few pages. I was less engaged in the story than I ought to have been and wasn’t sure I cared whether the woman was caught or secured her freedom. Slowly, the reason for my lack of interest dawned on me. The protagonist was two-dimensional. I learned her history, the content of her dreams and how other people saw her, but I never saw her as a complete human being. I wanted to see the world through her eyes, I wanted to know her fear, to be inside her head as she tried to make sense of her dreams, to feel her cold and quaking dread as she sat in the hollow of a damp tree, not knowing if the sounds outside were of friend or foe. Lawrence Hill, in The Book of Negroes, evocatively and beautifully inhabits the minds and souls of his female characters. Alas, James McBride does not.
What is evocatively brought to life in this novel is the Maryland shore itself. It is richly written, the tidal waters, false bays and muddy banks so real that I felt cold and soggy-footed as I read and was surprised to look up to find myself in southern Spain.
It wasn’t a bad novel, it just wasn’t a great one.