LEAVING ATLANTA, by Tayari Jones

* Watch out for spoilers! *

I definitely don't want to ruin this book for anyone---I'm only about halfway through it myself. I'll try not to give away any major plot points, but if you're like me and you like to come to a book with a clean slate when you can, you might want to skip this post.

Tayari Jones (I encourage you to check out her blog) is on the fiction faculty at the Rutgers-Newark MFA program. Here's a description of Leaving Atlanta, her first novel, from the Rutgers website:

Her first novel, Leaving Atlanta, is a coming of age story set during the city’s infamous child murders of 1979-81. Jones herself was in the fifth grade when thirty African American children were murdered from the neighborhoods near her home and school. When asked why she chose this subject matter for her first novel, she says, “This novel is my way of documenting a particular moment in history. It is a love letter to my generation and also an effort to remember my own childhood. To remind myself and my readers what it was like to been eleven and at the mercy of the world. And despite the obvious darkness of the time period, I also wanted to remember all that is sweet about girlhood, to recall all the moments that make a person smile and feel optimistic.”

Leaving Atlanta received many awards and accolades including the Hurston/Wright Award for Debut Fiction. It was named “Novel of the Year” by Atlanta Magazine, “Best Southern Novel of the Year,” by Creative Loafing Atlanta. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Washington Post both listed it as one of the best of 2002.

I'm on page 131 right now, and so far it's a moving and engaging read. The book has a couple of interesting little quirks that I've been thinking about.

The first is that she places herself (or at least a little girl with her name) in the story, as a peripheral character. It makes sense, because the book is set in a time and place that she experienced. At the same time, it's quirky, because it seems like the more common thing is for the author to just write the POV character as a version of themselves without saying anything about it. Little Tayari pops up here and there, never having much serious interaction with the main characters, but kind of present throughout.

The POV character in the first section is LaTasha (Tasha) Baxter. At one point, Tasha is thinking about a party she didn't get invited to:

"Oh," Tasha said. She was glad that she hadn't been invited; her mother probably would have done the very same thing and Tasha would have ended up like Tayari, looking at her math book, trying not to cry. (69)

It has a certain effect, at least for me---every time Tayari-the-fifth-grader is mentioned, I find myself drawn out of the story for just a tiny moment. I think about Tayari Jones, the author. Thinking about her reminds me that even though this novel is fiction, it's about a situation that really did happen. I wonder if that's what she was trying to do?

* Warning, interesting craft choice "spoiled" here---I liked the surprise of it *

The second thing I wanted to mention has to do with point of view. The first section of the book is told from Tasha's POV, using a very close third person. Nothing unusual there, but we really get to know Tasha, and we get to feel invested in her character and her situation. That's why it was such a surprise to turn the page to the second section---all of a sudden, we're thrown into a second person POV.

The most interesting thing about the use of the second person here, I think, is the way that we already know this "you" character. We were introduced to him, Rodney Green, through Tasha's POV in the first section of the book. He's another fifth-grader in the same class.

I think we're all taught that the second person is difficult to maintain. I think it works here because Jones has already set this character up for us. He has a context in relation to the other children and in relation to the setting. He's not just some vague, unknown "you"---he's Rodney from before. It's less jolting to "be" him, because we already know something about who and where he is. For me, it didn't take long for the second person POV to become (for the most part) comfortably invisible.

Again, though---the second person draws attention to itself, and there are more of those tiny moments when I'm pulled out of the story by it. It makes me think, again, about how this is a kind of historical fiction. Intentional? I guess I think so.


Just one last note about the use of Little Tayari Jones---I love that she often seems to be doing particularly goofy kid things:

Why doesn't she just ask you how old you are and move on? Tayari Jones, two aisles over, is sniffing rubber cement and could use a little adult supervision. But Miss Russell squats beside you and leans forward as if your vocational leanings are of some consequence. (122)

It makes me laugh every time, and it makes me like the author for using "her" character that way.


Update 1/17---I finished the book. The third and final section is in the first person, from another child's POV.

It ended too soon (at the right time, but...man.)

1 comment:

bobbyd1536 said...

very nice half a book review. :-) The author sounds very crafty in their use of the "second person". I will definitely check out her book and blog. Peace, Respect, Blessings.


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