During the cold month of January, RAD Book Club Members kept warm by reading the emotionally charged If Beale Street Could Talk by American writer, playwright and activist James Baldwin. The novel is both an intense portrayal of the love between a couple and between family members, and a powerful statement about racism and gender in the United States in the 1970s.
Originally published in 1974, and recently turned into an award-nominated film, If Beale Street Could Talk focuses on Tish, a pregnant nineteen years old, and her lover Fonny, who is in jail, falsely accused of rape. Narrated by Tish, this novel explains in a non-linear way Tish’s relationship with Fonny and the events leading to his being put in jail. In it, we gain a very insightful view of Harlem in the 1970s and the lived experience of being a black person then. In particular, we witness how family members relate to each other and how they express their love and expectations.
A smaller group than usual met to discuss James Baldwin’s fifth novel, but we had a very enriching conversation. We welcomed a new member to the club whilst enjoying a Spanish omelette to remember Fonny’s and Tish’s favourite restaurant.
We most enjoyed the book’s non-linear, well-constructed structure as this enabled us to observe how the little pieces of the plot fell slowly into place. In particular, we liked the open-ended conclusion of the book as this allowed us space to make up our own minds as to whether the story would spiral out of control or whether justice would prevail. We also appreciated the sometime striking, sometime shocking, never gratuitous language employed. In this connection, we liked Tish as a narrator and felt she gave depth to the experiences of the characters and continuity to the story. It is through her perspective that we gained a menacing insight into the realities of so many people in the United States in the 1970s and we were powerfully reminded that racism and injustice are still very prevalent. It is also through Tish’s voice that we get to know the complexity of their family relationships and the perplexity they might have experienced given their situation.
Despite the book’s many qualities, we found that the section dedicated to Puerto Rico, although not totally lacking interest, was disproportionate and dragging. At times, we also found difficult to reconcile the voice of the narrator with some of her character traits. In relation to this, some of us thought that the female characters in Fonny’s family were too overdone, nearing pantomime villains, to take seriously. We briefly dwelt on the character of Frank, Fonny’s father whose authority and character we felt were ominous from early in the book, despite the fact that he was supportive of Fonny and Tish. We discussed whether his final actions were fuelled by fatherly love, regret, impotence, or guilt.
We concluded that the novel was not simply about the sexual and romantic love between a woman and a man, but about many types of love, including friendship, familial, even religious. Because of this, some of us thought that the novel had a universal appeal. Likewise, we discussed that the book explores not only race and racial relations, but also gender relations and expectations, and religious beliefs. Ultimately, we understood the book to be also about the consequences of the actions and choices we make in life and about how we are conditioned by the constraints of society, family and our own beliefs.
Our score reflects the quality of the writing, the depth of the subject and the mastery of the structure: 8 out of 10.
Book Club will meet again on Tuesday 10 March 2020 at the usual time of 1-2 pm in the Library to discuss the nonfiction book This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by British comedy writer Adam Kay, which collects Kay’s diary entries during his medical training between 2004 and 2010.