I bought Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson a couple of months back, as a part of the #BlackOutBestSellerList. I don’t know about you, but the average time for a book to wait on my TBR after me buying it is probably about 2 years, so a couple of months is a very short time to be waiting on one of my bookshelves! It was one that I was really interested to read, because it was described as a cross-generational story about race, class and parenthood.
There are some scenes of a sexual nature, including between two minors (both aged 15), and mention of the Tulsa Massacre, but no other trigger warnings or scenes to be aware of before reading that I can think of. As this book deals with teen pregnancy, and teen-aged characters are the protagonists throughout the book, it would be easy to mis-categorise this book as YA without having read it, but it was written for an adult audience. Having said that, I do think that older teenagers (16+) would also get a lot out of reading Red at the Bone.
Red at the Bone was a super quick read for me, which made a refreshing change of pace from a lot of the books I’ve read recently. It’s pretty short — around 200 pages — and my copy has massive margins, so it has a low word count per page so I really flew through it and was almost finished before I knew it! As a cross-generational story, there is a fair amount of back and forth between time periods, following Melody, Iris and Sabe. At the centre of the story is Iris’ teenage pregnancy and the subsequent birth of Melody. As I say often in reviews, I can find changing perspectives confusing, and I did occasionally lose where/when I was reading about throughout this book, but never for very long because the characters were very distinct in their voices and there was a variety of atmospheres created across the different time periods.
Teenage pregnancy and race is not a thematic intersection I’ve ever read much about as far as I can remember, so this was a really interesting book for me to read. As well as being a Black teenage girl, Iris attends a Catholic school, and so she also has to deal with the reaction of her school and Church to her pregnancy, and ends up being pushed out of both. I had a deep respect for Iris and the way she coped with the strain of her mother’s initial disappointment and the rejection from her school and Church, but without giving too much away, the scenes that take place later in the timeline of the novel did make me go off her somewhat. She was, though, throughout, a deeply interesting and well-written character, and she is definitely the one that has made the strongest impression on me. The other characters were also all equally well-written, but seemed to have less development as Iris was really the protagonist. I do wish that we could perhaps have seen a little bit more of Melody at the age she is when the book begins (16), because the thematic parallels between hers and her mother’s lives were really interesting and I would’ve liked that to have been explored more.
As the blurb of the book suggests, it’s definitely more thematic and character driven than plotty, which is something I really enjoy in books, and it was what drew me to this when I was looking for ideas for what to purchase to support the Black Out Best Seller List. Parenthood is something I’m becoming more and more interested in as I’m getting more towards the age where people often start to think about having children. The different characters in this book all have very different approaches to and styles of parenting, and there are a lot of different types of family represented in this book: separated co-parents, married parents, and single parents all feature. I was also really pleased to see such positive father/daughter relationships represented, because I do find that it’s rare in fiction to find a really good example of a caring, attentive father figure, and also rare for books to really explore the father/daughter relationship. While the main focus of Red at the Bone is on its women, the women’s relationships to their fathers is something that’s really central to the narrative.
Woodson’s writing was really smooth, and I would definitely look out for other books written by her — if I’m not mistaken she does have another adult novel that I may have to seek out. If you’re one of those readers who hates non-standard speech markers, I’m afraid you’re out of luck here: my edition at least italicises speech rather than utilising punctuation. Aside from this stylistic choice (which I do hesitate to refer to as experimental now that it’s catching on more and more in adult literary fiction), the novel isn’t particularly experimental formally. While I do love experimental works, I do accept that not everything is trying to break formal or stylistic boundaries and that’s fine! Where this book stood out to me was in the thematic explorations, and in the characterisation.
Overall, I did really enjoy this book, though I did think it could perhaps have been longer? Still, it’s always better to leave your reader wanting more than to leave them feeling overloaded! I’m really glad I decided to pick this book up, because I haven’t seen much discussion around it and it deserves to have that changed. Have you heard of this? Have you read it? Let me know!
This review also published on GoodReads and The StoryGraph.