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And a Child Shall Lead Them
The greatest test of a writer's ability is longevity, the ability to produce consistently excellent work over the length of a career. Precious few writers fit this criteria as does Paule Marshall, whose first and most influential novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, appeared in 1959. With her powers of observation even sharper now, she returns with The Fisher King, a fresh, nuanced exploration of identity and family conflict.
Brown Girl, Brownstones merits a revered place in the pantheon of black literature for many reasons, especially its non-stereotypical characters and its clear-eyed recognition of the cultural and social similarities (and differences) between the African-American and West Indian communities. The daughter of second-generation Barbadian immigrants, Marshall knows whereof she writes. And while The Fisher King reprises themes that appear in all of her novels, here the special emphasis is on the internalized conflicts and nurtured hurts that can wreak havoc on a family.
The mayhem and squabbles among family and friends begins when Edgar Payne, the brother of the late jazz pianist Sonny-Rett Payne, proposes a memorial service for the controversial musician in his old Brooklyn neighborhood. Edgar, who had never really understood his brother, brings Sonny's eight-year-old grandson from Paris, stirring old rivalries and feuds. Soon Sonny, the youngster named for his celebrated grandfather, finds himself in the middle of a tug-of-war between the African-American and West Indian elements of the family. The boy, the eyes and ears for much of what occurs during his stay, is observant, diplomatic, and the catalyst for the tidal wave of change that sweeps up everyone involved in the memorial and visit.
Despite a familiar theme (a black jazz musician in Paris), Marshall employs fictional approaches that refresh the scenario, stressing Sonny-Rett's growth and maturation as an artist, his disgust with American racism and the petty bickering within his family, and the high emotional cost of living in exile. Flashbacks, concise and superbly constructed, flesh out the man who was misunderstood by many in his family and craft. Sonny-Rett, even after his passing, is a dominant force and an integral part of the novel. As for locales, Marshall's Brooklyn is as distinct, colorful, and alive as Dickens's hardscrabble London, Moravia's seductive Rome, or Faulkner's mythic Yoknapatawpha County. Her narrative captures every telling detail about this borough of neighborhoods, its ethnic mix, unique energy, and special character. Note her almost photographic description of Mrs. McCullum's antique-filled brownstone on Macon Street at the book's opening; the highly visual view of Edgar's restaurant on Reid Avenue; or the gifted historian's recounting of Albemarle Road. Marshall is masterful, too, in the richness of her female characters: young and old, the women are tangible, immediately and intimately recognizable, their humanity to be treasured. And while the men -- with the exception of Sonny-Rett -- lack this fine sense of completeness, they serve ably as foils and supports, allowing the women to strut their stuff.
These women -- Florence, Hattie, Dora, and even Madame Molineaux -- reveal Marshall's talent for portraying the female temperament and psyche in all of its wondrous glory. The conflicts between them -- each has her own particular prejudices and grudges -- threaten to disrupt the memorial, as each woman must revisit her role in forcing Sonny's sudden departure to France. What did I do to drive Sonny away? How can I make it up to his grandson? Will I seek the forgiveness of the others? And can I forgive and forget? These questions define the moral center of the book.
The story's resolution is both startling and natural, an outgrowth of the characters and their choices, without a bow to sentiment or cheap melodrama. To reveal more would be criminal. With so much skill that it feels effortless, Marshall builds the surroundings, the stage, upon which she sets the players into action. Her sense of place is sheer artistry, drawing the reader into the characters and their world. The Fisher King is a solid literary effort by a talented writer blessed by longevity.
Robert Fleming is the author of many books, including The African-American Writer's Handbook: How to Get in Print and Stay in Print. He lives in New York City.