Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow
Published by The Dial Press
Publication date: April 5, 2022
Genres: Book Clubs, Debut, Fiction, Coming-of-age, Literary
Memphis is both the title and location of Tara Stringfellow’s stirring debut novel. Three generations of women pass through the family’s home and tumultuous times in a city where racism and violence flourish. Hazel, August, Miriam, and Joan share lives that spill over with trauma, love, and resilience in this novel about the abiding strength in love and family.
It’s 1995 and Joan is 10 when she, her mother Miriam, and her sister leave North Carolina to move back to Memphis. Because of a past trauma this return has Joan almost catatonic with fear. Despite her mother’s best efforts to create a safe environment, Joan turns inward to her own source of strength, art. She begins drawing the women around her and slowly, like the drawings that fill her sketchpad, the past takes shape.
An abusive husband sends Miriam back to Memphis and the home her father built for her mother, Hazel. Literally, brick by brick with money saved from his job as a train porter and later working on the police force. It’s to be the safe haven where he and Hazel raise children, a place no one can take from them even as the racism of the 1950s accelerates in the face of the civil rights movement. But before Miriam is born, he’s murdered after being promoted to detective. Hazel is left to raise her daughter and later, August, alone.
Like her mother before her, Miriam knows she needs to rely on herself. Hazel has inculcated both her daughters with the worth of their Black skin, their rights, their ability to succeed on their own terms. For Miriam this becomes a hardened practicality that pushes back against Joan’s artistic nature, finding it frivolous. For as much as she wants to shelter her daughter the two can’t see eye-to-eye leaving Joan to find her own way.
All of these women are left fatherless when they were growing up. While this leaves them with pockets of emptiness, the strength of the women around them and their determination sustains them. They’re brought boldly to life by Stringfellow’s sure hand. Memphis may be a small book, but her writing encompasses a wide swath of life, intermingling pain with a fierce beauty.
The framed record covers on the walls shook with the laughter. Laughter that was, in and of itself, Black. Laughter that could break glass. Laughter that could uplift a family. A cacophony of Black female joy in a language private to them.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Dial Press in exchange for an honest review.*