Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Hungry Ghosts, by Kevin Jared Hosein

"Moths see light and fly to it... Always searching for the border between deep darkness and the billows of the moon.  The moonlight to them is hope. But to a moth, there are many things that resemble moonlight.  It is that hope that turns on them and gets them killed."

Ecco, 2023
327 pp


Trinidad is one of our favorite Caribbean island destinations so when I heard about this book, I knew I had to read it.  I also love Caribbean literature and I was not at all disappointed with this novel --  Hungry Ghosts is a dark yet phenomenal story and Trinidadian author Kevin Jared Hosein is a phenomenal writer.  

The family at the center of this story lives in a small space known as "the Barrack."   These structures, as we are told, were "sugarcane estate barrack(s)," and were 
"scattered like half-buried bones across the plain, strewn from their colonial corpse. In their marrow, the ghosts of the indentured. And the offspring of those ghosts."
  It's the 1940s, and in the rural countryside of Trinidad, the Saroop family, Hansraj (Hans), Shweta and their son Krishna,  share the five-room, "tangle of wood and iron" barrack with four other families,  each occupying a 10x10 foot room. Although there are partitions between the rooms, they do not allow for any sort of privacy; these impoverished families live with no running water, dress in clothes made of old flour sacks, and cook outside in a "communal yard," also the place for "drinking and fighting."    Shweta is haunted by the loss of her baby girl Hema, about whom Hans will never speak and who has become, as one of the older women in the barrack revealed to Shweta,  a "preta -- a hungry ghost" whose insatiable hunger must be appeased, as well as that of the other ghosts Hema brings with her.   Shweta has a hunger as well: she dreams of getting out of the Barrack, escaping this "fossil embedded in quicksand" and buying a plot of land in Bell Village, 
"the dogma of a new world, howling and preaching steel and diesel and rayon and vinyl and gypsum and triple-glazed glass,"
in hopes of securing for her family a better quality of life.  The Barrack and its inhabitants fall at the lower echelon of a carefully-maintained social and class structure; while Krishna is the only barrack child enrolled at the school (which he despises) in Bell Village, the village children never let him forget where he lives or his barrack upbringing.  Although there are other Hindus who attend the school, some are "Hindu at home but Presbyterian at school," at a time when identifying as Christian offered the promise of better opportunities.  Towering over all of these people are the Changoors, Dalton and Marlee, who live uphill at Changoor Farm.  Wealthy and powerful, no one really knows how Dalton came to have so much money, and no one really knows Marlee, who generally stays inside the walls of the house.  She has no real friends and rarely interacts with people on the outside. Things change though when Dalton disappears with no warning, leaving Marlee a "cryptic note" on the kitchen table that says very little.  She is now alone on the farm with the three hired workers (who by Dalton's orders were to "never set foot inside his house")  one of which is Hans Saroop.   Marlee makes up stories about Dalton's absence, reassuring the farmhands that he will be back, but when she receives a ransom note attached to a dead rat demanding money, she offers Hans a high-paying job staying at the farm as a guard until Dalton's return.  Hans knows that with the money that Marlee is willing to pay he can make a down payment on the patch of land in Bell Village and improve his family's life; what he doesn't know is that his decision will launch a tidal wave of completely unforeseen consequences.  Actually, now that I'm thinking about it, there are any number of people in this novel whose choices will have a major impact  not only on their own lives but those of others as well.  

While Hans believes in that "flicker of a daydream" that offers the the promise of escape, what he doesn't understand is just how quickly a dream can turn into a nightmare, especially as he tries to keep his feet planted in two different worlds in a system that is so entrenched.    He doesn't know what others know, that he's "floatin' through maya ...Mistaking dreams for the real world."  This notion of a better world as illusion is prevalent throughout this novel -- so much so that at one point somebody notes that  
"Moths see light and fly to it... Always searching for the border between deep darkness and the billows of the moon.  The moonlight to them is hope. But to a moth, there are many things that resemble moonlight.  It is that hope that turns on them and gets them killed."

Eventually it becomes very clear that Hema is not the only ghost that haunts these people; there are many others with their own unfulfilled and unfulfillable appetites that ultimately lead them into despair.  In the bigger scheme of things though, it's the ghosts of Trinidad's colonial past that are the most haunting of all.   "Behold hell" indeed.   

Once again, just a barebones look at a fine novel; if I wasn't so behind lifewise I could talk about this book forever.   I absolutely loved Hungry Ghosts mainly because of the author's original approach in exploring the history of his homeland and his heritage.  While the novel is often brutally violent and emotionally difficult to read, the author's prose is just beautiful, offering readers the sensation that they are there in that time as a witness to a slice of Trinidad's past.  Definitely highly recommended -- I will read whatever this author has to offer in the future. 

Just wow. 

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Cursed Bread, by Sophie Mackintosh

"We are so often wrong about the ones we love, slowly debasing ourselves, so gradually we barely notice we're doing it."

Doubleday, 2023
190 pp


The truth is that after the first thirty pages or so of reading this novel, I stopped and added to my goodreads status something to the effect that I hoped that it got better because I wasn't really enjoying it to that point.  Well, never a quitter, I kept reading --  not only did it get better, but after that first stopping point I did not want to put this book down.  Not at all.  

Cursed Bread begins with the arrival of a new couple in a small, unnamed town in postwar France.  The Ambassador (no other name given) has (he says) been tasked with a "government project, a kind of survey" to "learn more about the real people of this country. To truly get to know them, the citizens who make it what is is."  The women in the town are quite naturally curious about his wife Violet, but none more so than Elodie, the wife of the town baker, who narrates this story looking back on events that  eventually led her to "a convalescent place by the sea" after some pretty horrific happenings in her town.   At the outset she wonders about her memories, "holding them up to the light" and questioning whether "it really did happen like this."  And, if it did, could she "tell it differently?"  Our storyteller decides that "perhaps it's best to be honest," so we must place ourselves in her hands.  

Elodie was a woman "starving for contact,"  desperately wanting to feel noticed, needed and desired, someone who sensed that there was something more out there for her than the proscribed, humdrum life she currently lives, and a woman whose appetites for passion and intimacy had gone unsated. Her initial meeting with Violet happened in the bakery,  and although they hadn't exchanged any meaningful words, she notes that afterwards, Violet had "haunted" her thoughts.   After a strange, voyeuristic  encounter at a party given by the newcomers at their home, it was as if Elodie had been struck by lightning, leaving her with a heightened awareness of the dark, erotic electricity bouncing between the Ambassador and Violet.   From then on, as she notes,  even brief glimpses of Violet would create "a pulse of something" running through Elodie.  As time goes on, Elodie takes every opportunity she can to insert herself into Violet's life, and Violet begins to pay more attention to Elodie, sharing some intimate details of her relationship with her husband while at the same time keeping other things shrouded in mystery.  Eventually, Elodie finds herself obsessed with this woman, becoming fixated on her own fantasies to the point that her desperation and desire lead her down a dark path in hopes of appeasing her own hungers.  As the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur, she fails to realize that her choices also leave her vulnerable to those who might take advantage for their own agendas. 

Between chapters the novel also contains letters written by Elodie to Violet from her seaside safe space as she tries to sift though her memories, but it appears that perhaps Elodie has not been as "honest" as she earlier proclaimed she would be.  And while the focus of this story centers on the relationship and dynamics between Elodie and Violet, as the dustjacket notes, "beneath the tranquil surface of village life, strange things are happening"  leaving in their wake "a dark intoxication"  that manifests itself in  madness, hallucinatory experiences and for some people even worse fates.  

 An extremely brief and barebones post here certainly,  but Cursed Bread is a visceral read that must be experienced firsthand. At its heart, the novel examines the power of desire, which can be both destructive and self-destructive and in this case transformative; it is dark and claustrophobic, seasoned by an ongoing sense of danger that ratchets up the tension until the end.  

  It is only at the end of Cursed Bread in a brief "Author's Note" that we learn that
"In the summer of 1951, the small French town of Pont-Saint-Esprit succumbed to a mass poisoning.  There are many theories regarding the source of this catastrophe. None have ever been proved."
This event has been thought to have been caused by ergot poisoning -- le pain maudit (cursed bread) -- but who knows -- there have been a number of theories floated about regarding this incident.   I don't necessarily think that  the author is trying to simply fictionalize that traumatic event here, but setting the novel  against the backdrop of the Pont-Saint-Esprit worked for me, since the effects of the poisonous relationships in this story couldn't  help but to seep through to the rest of the town.   And while completely different,   I couldn't help but to be reminded of Barbara Comyns' excellent Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, the blurb of which mentions a newspaper article with the headline wondering "Who will be smitten by this fatal madness next?," which, given what happens in Cursed Bread, seems more than appropriate. 

Although a lot of professional critics and more than a few readers have given this novel rather tepid reviews, I loved it and definitely recommend it for those looking for something a bit different and something  definitely on the darker side.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Glory, by NoViolet Bulawayo

Viking, 2022
403 pp


"Even the sticks and stones will tell you that an animal can't just preach change without embodying it themselves, and that that change has to begin at the top and then trickle down to the rest of the masses." 

The setting of this novel is the fictional country of Jidada, which is actually a stand-in for Zimbabwe, the home country of author NoViolet Bulawayo.  As she stated in an interview for the Los Angeles Times, on November 14th of 2017, she awoke to the news that Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe had been ousted in a coup:
"There was so much celebration, just the joy of seeing the dictatorship come to an end the way it did. It was complicated, though, because we knew his deputy was going to take over. But we hoped against hope that we had a turned a corner." 

She decided that she would go back to Zimbabwe; she also wondered if it was time for her to write a "nonfiction book about this moment, 'too unbelievable to ignore.' "  Once there though, she saw firsthand how "the sense of hope turned very quickly into disappointment and devastation,"  and  thought perhaps the book she should write should be more along the lines of a "modern-day parable of Zimbabwe."  This is that book, and the players are all animals.  Before I actually bought this novel, I had decided to give it a pass, thinking that it seemed like it might be a case of Animal Farm redux.  But my curiosity got the better of me, and as it happens, I was completely wrong.    In fact, at some point close to the beginning of this story, author NoViolet Bulawayo reminds her readers that this is definitely not that -- as Dr Sweet Mother,  the wife of the president of Jidada says while addressing a crowd from the podium, 

"This is not an animal farm but Jidada with a -da and another -da!"

 A modern-day parable indeed, Glory takes as its subject the end of the long reign of Jidada's president, the  "Father of the Nation" or "The Old Horse" (who actually is a horse here),  and the rise to power  and rule of his vice president, Tuvius Delight Shasha, aka Tuvy (also a horse) when The Old Horse is ousted.  Knowing that his life is in danger after several attempts at killing him, Tuvy leaves the country after a meeting with the generals who fear that Dr. Sweet Mother will try to steal power for herself and want him to take his place in the Seat of Power.   The Jidadans are also ready for something different -- as they said, they
"...couldn't meet the dawn carrying the sad, terrible baggage of that awful past, no; it absolutely had to find us on a brand-new page and proper ready for a fresh start, best foot forward, no less."
 Upon his return once the Father of the Nation is gone, he promises the Jidadans a "New Dispensation,"   telling them that God has saved him to put him at the helm of a New Jidada
"this country's long, long, long terribly dark night has indeed ended and we now perch on the wings of a brand new dawn..." 
However, as the Jidadans will discover, the New Jidada seems much like the old one, complete with oppression, corruption on a huge scale, disappearances and violence:
"...the children of the nation found themselves standing hungry and thirsty and hopeless and penniless in the queues, tholukuthi Tuvy's eyes watching them from old election posters that promised a new and better Jidada they now understood, with a heartbreaking knowledge, would never come, was never meant to come."
As the Jidadans said, "... it was what, it was the worst of times, it was the worstest of times."  

 The word "tholukuthi" appears numerous times throughout this book, translating into something like "I find that" or "it's the case that..." or something along those lines.  The author also talks about the "sticks and stones" that "will tell you" something,  and I'm thinking that these phrases reflect the storytelling traditions and folklore of her culture.   

It's in writing about the "daily lives of a population in upheaval" (as the dustjacket blurb notes) that the author shines here, capturing the hopes, the cynicism and the strong opinions of the people via their thoughts, their interactions, Tweets, WhatsApp posts etc.  Glory expresses their frustrations and their fears, but also their resilience and their hopes.    Her use of animals instead of people, she explains in that same LA Times interview mentioned earlier,  afforded her "a sense of freedom" that she didn't believe would be "possible otherwise."   I thought it was a bold move and a good one as well, and even without human actors, she manages to get a number of ideas across, most importantly, the need for political, government and social reforms as well as the need to document your history before someone changes it.   On the downside it can be repetitive, it is a bit overlong, and there are times when it just gets a bit boggy, but looking at the bigger picture, Glory is a fine novel, one that is so very timely given what's happening in our world today.   There's so much more to this book than I can capture in such a brief space, but truly, it's one very much worth your time, energy and attention.    

Just as an FYI,  you don't need to know about Mugabe or his successor Mnangagwa,  but it is actually somewhat helpful if you can read about it ahead of time.  Here's a link to an article from The Atlantic that might be useful (it's actually Mugabe's obituary but it tells you what you need to know).  

It does take some patience, but I definitely and highly recommend this novel.  

Thursday, September 29, 2022

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, by Shehan Karunatilaka


Sort of Books, 2022
385 pp


Not too far into the first chapter I realized that this book and I were going to get along just fine, and I was right.  To put it bluntly, I effing loved this book and have been telling everyone about it. 

  The author sets his story in 1990, and as it opens,  the main character Maali Almeida wakes up (as he believes)  "hungover" to find himself in an "endless waiting room" not knowing how he got there.  He is sure that he's hallucinating, having a "trippy dream" from the "silly pills" given to him by his friend Jaki, but he's actually awoken in the afterlife where he is standing in a queue.  Evidently it is as completely disorganized as any typical earthly bureaucracy, with plenty of people complaining and the office "short-staffed and looking for volunteers."   The woman who seems to be checking him in hands him a dried printed palm leaf, telling him that he needs to get his ears checked, his "deaths counted," his "sins coded" and his "moons registered," and that he (along with everyone else coming in that day) has "seven moons."  Here seven moons equates to seven days, rather than the typically-understood idea of moons as months;  Almeida is also handed a checklist of things to be taken care of before he can enter "The Light," which is, as the woman notes, "Whatever You Need It To Be."  That is the short answer; later he will learn that all who come here to "wander the In Between" have his or her allotted moons "To recall past lives. And then, to forget."  For some remaining in the In Between, however, "forgetting cures nothing," believing that "Wrongs must be remembered."  

Very briefly, largely because I'm so behind here,  in 1990, Sri Lankans were in the thick of that country's civil war which had begun in 1983 and didn't end until 2009.   It was a violent, horrific time, with death squads everywhere and scores of people being murdered or disappeared, many never to surface again.  Maali  Almeida is a photographer who had a complicated life, as noted at the beginning when he talks about what his business card might have said about him:  "Maali Almeida: Photographer.  Gambler. Slut."  He had lost lots of money at the casinos, was (as quoted in the dustjacket blurb) a sort of outcast "closet gay"  in love with his friend DD (although he sleeps around on his many travels) and more importantly,  he  had been witness to the terror and the carnage through his work as a fixer for various groups including politicians, army officers, NGOs, the press, and other dubious clients. He figured that by working on all sides, he would be seen as favoring none of them, a strategy that in hindsight, obviously didn't work out well for him. He had also taken a number of photographs that as he had once told his friends, could "topple the government," now sitting in envelopes in a box under his bed.  These photos are incriminating to the point that if seen, "this country will burn again," but he had hoped that by making them public they might bring some sort of accountability and judgment, especially against those who participated in the 1983 massacres and other atrocities, or quite possibly even end the conflict.   Part of what Maali needs  to accomplish during his seven-moon span  is to somehow have his closest friends DD and Jaki   take out and exhibit these photos publicly, but there are certain constraints in place that make it difficult for him to make contact directly with the living, so he has to learn to rely on the dead (and in one case, a creepy medium linking both worlds) to help him in his task.   But that's not all -- he also wants to solve the mystery of his own death.  As time starts to tick down,  another mission is added to this lineup -- he will somehow need to protect his friends who, in the aftermath of Maali's photos, get caught up in a chain of events putting their lives in jeopardy.

This is a book I just could not stop reading, and the way the author structured his story I thought was absolute genius.  It is a mix of historical fiction, humor and political satire in which the author not only exposes the horrors of these dark years, but also through the many ghosts with whom Maali Almeida speaks, imagines what those who died during this conflict might say if only they had a voice, making me  wish that the book's original title, Chats With the Dead would have been retained.  It is also part ghost story and part whodunit, for me an unbeatable combination.  As seen in both the afterlife and in earthly life, the novel also speaks to those in positions of power who put their own self interests ahead of everything else, making it a timely read for sure. It's one of the most original books I've had the pleasure to have read in a long while, and most certainly a book I can recommend.  

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Nightcrawling, by Leila Mottley


Knopf, 2022
271 pp


Nightcrawling is author Leila Mottley's novel debut,  a book she started writing in her teens, set in Oakland, California.   At seventeen, she says in the Author's Note at the end of the novel, she was contemplating what it meant to be "vulnerable, unprotected, and unseen," and that she wanted to write a story that "would reflect the fear and danger that comes with black womanhood and the adultification of black girls..."  Her main character is Kiara Johnson, and the novel begins with a rent hike, all too common these days. 


 It was already difficult enough for Kiara to pay rent because she doesn't have a steady job; it's not as if she doesn't try to find one but potential employers are "so hung on the high school dropout shit" that nothing ever pans out for her.  She grabs a couple of shifts here and there at a liquor store, which helps keep her family afloat, but with a double raise in the rent, what she makes is just not enough.    She has a brother, Marcus, but he'd quit his job and now spends his time recording rap ("spitting rhymes in a studio") with the hope that someday he'll make it big like their Uncle Ty, who is now living in Los Angeles in a mansion and driving a Maserati, having left family behind.  On hearing the news of the rent hike, Marcus asks for just one more month, but what Kiara sees is "half a dozen SoundCloud tracks and no paycheck," while he waits for things to change.   Kiara's father, who had joined the Black Panthers, had been arrested, imprisoned and released, but sadly succumbed to cancer; her mother is also out of the picture.  "Adultification" indeed -- it seems that the family's survival now  depends on Kiara, who has also taken it upon herself to see to a neighbor's little boy since the mom is too whacked on drugs to care about him.  

An encounter at a strip club where one of her friends works  leaves Kiara with money in her pockets, and realizing that whether or not she consents, since her body is going to be used, she decides that maybe sex work could be a solution to her immediate problems.  Another prostitute suggests she get someone to watch out for her, but first she tries to get on with a few escort agencies, frustrated when each time she is told to call back when she's legal.  Finally,  as she says,  "I have a body and a family that needs me, so I resigned to what I have to do to keep us whole, back on this blue street," and "nightcrawling" becomes what she does. 

One of her clients decides that he doesn't need a room or a car to do business, which Kiara doesn't like, but the sex happens anyway outside against a building.   It's then that Kiara has her first encounter with the police, who shoo him off and put Kiara in their car, one of them telling her that prostitution is illegal and he has to take her in.  As one cop begins driving, the other is on her in the back.  This is only the first encounter she will have with the police, and she says nothing to anyone; soon she is pretty much on call with several members of the force, identified only by badge number, never a name.  But when one of the cops later commits suicide, her involvement is about to become a huge story, especially since the cop left behind a letter saying what he had done.   The pressure is on for Kiara at this point, as the policemen begin to hassle her about keeping quiet about the rest of them.  The harassment escalates when a grand jury is formed to hear the case, and the fallout lands squarely on the people Kiara cares about the most.  

It didn't take long at all for me to be sucked into this story; later  I discovered that the author had been inspired by a real-life case of an (at first) underage sex worker that had the same sort of encounters with some policemen in Oakland in 2016.  I have to give the author major points for not just rehashing that event but coming up with her own take, which gets into the life of this girl who has to grow up all too soon and take her family's survival on her shoulders.    At some point though I started wondering why Kiara or her brother never applied for some sort of help from various agencies, from the state or even better, from organizations like People's Breakfast Oakland (especially since her dad was a former Black Panther!) or the East Oakland Collective,  and that led me to question whether or not the author did enough research that might have made this story more realistic.    As just another example of the inconsistencies that exist in the latter part of this novel, how in the heck would Kiara have known or even cared about Pinterest (as in the remark she made about her attorney's office space looking like it came "straight from Pinterest"), especially since she tells us early on that she has no access to internet?   There were other things like this as well and after a while they just started to grate.  And speaking of her attorney, she came across flat as a character here and not very believable as an advocate.   For me, the book started strong, but as it progressed it just made me frustrated.  

I look at reviews all across the internet and everyone is just loving this book, so once again it's a case of maybe it's just me.   I realize it's her first novel, that she's young and talented, but for me it's a case of not exhibiting enough real-world knowledge and the need for more consistency that would have better tightened things up throughout the story that soured my reading experience.  Loved the story; it's the execution here that caused issues for me. 

Friday, August 26, 2022

All The Rivers Flow Into The Sea, by Khanh Ha


EastOver Press, 2022
197 pp


It is always such a pleasure to read Khanh Ha's work, and his latest,  All The Rivers Flow Into the Sea is no exception.  It is a collection of short stories which, as the back-cover blurb notes, "brings to readers a unique sense of love and passion alongside tragedy and darker themes of peril."  Here the author examines a cast of various characters who somehow manage to retain a sense of humanity while surrounded by trauma.  For some it is life lived during the Vietnam War; for others it is either some sort of a connection to that war that continues to remain long after the conflict ended or who are just trying to stay afloat on a daily basis, doing what they must to continue to survive or to help others in their time of need.  In each story, life comes under siege in some fashion; the book as a whole highlights the sense of just how interconnected these lives and stories have come to be.  

These are not simply tales of war though; although the war and its aftermath are prominent here, the author also infuses the history and culture of Vietnam into each story, along with his beautiful rendering of the landscape and the environment itself.  In  "The Yin-Yang Market," for example, a young Vietnamese woman who had been adopted by an American woman as a child returns to the Mekong Delta and reveals some of her childhood memories to the innkeeper, centered around the orphanage where she stayed and the nuns who took care of her.  One of these tales involves a visit to a market just past midnight on the fifth of the Lunar New Year, where all transactions are done in the dark, something she was told she would "never again see anything like"  after leaving Vietnam.   "The Girl on the Bridge" is harrowing in the telling, as a young man relates his family's story  to a girl while waiting for help pinned underneath an iron brace on a bridge bombed by the Americans.  It showcases the horrors of the Northern Land Reform, but on the flip side, it also reveals both  the beauty and the sustenance that nature and the land can provide despite the politics and the pain.   In some cases, encounters during wartime, as in the titular story at the end, come down to the risks involved in survival during the most difficult and most dangerous of situations.  "All the Rivers Flow Into the Sea" is one of the most poignant stories in this book, one that left me thinking about what would come next in the life of the young girl who seems to finally find the answers to her hopes in an American man, only to have them suddenly taken away. 

All the Rivers Flow Into the Sea is a gorgeous book that anyone even remotely interested in Vietnam should read;  it is a fine addition to the small library of this author's books now sitting on my shelves, asking the question of what it truly means to be human and examining the very essence of humanity under great stress. It also seems to ask for reader empathy, and that I have plenty of for the people who populate this book.   I am grateful to the author for my copy and I wish him all the best. 

One more thing:  I am grateful to Teddy Rose for being included on the tour of this book; if you would like to see what others thought of it the link is here

Thursday, August 11, 2022

The Trees, by Percival Everett

"History is a motherfucker." 

Graywolf Press, 2021
308 pp


Another novel from this year's Booker Prize longlist, but I first read it a year ago during my nothing-good-is-happening-in-my-life  funk so once again,  because of its inclusion on the longlist, it was a reminder that  I owed it to myself to do a second read.  Hell of a great book, for sure.  

The novel begins in "what might have been loosely considered a suburb, perhaps even called a neighborhood" by the name of Small Change,  just outside the  town of Money, Mississippi. Wheat Bryant,his wife Charlene and their four children  live in one of the  "small collection of vinyl-sided, split-level ranch and shotgun houses," and at present there is a small family gathering going on.   Wheat's widowed mother Carolyn (Granny C) lives there as well, tooling around the yard in her "wide-tired" electric buggy that had originally come from Sam's Club.  Times are hard -- Wheat is sort of permanently in between jobs after having fallen asleep at the wheel and nearly driving his truck off the Tallahatchie Bridge.  Rescue came, but so did the press, capturing "some forty empty cans of Falstaff beer spilling from the cab and raining into the current below."  Also at this small gathering is Wheat's cousin Junior Junior Milam.  Granny C is staring off into space, thinking about something that had happened in the past, a lie she'd told "all them years back."  She had "wronged" someone, and knows that "like it say in the good book, what goes around comes around."  She doesn't know the half of it, nor does she know how prophetic her words will turn out to be.  

The troubles begin when Deputy Sheriff Delroy Digby takes a call directing him to the home of Junior Junior, where his wife Daisy had just returned from a "big swap meet" in the parking lot of Sam's Club. On her return she'd discovered a horrific sight -- her husband was dead, beaten to a pulp and left with barbed wire wrapped around his neck; pants undone and his scrotum missing.  Digby and another cop also find a dead African-American man wearing a dark blue suit, face beaten, his neck scarred "seemingly stitched together," the missing body parts in his hand.  Both bodies are taken to the morgue, but the body of the African-American man has gone missing.   The story goes viral after the local paper ran a picture of the missing corpse's face; it was picked up by wire services, cable news and the internet, and the mayor is not happy.  It seems that people in the capitol don't trust the local boys to take care of things, and have sent two detectives (both African-American)  from the MBI to investigate.  
As one of these men jokingly (but seriously, really) notes, they had joined the police ranks "so that Whitey wouldn't be the only one in the room with a gun."  As one might suppose, their presence is unwelcome in Money both by the police and the racist locals.   The body is eventually found, this time at Wheat's house, where Wheat has also been murdered in much the same way as Junior Junior with the same African-American man in the room.  The detectives from the MBI are told that their help is no longer needed, since the locals have found the body, but it goes missing yet again only to be found at another murder scene.   As the detectives start considering what the hell is going on, at first they make jokes about it, with one of the detectives positing that some of the local "peckerwoods" might be behind it, or that it might  be "some kind of Black ninja ... like Bruce Lee or some shit.  Jamal Lee swinging lengths of barbed wire in Money, Mississippi," but as the death toll rises and reports come in from across the country of the same sort of killings,  they realize that there's a hell of lot more going on than meets the eye.   

While all of this may seem like a lead up to a crime novel about a serial killer, that's not what's happening here at all.  Anyone who is familiar with civil rights history should have glommed on to the fact that Money, Mississippi was the site of the horrific violence perpetrated on young Emmett Till who was killed for whistling at a white woman outside of Bryant's Store in 1955.  In The Trees the past catches up with the present, and payment comes due for the horrors of the past, especially lynchings, which one character, a 105-year old root doctor named Mama Z, has spent her life recording and keeping archives beginning with the murder of her father.  As she says at one point, "History is a motherfucker" and here she speaks truth.  The question becomes one of how to tell this story which brings to the forefront our nation's inability to confront its racist, violent past  so the author brings together a number of genres in doing so.   He begins with humor,  stereotyping the southern white characters as ignorant rednecks, "peckerwoods," etc., and while the laughs pile up, at the same time the crime story slowly moves into what seems to be a revenge thriller before taking a supernatural turn.   It's one of those novels where the humor belies the seriousness of what the author is saying, and I think it's fair to say that even though I laughed out loud in parts, neither the tragedy nor the lesson were lost on me at all.  

 The second reading with a clearer head made me love it even more than the first time; it is farcical and absurdist, at times slapsticky but deadly sincere in its seriousness. As one of the dead Black characters in the novel notes, "I'm gonna die now, for a while. But I'll be back. We'll all be back."  And indeed they will --  to mete out punishment or justice where there was none before.   This awesome satire flips the white narrative about race in America completely on its head, and it is a beyond-brilliant story told by a master of his craft, one  I can and do recommend it to everyone.  Sadly, the people who really should  read it and glean something from it probably won't or will miss the point entirely.  

bottom line:  READ THIS BOOK!