Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks's debut
novel, Getting Mother's Body, has an affinity to William Faulkner's classic, As I Lay Dying, only this time, Parks has flipped the script in a couple of areas. First, instead of taking a body home to be buried, the characters are planning to
exhume the remains of one "high-strung, party girl/singer", Willa Mae Beede; and secondly, the characters are African American,
the setting is 1963 rural Texas, and the lead character is Billy Beede, a poor pregnant, unwed, high school dropout.
After her mother's (Willa Mae) untimely demise, Billy is returned to Lincoln by her mother's lesbian lover, Dill
Smiles, to live with her maternal uncle, Roosevelt, and his wife, June, in their trailer behind a gas station. Billy becomes pregnant by a married man and
believes an abortion will solve all of her problems. To get the money for the procedure, she plans a journey back to Arizona to recover the small fortune (a pearl
necklace and diamond ring) which according to Dill adorns Willa Mae's corpse. Billy is accompanied by an eccentric cast of characters each with selfish desires for the treasure, each
hoping it will "fill a hole." These "holes" run deep ranging from pride, jealousy, envy, debt, lust, unrequited love, childlessness,
and spiritual loss. Billy becomes an expert in recognizing "holes", i.e., finding
one's weaknesses, and uses her 'gift' to manipulate her family and strangers to get what she wantsunknowingly becoming more
like the con artist mother that she despises.
This novel, told in first person by
each lead character, causes the reader to experience the journey from differing viewpoints. Often
times, the chapters represent character perspectives of the same event granting the reader the opportunity to "hear" multiple
sides of the story. The author even interjects observations, blues songs, and ominous passages by the deceased Willa Mae.
The use of monologues allows the reader to learn firsthand each character's motivation, vulnerabilities, and haunted
pasts; these elements contributed to the novel's well developed characters. This reviewer also enjoyed the writing style and
the extensive use of regional dialect to add realism to the dialogue.
Without a clue on how this story was
going to end until the end, I was happy that the journey ultimately brought about some semblance of absolution and redemption
for the motley crew, which was a welcomed relief for an otherwise dismal tale. There
is a lot more to this story than this review covers; one has to read to appreciate all the author has to offer. Ms. Parks shows great promise and if you enjoy deviating from the "relationship drama" of
modern contemporary fiction, you may enjoy this book. I think readers who enjoyed
eclectic works like Lolita Files's Child of God and Olympia Vernon's Eden might appreciate this novel.
The Nubian Circle Book Club rating for Getting Mothers Body is 4.5 out of 5 stars.
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