Friday, 17 July 2015

Baby of the Family by Tina McElroy Ansa

I had never heard of this book before it popped up on one of my lists put together from one of the Nancy Pearl Book Lust books, and likely would never have come across or read it, if I hadn't. That would have been too bad, because while I can't say it set my world on fire, it was thoroughly enjoyable, and a little on the enchanting side.

Baby of the Family falls squarely in the magical realism camp, and weaves that into a story about a well-off Black family in Georgia that is mostly just about the family, rather than about their interactions with a wider world. (Other than the regulars at the bar the father owns, or the women who work at the hairdressers.)

The youngest of three children, and only girl, Lena is born with a caul over her face. At the hospital, the attending nurse knows just what to do with it to keep Lena safe, but her mother thinks it's superstition, and discards and burns the caul and the tea made out of it. (That's a new one on me!)

So Lena can see ghosts growing up, and is unprotected from the malignant ones. They pop up every once in a while - the ghost of a family member who died as a baby, terrifying Lena while she sleeps. The ghost of an enslaved woman at the beach, telling her story. Other spirits that tend to haunt her.

For all that, this is mostly vignettes of Lena just growing up, from the poor girl down the road who becomes her best friend for a while, to her love for her father's bar, to school time misadventures. The book creates a community around Lena, who protect her, support her, or ostracize her.

It's funny, but both this book and the last one I reviewed, Annabel, are about children growing up as something apart from other children. This one, it's about the supernatural, while Annabel was about the biological and social structures of sex and gender. In both, the leads don't quite fit in, finding a few friends around the outside, while looking askance at the inside.

It's not a plot heavy book. It's about this family, at this place and time, and Ansa has a knack for capturing small details in ways that make it vivid and interesting. I didn't need more plot than I got.
These felt like real people, from Lena, to her two brothers, to her parents, a father who ran a bar joint, and maybe screwed around on the side, and her mother, from a bigger city, not always satisfied with what she got in the small town. And her maternal grandmother, who never realized what her daughter-in-law had done with the caul.

It's a quiet book, not one where the plot drives it along. It's just about Lena, and her world, and her lack of understanding of what she can do, and what it means for her life. But at that, it's really damn good.

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