The story of Ruth Jefferson, a midwife – delivery nurse, as they’re called in America – , who happens to be black, is asked to stop looking after a child because the parents are white supremacists and want no one of colour to touch their child.
The cogs of this inciting incident move in ways you would expect. Ruth is rightfully angry that her boss would allow this level of discrimination to be practised against her and when she is left alone to monitor the baby she has been asked not to touch, and he has trouble breathing and eventually dies (I’m leaving out her actions so as not to spoil the finer points), you can see where the white supremacists might go next. Ruth is put on trial for murder.
Where the story goes then, though, is not predictable. Ruth’s isn’t the only voice we hear. The white supremacist father, Turk, also has a voice, and so does Ruth’s lawyer, Kennedy. At every turn racism in America is brought under the microscope, challenging characters in ways they didn’t anticipate. The fact that it is still a subject mostly avoided, especially by white authors who make up the majority of published voices in the English-speaking market, makes this novel all the more fascinating.
Obviously, I’ve guessed who the author is – it took very little investigation, the book is already published in America. But I can see why Hodder & Stoughton wanted to publish the book without an author’s name or a title. Whether they want to preempt issues of authenticity – who has the right to speak for those whose voices are suppressed? – or simply want to create interest in what is definitely a controversial book, the #readwithoutprejudice is a tag that readers and publishers need to hold in mind. We all read with prejudice, that is how a character can be shaped in a few lines. I would suggest that the book hopes to get us to acknowledge prejudice and speak in the hope of creating dialogue. There should be no point of view a writer or reader cannot be allowed to imagine. Isn’t that what fiction is all about?
I’m white. The book forces me to acknowledge that my response to the subject matter will be different to someone who is not white. How different will depend on all sorts of things to do with my upbringing etc. Although race relations in America have a very specific history, there is no escaping the prevalence of racism in England and perhaps, because of the differences in our history where segregation has always been hidden rather than enshrined in law, we are even worse at speaking about it and this novel is very good at pointing out that prejudice is often unconsciously at work and therefore more easily passed on to the next generation. Is that really what we want?
This book begs to be the start of a discussion on race equity (if you read it you’ll see it takes issue with the work equality). It’s a brilliantly gripping story. It is the first time in a number of years that I’ve continued to read regardless of the time of day and whether I’m really supposed to be doing something else. A lot of things have gone unfinished because I simply couldn’t put this novel down.
Fiction is at its best and most compelling when it forces readers to go through experiences with characters who have lives and perspectives very different to our own, that put us in places that make us feel uncomfortable, that force us to question our own perspective. This novel does that. It’s a very well-written and powerful book. I know who the author is and I’ll be reading more of their work. If you want to write in and take a guess, I’ll let you know if you’re right! I’ll post a comment on this blog to reveal the author and title soon.
This week I’m reading The Atom Station by Halldór Laxness.