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M emphis by Tara M. Stringfellow is a glorious homage to the strength, beauty, and power of black women.

Told through the eyes of nine-year-old Joan, we track the lives and loves of three generations of one Memphis family. Frequently wives of men who, powerless to fight back against prejudice and social injustice, vent their anger on them, these women build strength and a quiet defiance through their strong ties with family and the women of their neighbourhood.

Through the bad times and the good, they fry green tomatoes, braid hair, and sing.

Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow

Synopsis of Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow

S et in Memphis in 1995, we meet Miriam who, having left her abusive husband in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, arrives with Joan and her younger sister Mya, at her sister August’s house in Memphis. Before they have even crossed the threshold, Joan sees her thirteen-year-old cousin, Derek, and a long-buried trauma resurfaces.

“But I recognised him. My cousin Derek. And in that split second, I also remembered what he had done to me – a memory I’d forgotten after all these years suddenly coming for me with a force I was powerless to stop.

Seeing Derek now, I wanted to disappear into the flora and the fauna of the front porch and yard. The cats hunting the birds, the hummingbirds competing with the bees for honeysuckle – that all made sense to me. There was a logical order to the chaos. But no one, not even God, could sit there and explain to me why that boy had held me down on the floor of his bedroom seven years before.

In trying to come to terms with her pain, Joan begins to explore the history of the women in her life. Looking back, initially to 1978 when her mother, Miriam, first set eyes on Jaxson, Joan’s father, and then back further to 1937 as a thirteen-year-old Hazel, Joan’s grandmother, met Myron, the love of her life and Joan’s grandfather, Joan learns that from pain, comes strength. Enthralled not just by the indomitable fortitude and power of the women she sees around her, but also by their physical beauty, Joan, a prodigious artist, begins to paint portraits of them.

While Joan begins her journey, her mother is resolved to put Jaxson in the past and to reclaim the ambition she gave up when she married him. Free from the domestic chains of being an officer’s wife, she begins her own journey and, following in her mother’s footsteps, enlists for nurse training.
Lynchpin at the centre of this now-extended family, is August, Miriam’s sister. Running a successful hairdressing salon from the back of her and Miriam’s family home, August now becomes the sole breadwinner for a household of women… and Derek.

My review of Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow

S tringfellow’s mellow, laidback writing style moves as easily as a porch swing on a hot Memphis night. Her descriptions of the women in Joan’s life, slide from her pen like molasses from a warm spoon. Here, we meet the indomitable August for the first time:

Just as Mama lifted a hand to knock again, the yellow door opened to reveal Auntie August. Her hair was pinned up in big, pink rollers, the kind I’d seen in old pinup-girl photos, and she wore a long, cream-coloured kimono. Embroidered along the front panels were sunset-coloured cranes taking off from a green pool. The kimono appeared like it’d been tied in a rush: A beet-purple man’s necktie held the fabric haphazardly together, barely concealing the full breasts and hips aching to break free from the folds. My auntie stood blinking at the bright morning light, an expression of resignation and exhaustion on her face that made her look just like Mama.
“What war y’all lost?” Auntie August asked.

To say that Memphis makes for compulsive reading hardly does it justice. Not only does the story move at a pace that defies its languid telling but the text is embroidered with such rich descriptions and vivid dialogue that you feel like a voyeur, watching unseen from some street corner while the drama plays out in touching distance.

In this passage, Joan and her sister Mya, meet Miss Dawn, the woman who lives in the largest and oldest house on the street, a rambling, pink plantation house that ‘leaned heavy on its foundation, like a Black woman exhausted from a day of picking cotton.’ Immediately drawn by Miss Dawn’s hands which Joan has an overwhelming desire to draw, the girls engage her in conversation:

“I like your hands.”
“My hands?” The woman gestured with her right, holding a long green bean. “These things? Well now, I suppose they are rather magical.”
“When you snap, can you make my toys dance?” Mya asks.
“What now, honey?”
I pinched Mya’s arm. “Don’t be rude,” I said, twisting her skin.
“No, your sister is right. Gotta prove it. My magic,” she said.
“Can you make a magic carpet so we can fly? Or can you make it nighttime right now?” Mya shrugged off my pinch, jumping up and down in anticipation of the magic she was about to witness.
The woman rose from her seat on the porch steps. She brushed off the remaining beans that stuck to the front of her dress.
Mya and I, and even Wolf, stepped back a bit. I imagined the woman would fling wide her arms, throw back her head, and chant some nonsense that would turn the sky instantly black. Instead, she stood there, on her front steps and stared at me for a long time. I felt like I was looking at a solar eclipse – I knew I shouldn’t face it head-on, but I wanted to see the phenomenon through.
“Bury something of that boy’s,” she said.
My stomach lurched. There was no question she meant Derek. But how, what, did she know?
“Hair works best. A comb. Bury it deep in red earth. Do this at midnight. Tell no one.”
“And then?” I asked, trying to sound brave. “What happens then?”
“The old woman smiled. “Then you’ll know Miss Dawn real magic.
Two years after I stole Derek’s black comb from our one shared bathroom and buried it deep in the backyard while Mya stood over me holding the flashlight and chanting Hail Marys, two years to the day after my hands were caked in fertile Memphis clay, that boy was in jail.

I don’t really want to give anything else away. Memphis is a book that deserves to be savoured, allowing the stories of each of the women and their men to unfold.

My one and only slight criticism of Memphis is that the novel jumps around between narrators and timelines so that I frequently found myself flicking back and forth between the text and the index to remind myself whereabouts I was in their telling. It’s a narrative technique that allows several strands over different years to unfold at the same time but for me, it can sometimes be a little clumsy and potentially confusing. But then, when the reward is so good, I don’t mind having to work a little to get there.

I read many excellent books last year, Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow was right up there with the best of them. Writing this review, dipping back in and out of the book, I’m sorely tempted to read it again right now. But with so many good books on my reading list, I’ll resist that temptation for the moment.


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