Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Remembrance by Rita Woods, a unique debut saga of American history

In Rita Woods’ imaginative debut novel, the title refers to an important state of being and a special place.

Remembrance is historical fiction more in the vein of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad than a traditional narrative, although little from the blurb gives this away. It has a firm thread of fantasy within, or what you might call magical realism. Several of its central female characters – there are four – have abilities, perhaps related to the ancestral practice of Haitian vodun, they can use to protect themselves and others from harm, if they’re able to control them (not always possible). The secret haven called Remembrance, created by one strong-willed woman for this purpose, sits within the borders of antebellum Ohio and shelters a group of the formerly enslaved; white people aren’t permitted to enter.

These four women, past and present, all face varying degrees of racism and its devastating effects and must rely on themselves and one another. Gaelle, an aide in a modern-day Cleveland nursing home, still deals with the tragic aftermath of the Haitian earthquake while devotedly caring for an elderly resident who has the odd ability of dispersing heat, which she also shares. In 1857, in defiance of the freedom she was promised on her 18th birthday, a house slave named Margot and her younger sister are sold away from the Hannigans’ Louisiana plantation after the family’s fortunes fall into ruin. And back in 1791, an African-born enslaved woman called Abigail – not her birth name – is forced to leave Saint Domingue with her mistress, leaving her sons behind, as maroons (escaped slaves) on the island join forces in violent rebellion.

The themes of unpredictable futures, empty promises, and family separations emerge in all three eras. Most beguiling here are the elements of Creole culture woven into the women’s experiences, the original mĂ©lange of time periods, and Woods’ ability to describe sights, sounds, and feelings so evocatively. For example, a scene with Abigail encountering brutal cold for the first time in ice-encrusted New Orleans: She blew out a breath and watched it fog in the frigid air, both intrigued and horrified, as it hovered a moment in front of her lips, like some restless winter spirit.

As if often the case in multi-period fiction, the historical settings and personages hold the greatest interest. Gaelle’s story, set so much later than the other two, is less fully developed and seems tangential to the plot at times, while Abigail’s account, which sees her from young womanhood through old age, is an affecting tale that also presents the mysterious legacy she leaves behind. There are also some subtle mistakes in French usage.

Don’t expect to have all your questions answered about how the supernatural world-building works, but for anyone interested in a unique presentation of American history and heritage, the novel is impressively detailed and worthy of note.

Remembrance is published today by Forge; thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC.

1 comment:

  1. Chym000110:23 AM

    Your review is extremely informative and very thought provoking. I'm extremely interested in exploring the multiple timelines woven through the story, and exploring different points in history as well!