Tuesday, February 18, 2020

A writer for our time

Terry Shames here. Our charge this week is to review a black American writer that we think white readers would enjoy.

It almost feels superfluous for me to review Attica Locke. She has received  multiple award nominations, including Edgar Award nominations, and was winner of the 2019 Edgar award for Best Novel. I would leave her work to the expert reviewers, except that I’ve been a fan since her first book came out. When I read Black Water Rising, I was stunned and did something I’d never done before. I found her email address and wrote to her to tell her how profoundly it affected me.. I’m from Texas and she writes about Texas with such depth and breadth that it feels like a trip home. All too aware of the racial divide I grew up with, after reading it I felt hopeful for a future in which her books could tell stories that not only entertained but enlightened her readers. Every book she has written so far has served to support my original hope.

I was thrilled to be at the Edgars in 2018 presenting the Best Paperback Original Award when she won the Edgar for Best Novel. I got to meet her in person. For me, it was a “rock star” moment. I’ve read all her books and loved all of them, but I have a special regard for her first one, Black Water Rising.

From Publisher’s Weekly:

“(The novel) focuses on Jay Porter, a black lawyer in Houston struggling to become upwardly mobile while weighed down by a past as a civil rights worker who was betrayed and disillusioned. His moral fiber is put to the test when he's witness to a murder that eventually places him and his pregnant wife in jeopardy. It's a good thriller setup, but what distinguishes Locke's story are the glimpses into Porter's past, which, in turn, focus on the racial rebellions on campuses in the '60s… Dion Graham's whispery, almost sing-song narration seems initially inappropriate, but, oddly, as the plot unfolds, this approach morphs into a mesmerizing intimacy that makes Locke's riveting prose even more compelling.”

The novel received an Edgar nomination for Best First Novel.

Attica Locke’s voice is strong, her descriptions lush and real, her characters epic. But what I like most about her as a writer is that she is unflinching. She doesn’t hesitate to take on the bad side of her characters as well as the good.

She takes her place as not just one of our most important writers of color, but as one of the mystery world’s most important writers—period.

I have read all of Locke’s books, and recently read the Lefty Award-nominated Heaven, My Home.  What struck me is the vivid contrast between her first book and this one. Black Water Rising came out at a more hopeful time, 2009. Since then the political climate has changed, and along with it the climate of Locke’s writing. She captures the change in the political climate. Black Water Rising has a sense of grace and promise that makes a deep contrast to her latest. Heaven, My Home is a book the reflects rage and dashed promises. As “Black Water” is tender and romantic, “Heaven” is full of despair and betrayal. As I said earlier, Locke is unflinching.

I suggest reading all of her books in order not because they are a series, but because the reader gets a sense of the evolution of Locke’s growth as a writer.


Dietrich Kalteis said...

Thanks for the recommend, Terry. I'll check out her books.

Susan C Shea said...

Interesting observation about how you see her themes darkening as the times become more fraught.

Terry said...

Susan, I only realized that as I read Heaven, My Home. I had already written the review for Dark Water Rising. Then when I read "Heaven" and remembered that Bluebird, Bluebird seemed to be a departure from her earlier books.

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