National Book Award-winner Jacqueline Woodson’s new novel “Red at the Bone” (Riverhead, 208 pp., ★★★½ out of four stars) begins in Brooklyn in 2001 at Melody’s coming-of-age party. The 16-year-old argues with her mother because she wants the musicians to play Prince’s “Darling Nikki” as she descends the stairs of her grandparents’ brownstone to greet her guests. She wears her mother’s debut dress, unworn until now because Iris was pregnant with Melody by the time of her own debut.
Iris and Melody share a complicated history; the girl calls her mother by her first name. Iris abandoned Melody years ago, leaving the toddler in Brooklyn with Aubrey so she could attend Oberlin College. She decided early in her daughter’s life that she was done being maternal. “Was that cruel?” she asks. “To be the child’s mother but even at nineteen have this gut sense she’d done all she could for her?” At Melody’s debut party, Iris strains to feel a sense of attachment to her daughter.
Woodson’s tale examines how Iris’ unplanned teen pregnancy and Melody’s subsequent birth affected the lives and opportunities of two families of disparate means. The story shifts from Melody’s perspective to other characters’ voices, jumping back and forth in time – from Iris; to Melody’s father, Aubrey; and her grandparents, CathyMarie, Sabe, and Sammy “Po’Boy” Simmons – to tell a tale of generational hope, regret, and pain.
Sabe and Po’Boy, Iris’ parents, are proud of the life they’ve built since they met at Morehouse. When 15-year-old Iris tells them she’s pregnant, they mourn for Iris’ future-that-might-have-been. “Thought one day she’d grow up and I’d walk her down the aisle and give her away,” her father muses. “Truth is, though, she wasn’t mine to give. Nah sir. She wasn’t mine at all. But it felt like I’d been scaled alive when Sabe told me about (Melody) coming.”
While away at Oberlin after Melody’s birth, Iris maintains only a fragile connection to home. The longer she’s away from Brooklyn, the more accustomed she grows to freedom. But her self-discovery comes at her daughter’s expense; she detaches herself from any obligation to Melody, who has to grow up quickly. Woodson, a master of juggling multiple voices, gives life to the hopes and emotional wounds of each character.
Woodson also focuses on many types of unrequited love. “I love you so much, Iris,” says Aubrey. “Because maybe this was what love (feels) like – a constant ache, an endless need.” Aubrey’s unrequited love for Iris is juxtaposed with the deep yearning of his daughter to be closer to her mother and of Sabe’s desire for her daughter to have a better life. These are characters who are separated by each other’s decisions, unable to accurately convey their feelings.
“Red at the Bone” is a remarkable, intergenerational harmony of voices. At its center is hope for both individual and hereditary survival. But Woodson most poignantly portrays the brutality and liberty of a woman putting herself first.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jacqueline Woodson's 'Red at the Bone' explores unplanned pregnancy