Book review: Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton.

With the announcement of the winner at the beginning of this month, I thought I was done with my Women’s Prize reviewing. But when I finally pulled Remembered from the tottering pile of bedside books I was only 30 pages in when I realised that there was no way I could ignore a book of this power and importance.

Set in 1910 Philadelphia, this is the story of Spring and her journey from freedom, to slavery and back again. Spring recounts her story to her son Edward, who is lying broken and dying on the coloured’s ward of the local hospital. Accused of deliberately running a streetcar into a shop window, Edward is the focus of an angry white mob gathering outside. Neither Spring or the ghost of her dead sister Tempe believe that Edward is guilty. Her son’s time is short and in his remaining hours Spring focuses on attempting to tell him of his roots and of the people who nurtured and created him. We follow both the living and the dead on a journey to impart the history of Edward’s young life.

Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Fenton

Remembered is a vibrant and tragic portrait of the reality of slavery. Told through vivid voices, here is a story alive with ghosts and the heaviness of dark spirituality. Taken from the streets of Philadelphia by a team of slave traders, where she had been living as a ‘free negro’ our story begins with Ella. Alone, abused and struck mute with terror she finds herself enclosed within a slave community who work together to ensure her survival.

Ella arrives on apparently cursed Walker plantation. Apart from Agnes no baby has been born or survived on Walker land for years. Instead there is a unit of strong women working together to break the bonds of slavery. Here are women taking control of their reproductive health , their sexual encounters, all working to ensure that no more children are born into slavery. Here are women working together with a collective knowledge and history to prevent childbirth , prevent intercourse and shape their shared futures, however dark and extreme these actions maybe. These women’s are making choices, even when these choices don’t appear to be desirable. The ability to choice as a push against slavery, however small it may appear to be.

For as much as this is a mediation on slavery this is also an exploration of motherhood. How far will a mother, or even a collective of mothers go to ensure a child’s right to freedom? These women ask and answer the difficult question, is earthly survival the most important prize or is that superseded by gaining spiritual freedom?

Battle- Felton creates striking portraits of women who are prepared to embrace death rather than slavery. With a belief in an afterlife that is strong and sustaining they are prepared to end the life of a child to ensure it’s heavenly freedom. For women used to playing the long game, waiting and hoping for liberty, death is a beginning not an ending.

Just as motherhood can transcend death, then motherhood cuts through the bonds of blood. Women in this novel mother as a collective. They raise each other’s children, drawing strength from a shared belief. We see women coming together to protect and sustain their families, always looking for a better time. Even if gaining ground might involve the ultimate earthly sacrifice.

This novel is a powerful example of the oral storytelling so strongly affiliated with the story of slavery. Here are a group of slaves, holding their own histories and preserving their own identities. There is brutality, but there is hope and a sense of a community which defines characters own lives and identities. There is a need to passon their personal stories and a completeness in doing so.

This book really impressed me. The richness of it’s language and the sense of dark momentum driving it forwards brought to mind the work of Toni Morrison and had much in common with Marlon James’ brilliant Book of the Night Women. This is an empowering and significant novel.

I am so glad that I wasn’t quite done with the Women’s Prize.

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