With her debut novel, “Grace,” Natashia Deón has announced herself beautifully and distinctively. Her emotional range spans several octaves. She writes with her nerves, generating terrific suspense. And her style is so visual it plays tricks on the imagination — did I just watch that scene? Or did I read it?
Deón is not merely another new author to watch. She has delivered something whole and to be reckoned with right now.
“Grace” starts with a murder on a plantation in Faunsdale, Ala. After years of watching her mother submit to supervised, ritualized rape by a fellow slave — it’s her job to breed boys for future sale — 15-year-old Naomi skewers her master with a fire poker. He’d just come to their cabin to announce that Naomi’s sister, Hazel, would be taking their mother’s place. For too many years, their mother had given birth only to girls.
The worthlessness of female lives is one of this book’s recurrent, and most excruciating, themes.
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Naomi flees, runs for miles, and finds sanctuary of a kind in a Georgia brothel, where Cynthia, the proprietress and madam, delights in her good luck at having found a source of free labor. The two develop an exceptionally complex relationship.
But at 17, Naomi must flee again — this time heavily pregnant with the child of a white man, a cad with a gambling habit who she’d quite wrongly assumed had loved her. She gives birth on the lam and is shot dead by bounty hunters just moments later. But her baby daughter survives.
“Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief,” Baby Suggs says in the opening pages of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” Naomi is one of those many, many ghosts.
She narrates her entire story from beyond the grave, both in “flashes” — relived key moments of her life, up until her own murder — and as a hovering, melancholy presence, anxiously following the jagged contours of her daughter Josey’s life as she grows up and starts a family of her own.
Josey: Beautiful, blond, originally adopted by a wealthy white woman named Annie. And then: Disowned, banished to Annie’s fields, buffeted by the same implacable currents that roiled the lives of all slaves.
“Grace” stretches over more than 30 years, including the unstable years immediately after the Civil War. But the plot of this novel, as intricate and dexterously spun as it is (its hanging threads knit together pleasingly, seamlessly), is not what makes this debut such a dazzler. It’s Deón’s real and rare ability to make reading a felt, almost physical experience — of terror, rage, identification, sorrow.
Deón is a graphic and unsparing storyteller. (She founded Dirty Laundry Lit, a reading series in Los Angeles that’s hardly cowed by taboos.) When Naomi’s sister, Hazel, is told by her master that she’s assuming her mother’s place, “her breathing is fast like a mouse caught in a jar.” When we first meet Annie’s brother, George, we know instantly he’s bad news — he’s got mud on his shoes and cordial on his breath, and he hugs his sister just a bit too hard. “She stiffens in his skinny arms.”
Later, George ambushes Josey in the woods and rapes her. “Tree roots, like dead fingers, have risen from the wet ground,” Deón writes, “and press against her throat, crushing her windpipe.” Naomi looks on helplessly, as her daughter endures the same savagery her mother did.
Slavery decimated families. In “Grace,” Deón explores, with psychological acuity and absolutely no mercy, what the institution did to slave women — specifically, how it deprived them of the most basic chance to love, delight in and protect their own children. Naomi tells us from the very beginning that she needn’t have chosen to live in a state of liminal agony, betwixt and between worlds. She could have slipped comfortably into the great beyond. But she couldn’t do it. Her beautiful girl was here on earth.
“After the first few weeks, I thought I’d leave Josey’s side when I knew she was safe,” Naomi tells us. “Then I decided I’d leave after I saw her lift her head for the first time. Then, after she’d rolled over, then babbled, then walked, then ran. Then when. Then when. Then when.”
And then her daughter needed real protection. Naomi was powerless to give it. She becomes determined to avenge Josey’s rape — and to shield her, if possible, from any further harm. She drifts into Annie’s manor, where a house slave, Bessie, detects her presence. It’s the first and only time she has a conversation with the living.
“Revenge ain’t for you to do,” Bessie says, adding, “Ain’t no justice. Only grace.”
Naomi makes the fateful choice to ignore her advice. Bessie, she concludes, must be someone who’s never had kids. “They cain’t even fathom the kind of crazy a good parent is able to ascend to while still seeming normal on the outside.”
Naomi opens the book by explaining that justice is getting what you deserve, mercy is being spared the bad you deserve, and grace “is getting a good thing, even when you don’t deserve it.” It is what she would have named her daughter — Grace — if she’d been given the chance.
The book takes place at a time in our history when the moral ledgers were never in proper balance. Justice, mercy and grace were in dreadfully short supply. How “Grace” resolves is not for me to say. But as it flies toward its conclusion, Deón has found haunting ways to explore — and deliver — all three.
“Grace” by Natashia Deón (404 pages; Counterpoint; $26)