When Nadia Turner loses her mother to suicide, her grief and anger turn into rebellion, culminating in a relationship with the son of the pastor at her father’s church. Nadia is seventeen, almost finished high school, while Luke is twenty-one, floundering after an injury ended his promising football career. Their relationship is passionate, secret, and ends in tragedy. As Nadia reels from its aftermath, she befriends Aubrey. Aubrey seems to be the ultimate Christian young woman, regularly volunteering at their church, saving herself for marriage. The two girls seem entirely different and yet are drawn together, building the kind of close friendship that, seemingly, only women at the cusp of adulthood can create. As we follow Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey through their early twenties, they are haunted by the decisions they made that summer and the question of, What could life have been if I had walked a different road?
These are such universal questions that even as Nadia and Luke and Aubrey feel so realized and lifelike, it’s easy for the reader to insert themselves into the story. What would I do? Why would I choose differently? Even the happiest among us might wonder what our lives would be like if we had made one small decision differently.
Just as she does in her most recent novel, The Vanishing Half, Bennett brings both her characters and a community to life. Here that community centres around a church called Upper Room. As someone who has lived my whole life within church communities, I would say Bennett nails it. While Upper Room seems to be a predominantly Black church, there is a culture here that was very familiar to me, including many of the characters. Both good and bad, Bennett brings to life the eccentricities and beauties of this church.
The one part of the book where I felt it faltered was in the mothers themselves. These are the narrators of the book, which is sometimes written in a more distant, third-person narration, sometimes in a plural first-person in this voice of “the mothers”. The idea of the mothers is one easily recognizable – the group of older women who are part of and central to the body of the church. They’ve lived their lives, raised their children. They bring meals to those in need, volunteer at church functions, and are served by the church. Here there are individuals identified but their voice is singular. I was never quite sure what they were supposed to add to the story itself and it gave the narration a strangely mystical tone that didn’t quite seem to fit. Motherhood is one of the questions brought up in both Nadia and Audrey’s life but wasn’t as central to the plot, I felt, as the title might suggest.
After enjoying The Vanishing Half, I’m pleased to have returned to Bennett’s work and seen how it has progressed from this novel. This is definitely a promising first novel and Bennett lives up to that promise with her more recent work which, I would say, is slightly more polished. But here too she captures something essential and beautiful about humanity and the roads we leave untrod.