In 1995, Joan, her mother Miriam, and her younger sister Mya flee her father’s violent temper and return to their family home in Memphis. They move back into the house that Miriam’s father built, the house she grew up, and where Joan’s aunt August still lives. Here they work to rebuild their life, living in the Black neighbourhood of Douglass. This is where Miriam and August’s mother grew up, where she fell in love with and married her husband. This is where Miriam’s father became the first Black homicide detective in the city. This is the city where he was soon after lynched and murdered himself. Memphis is the city where Miriam fell into a whirlwind romance and marriage with her husband, Jaxon, and the city she left behind when she followed him in his military career. Here, Joan and her family attempt to overcome the dark memories they each have behind them and start something new. Something powerful and something uniquely their’s.
Memphis the city is at the heart of this novel, so clearly named, but more specifically, the Black neighbourhoods and streets of the city. We have shared food and street barbecues. Salons where Black women are cared for in more ways than just hair. We witness the ways that a community comes together after tragedy, refusing again and again to simply be victims, even as violence tears through their streets.
The book covers a lot of time from the early 20th century to the early 21st, covering three generations of women in the North family. We have everything from World War II to 9/11. Women and their relationships are at the heart of the story, but of course men play their role too. Sometimes that is a role of violence and sometimes it is one of love and sometimes the two are mixed up together. Stringfellow does any excellent job of creating unique characters who feel connected yet distinct, as well as guiding her readers through the various timelines that the book follows.
While I wasn’t initially that drawn to reading Memphis, I picked it up from my local library after it was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year and I’m glad I did. It was a good reminder that literary prize lists can be a great way to stretch my reading and be introduced to new titles and authors.
4 thoughts on “Book Review: Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow”
I don’t know a whole lot about Memphis culture in particular other than they have their own style of BBQ. Did all three generations feel strong and worth reading, or was more time and care spent on the earliest character?
Overall, it was quite balanced. The most focus was on the youngest in the line, a woman who would be about our age in the current timeline. The characters of the grandmother and great-grandmother blurred a little for me but in general the characters did have their own style.
I’m not familiar with this one but it looks like a great read. I love when a work of fiction is so well situated somewhere, especially places i’m not familiar with. Never been to memphis!
I’ve never been either but the author really made me fall in love with the place, at least their specific neighbourhood!