My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson review – an American tragedy

ion 2017, a white supremacist drove his car headlong into a peaceful group opposing a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing a young woman, Heather Heyer, and injuring dozens of others. There was widespread horror and outrage as footage of broken bodies bouncing off the car was broadcast around the world. But what if the tragedy did not shame local white nationalists, but embolden them? Such is the premise of Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s riveting debut novel, which is set in the near future with the deadly assault in Charlottesville still in living memory.

As the novel begins, the nation is already unravelling: ecological and societal disasters loom. There are electricity blackouts and biblical floods, and bigoted “true patriots” with delusional notions of “restoring our legacy” are bent on violence. “The men kept coming,” says the protagonist, an African American student, Da’Naisha, “wielding bright new rage.” My Monticello is weighted from the start with her sense of foreboding. Soon enough, angry white zealots clutching “metal canisters” and swinging “torches topped in flames” descend on her mostly Black neighbourhood, setting homes ablaze.

Da’Naisha and her neighbours commandeer a city bus; dodging bullets and shattered glass, they escape the conflagration, taking the road towards the Piedmont mountains. She leads a motley crew of 16 involuntary exiles – including Knox, her attentive white boyfriend, and Ma Violet, her sickly grandmother – who eventually find refuge at Monticello, the former plantation of founding father Thomas Jefferson, now a museum.

Fuelled by adrenaline, Da’Naisha seems to have driven them there by chance, but she has a special relationship with Monticello; she’s a descendent of Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who bore a number of Jefferson’s children. One of her neighbours teases her about the connection: “So y’all are like hood royalty or something”? Da’Naisha notes the irony that the plantation, previously overseen by a man who considered slavery a “moral depravity” yet owned 600 enslaved people, is their one hope of salvation.

On each page, My Monticello amplifies William Faulkner’s famous reflection: “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” At Monticello, these Virginian descendants of enslaved people relish the chance to occupy the pristine plantation house; but they’re both bemused and affronted by the sanitised rendering of its brutal history.

Short, precise sentences match the urgency of the story, and this economy seems also to inform the dialogue. Brief exchanges are incomplete; the dialogue at times more closely resembles a series of monologues, as each escapee is consumed with worry about the likely outcome of their situation.

There are layers of threat to be endured, from the risk of their hideout being discovered to the temptation to return to Charlottesville to check on their burned-out homes. The fugitives are caught up in waves of heat, physical and emotional. Devin, a childhood sweetheart of Da’Naisha, is filled with anger, not just for the white supremacists but also towards Knox, his replacement in Da’Naisha’s affections.

Notwithstanding the fervour of the tale, the narrator’s tone is cool and unruffled, even as she’s riven with the secret of her pregnancy. She yearns to reveal the truth, only to “swallow my confession whole”. Her reticence is the result of a determination not to distract from the group’s priority: survival. Da’Naisha, older than her years, shines with the kind of wisdom evident in her reflections on African Americans’ inherited trauma – “I was born knowing.”

Throughout the novel, there are echoes of the historical resistance of African Americans outnumbered and outgunned by foes, yet fighting back. As Da’Naisha’s band of walking wounded brothers and sisters prepare for one last stand, you fear the worst. My Monticello is a bleak story but reading it elicits the same kind of sensation that comes from listening to a poignant blues song: there is pleasure in its creation without denying the pain of the subject.

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