Regular contributor Jozette Kauffman is back today with her review of the THE QUEEN OF PALMYRA by Minrose Gwin. Sounds like a tough but incredible read that is well worth the time. It also sounds like a great choice for book clubs.
Summary (from the publisher):
In the turbulent southern summer of 1963, Millwood’s white population steers clear of “Shake Rag,” the black section of town. Young Florence Forrest is one of the few who crosses the line. The daughter of a burial salesman with dark secrets and the town’s “cake lady”, whose back country bootleg runs lead further and further away from a brutal marriage, Florence attaches herself to her grandparents’ longtime maid, Zenie Johnson. Named for Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, Zenie treats the unwanted girl as just another chore, while telling her stories of the legendary queen’s courage and cunning.
The more time Florence spends in Shake Rag, the more she recognizes how completely race divides her town, and her story, far from ordinary, bears witness to the truth and brutality of her times – a truth brought to a shattering conclusion when Zenie’s vibrant college-student niece, Eva Green, arrives that fateful Mississippi summer.
Minrose Gwin’s THE QUEEN OF PALMYRA is an unforgettable evocation of a time and a place in America – a nuanced, gripping story of race and identity.
It might be a little bit of a cop out to say “instead of reading my review of this novel, just go read the novel itself,” but that’s exactly what you should do. I fear I can’t do it justice. But in the interest of keeping a little space for myself here on Midtown Review, I will say this:
I finished THE QUEEN OF PALMYRA, closed the book gently and lowered it to my desk, breathing a heavy sigh. This is one of the most brilliantly written books I’ve read and one that weighs most heavy on me. It is both difficult and beautiful to read; Gwin’s voice is absolutely flawless.
I interacted with this novel the way I typically do with movies and very rarely with books. Gwin’s descriptions are so vivid and well done there were times when I’d look up from the book and close my eyes, savoring the beauty of her words. And at other times I wished I had a blanket I could use to shield my eyes as I do when I watch a horror movie. And while I believe that everyone should have to read this book, I’d also have to disclaim that it is not for the thin skinned. There were moments when I’d have to close the book and walk away. There were moments when I became utterly nauseated. There were moments when I collapsed into tears.
The characters in this novel are riveting, and superbly written. They tell this story from two parts of town split down the middle by a line only crossed for purposes of business or violence. They shed light on the complexity of relationships, not only between races, but also within families and within ourselves. These characters? They tore me apart.
It’s one thing to be aware of this time in our not-at-all-distant past and to know that it was terrible and wrong. It’s quite another thing to walk through it hand-in-hand with an 11-year-old girl, to experience it that closely and that vividly. To feel like you’ve lived through a piece of it. This is the brilliance of Gwin’s novel.