This is my third Booker prize shortlist review and the second book one that I listened to on audio. I wish that I had read it on paper as I have a feeling the narration may have impacted on my enjoyment of the book. It is a powerful novel, made more so by the sparse directness of the writing and the short chapters – there is no florid description here. Everett lets his characters tell the story, and there are a lot of characters, speaking in not very sophisticated language. Whether it’s the police officers speaking in ‘police procedural’ or the simplistic and offensive chatter of the white racist townsfolk of Money, Mississippi, where most of the book is set, the atmosphere of the book – dark, southern, confederate-loving, Trump-loving – is created through their words.
The story begins with a string of bizarre murders in the small town of Money. A number of racist white males are discovered brutally murdered, strangled with barbed wire and with their testicles cut off. In each case, lying beside them is the body of a dead black man, with the white victim’s testicles in his hand. The local sheriff is flummoxed. Matters become stranger still when the dead black man disappears from the morgue and reappears at another crime scene. State investigators and the FBI are sent in on the premise that it appears to be a hate crime, which, predictably, infuriates the sheriff, especially as the outsiders are all black, and one is a woman.
As they try to find out what is going on they meet a young black woman in a diner, Gertrude, who tells them about her great-grandmother, 105 year-old ‘Mama Zee’. Mama Zee has made it her life’s mission to compile a mass of material on the thousands of racist lynchings of black people since the year of her birth. The very first file in her archive is that of her father who was killed by the Ku Klux Klan when she was a baby.
There is a parallel story where Gertrude invites a friend of hers, a senior academic from New York, to look at the archive. He is astonished by its breadth and in one of the chapters reads out a long list of names of all the victims in the files. This storyline begins to shed some light on the motives behind the murders currently taking place.
When copycat crimes begin to occur all over the country it seems that the officers sent in to Money, Mississippi may be losing control of the investigation, but in fact it is bringing them closer to the truth.
This is a dark and powerful novel, disturbing because it seems as if there has been no change in the century since Mama Zee’s birth; intense racism still gnaws at society and black people are still dying as a result. It portrays an America almost as two parallel worlds, divided along harsh racial and cultural lines.
There are some moments of comedy in the book to relieve the darkness: the scene where a State Trooper pulls over the car in which the three out of town (black) investigators are travelling, clearly for no other reason than racism. They quickly embarrass him when they reveal their badges, but he is unabashed. There is also a funny satirical scene in the White House with Trump towards the end, although I have to say this did not work too well on the audio as the narrator did not do the best impression of the former president!
I liked this book a lot, it feels like a thing of importance, although I also came away from it feeling a degree of despair at the scale of the injustice; the book does not paint a picture of a world at peace with itself, where human beings see beyond their differences, or that we are even close to such a thing.