Posts Tagged ‘Ann Petry’

As I think I mentioned before I will be occasionally taking part in a series of themed reads with the Librarything Virago group. February is North American authors, so many to choose from, but I had a book, newly reissued by Virago that I was desperate to read. The Narrows by Ann Petry is an incredible novel – one I feel will be hard to do justice to in a review. I read The Street by Ann Petry at the end of 2019 – probably her best known novel – but I am stunned that The Narrows has been out of print so long – especially as it is considered her masterpiece by some. The Street (1946) was the first novel by an African-American woman to sell more than a million copies. More recently the author Tayari Jones has called for a revival of her work – she certainly deserves to be better known.

The Narrows is a longer book than The Street, a little over 500 pages, but it is definitely a novel that is worth spending a little extra time with. It is told in the third person, with the perspective shifting between characters, and some parts told in flashback. It is, overall a more complex novel than The Street, but utterly compelling.

This is a novel about so much, it’s about love, lust, class, racism, tabloid journalism, the truth and betrayal – Petry writes her story flawlessly, giving us characters we won’t easily forget. Most of the characters inhabit the area of Monmouth, Connecticut called The Narrows – a Black community within what is a largely White town.

First there is Abbie Crunch a middle aged Black woman who lives on Dumble Street and rents out rooms. She is a rigidly respectable woman. Her dead husband’s hat is still on the hat stand – she thinks of him often. Her closest friend is F K Jackson (Frances) an undertaker.

Malcolm Powther is a butler at the Treadway estate, the Treadways one of the largest employers in the town – he’s the only Black member of the household staff. He and his wife Mamie become Abbie Crunch’s new boarders – bringing with them their three children. Mamie is younger than Powther, buxom, blues singing and unfaithful. Abbie greatly disapproves of her.

“Watching her, you could almost believe it was a dance of some kind, the dance of the clothes, the wetwash dance. I don’t dance. I never could, Abbie thought, I haven’t any sense of rhythm and yet she hangs clothes and I think about dancing. I don’t believe she’s got a thing on under that dress.”

Their youngest child is J. C – his mother explains to a shocked Abbie that he can decide what the J. C stand for when he is older. J. C starts to hang around Abbie – in time becoming her little shadow. Malcolm Powther adores his wife and can’t stand the thought of losing her so puts up with her infidelities, not letting her know that he knows, but driving himself up the wall at the same time. He is proud of his work, a neat, precise little man, Mrs Treadway has told him the house was never as good before he took it over. He has an uneasy friendship with Al, the White chauffeur – but is silently wounded when he hears him using the n word.

Link Williams is Abbie’s adopted son, though the two have had a difficult relationship. He is now in his mid-twenties but when Link was eight years old Abbie’s grief over the death of her husband led her to abandon Link, who took refuge with Bill Hod at The Last Chance bar down the street. Link has been seeking refuge with Bill regularly ever since – Bill is a kind of father figure – though one not averse to dishing out violence. Bill is the complete opposite to Abbie – and Abbie hates the very sight of the man. After graduating from college and spending a few years in the army, with nothing else on the horizon Link has returned to work alongside Bill and Weak Knees the chef at The Last Chance – Abbie is appalled at this waste of his education.

One late night as thick fog rolls in across the river, Link Williams is on the dock area when he hears a woman’s footsteps running in terror. This is how he meets a young woman called Camilo – a woman who in the limited light Link mistakenly takes to be a pale skinned Black woman. The two retreat to a nearby bar – where Link realises his mistake – Camilo is a White woman. However, Camilo is not completley honest with Link about who she is – as the two begin a tempestuous love affair.

Their relationship is one of complex emotions and many misunderstandings. Camilo was as shocked by Link’s blackness as he was by her whiteness. They each bring their own assumptions and prejudices about race to this fragile relationship, in the midst of which they remain capable of great passion. Place is also a big part of Petry’s story, The Narrows is a Black area within a White town in a predominately White state – Camilo has stepped outside the divisions of both race and class in her association with Link. One of the things that is particularly interesting to note is how various characters see themselves, and see others.  Over a period of a few months these two lovers indulge in furtive meetings, often using hotels in New York, a city where they can be a little more invisible.

“People like to see a king uncrowned, like to see a thoroughbred racehorse beaten when he’s running at the top of his form and has outrun everything in sight. They wanted to see that the king, the top dog, the best man, has a flaw, can be beaten like them, is vulnerable like them, can be defeated, unfrocked, uncrowned, knocked down, and thus brought right down to their level.”

There is a lot I can’t say about this novel for fear of spoilers. Truths are unveiled, and a terrible betrayal is practised – which will have consequences for several characters. When a major scandal erupts it seems everyone from the town is drawn in. Popular opinion is seldom kind.

This is a fantastic novel – an early contender for my best of the year list.

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With thanks to the publisher for the review copy

Well hats off to Virago for bringing out a new edition of this quite extraordinary novel. It’s compelling and devastating in equal measure. As well as that, The Street turned out to be a wonderful companion novel to a couple of other books I have read this year. First published in 1946, The Street is an American modern classic, that is shocking in its portrayal of poverty, racism and helplessness. It was the first novel by an African-American woman to sell more than a million copies.

The Street was Ann Petry’s debut novel. She had been born in 1908 in Connecticut, her mother had worked in a factory before later becoming a businesswoman, her father was a pharmacist. So, while her life wasn’t that of her debut novel’s central character Lutie Johnson, she must have known something of the struggles for ordinary black people in America at this time. I couldn’t help but compare the experiences of the characters in The Street with those in the works by Dorothy West and Tayari Jones (who writes the introduction to this new edition) that I read earlier this year.

Dorothy West (The Wedding, The Richer, The Poorer) was the same generation as Ann Petry, but the world their writing depicts is quite different, West grew up in an affluent family – touched by issues of poverty and the legacy of slavery mainly through her journalism and work in Harlem. Tayari Jones’ Women’s Prize winning novel An American Marriage depicts a middle class family devastated by a wrongful conviction. In all these novels and stories, we see life as it really is or was for black people in America across a period of more than seventy years.

“The snow fell softly on the street. It muffled sound. It sent people scurrying homeward, so that the street was soon deserted, empty, quiet. And it could have been any street in the city, for the snow laid a delicate film over the sidewalk, over the brick of the tired, old buildings; gently obscuring the grime and the garbage and the ugliness.”

The Street concerns a beautiful, bright young woman who wants only to make a good and honest home for herself and her eight year-old son Bub. Lutie Johnson has already had a lot to put up with in her life – and she is determined it will be better for her son.  As the novel opens Lutie is viewing three rooms in a house on 116th street in Harlem. She has decided she can no longer go on living with her drunken father and his assortment of blowsy girlfriends. She wants better examples for her son as he gets older. She is separated from her husband – there is no question of being able to afford a divorce, which means she is immediately viewed by almost everyone as being fair game, and too good looking to be respectable. There are, as Lutie knows predators everywhere, she feels their eyes on her all the time. As she views the tiny apartment, which is every bit as bad as she knew it would be, she is made to feel very uncomfortable by the leering glance of the building super Jones. Lutie does not relish living in the same building as this man, but her choices are few and far between. The rooms Lutie finally decides to take, are at the very top of the house, small, dark, cold and suffocating they are a long way from what Lutie dreams of – but she knows all the rooms available on this street will be the same – this is how people in Harlem live.

“Her voice had a thin thread of sadness running through it that made the song important, that made it tell a story that wasn’t in the words – a story of despair, of loneliness, of frustration. It was a story that all of them knew by heart and had always known because they had learned it soon after they were born and would go on adding to it until the day they died.”

When Bub was tiny and her husband out of work, Lutie worked as a maid for a wealthy white family in the country. She saw her family just once a month and had to bite her tongue over the prejudice she encountered, it was an unhappy experience. After her marriage broke down, she worked for four years in laundries, studying at night – so she could get an office job and move herself and her son out of her father’s house. Lutie believes wholeheartedly in the American dream, she believes that, that dream is as much for her and Bub as anyone. She’s a tough, intelligent woman, resourceful and ambitious but the world seems stacked against her. Like other characters in the novel, Lutie is resentful and angry at white people – who she sees entirely responsible for the way black people live, what they are able to earn, how they are perceived.

“From the time she was born, she had been hemmed into an ever-narrowing space, until now she was very nearly walled in and the wall had been built up brick by brick by eager white hands.”

While Lutie is at work, Bub is left by himself when school is finished, prey to the malign influences of the street. There are a host of fantastically well drawn supporting characters in this novel including the slimy predatory super; Jones, Min, the woman who shares his apartment, and Mrs Hedges a madam who spends her life sat in the window of her ground floor apartment watching the street, she knows everything that goes on. Bub is a lovely boy, close to his mother, however he lacks the understanding of the world that his mother has and is easily influenced by Lutie’s desperation for money.  

After a short time living on 116th street, Lutie is keen to leave it, the tense, claustrophobia of the street, where everyone is out for themselves, and nowhere feels safe is brilliantly portrayed. There is no comaradarie, no pulling together, no one to help.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot – as it is a fast moving, compelling story, brilliantly written. Throughout the novel I was worried for Lutie and Bub – I didn’t really expect neatly packaged happily ever after, but equally I wasn’t ready for the devastation I felt at the end. The Street is utterly brilliant, powerful and thought provoking, I won’t forget these characters in a hurry.

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