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With thanks to Virago for the review copy

Until Virago sent me Corregidora I hadn’t heard of Gayl Jones. She is an African-American writer, three of her best known novels; Corregidora, Eva’s Man and The Healing have recently been re-issued by Virago. Corregidora, pre-dated Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple and Toni Morrison’s Beloved – and paved the way for them both. Of Gayl Jones’s Corregidora Toni Morrison said:

“No novel about any black woman could ever be the same after this.”

(Toni Morrison)

A brutally honest novel, that is at times painfully raw, Corregidora explores themes of race, sexuality and the repercussions of slavery. There were moments when I found it quite tough reading, though compelling too and the ending I will admit left me raging a bit. Still, I am very glad I read it, and glad I have discovered the powerful writing of Gayl Jones.

“I wanted a song that would touch me, touch my life and theirs. A Portuguese song, but not a Portuguese. song. A new world song. A song branded with the new world. I thought of the girl who had to sleep with her master and mistress. Her father, the master. Her daughter’s father. The father of her daughter’s daughter. How many generations. Days that were pages of hysteria. their survival depended on suppressed hysteria.”

Set in the 1940s Kentucky, Ursa Corregidora is a blues singer in a nightclub. She is consumed by an inherited hatred of the Portuguese slave master Corregidora, who having abused her great-grandmother, fathered her grandmother and her mother. Ursa struggles to find herself within the stories told to her by her mother and grandmother, she has been strictly charged by those women in her family with ‘making generations’ who can bear witness to the abuses of the past. These oral stories that Ursa grew up with have formed the woman she is, an ancestral memory that is her legacy.

“My great-grandmama told my grandma the part she lived through that my grandma didn’t live through and my grandma told my mama what they both didn’t live through and my mama told me.”

Ursa is married to Mutt, who has begun to feel jealous of the men watching Ursa while she is singing in the club, there is a violent argument and Ursa falls or is pushed (we’re never quite sure, though we suspect the latter) down the stairs. The fall results in Ursa losing the baby she is carrying and having to have an emergency hysterectomy. Ursa decides to immediately put an end to her marriage to Mutt and following her discharge from hospital takes temporary refuge with Tadpole – the owner of the club where she works.

As Ursa gets back on her feet and starts to think about returning to work at the club, Ursa realises that living with Tadpole is sending all the wrong signals and hurrying her into another romantic entanglement. She takes up the offer of a room in the house of Cat, an older woman hairdresser across the street. A young girl Jeffy is a frequent visitor – and Ursa is shocked when Jeffy makes advances toward her. When Ursa then discovers the true nature of the relationship between Jeffy and the older woman, she returns to Tadpole’s. Following her divorce from Mutt, Ursa marries Tadpole, and continues to sing at his club Happy’s Café.

Her relationship with Tadpole becomes more and more fraught – they fight about sex frequently, Ursa’s sterility a constant grief to her as well as a reminder of violence. In time this marriage becomes as destructive as her first marriage was. Gayl Jones is brilliant at portraying the psychological reality of the unequal relationships between black men and women in this period. Ursa is saddened by the lovelessness of her life, she knows she can never fulfil her destiny to ‘make generations’ and is continuously haunted by the stories of her family’s past – stories of sexual abuse and slavery. Mutt is still hanging around outside the club, trying to get to see her, he sends his cousin to speak to her. It’s as if Ursa is simply not allowed to just be herself – she must be some man’s ‘woman’. A lot of the language used especially about sex and relationships is fairly graphic, certainly it is misogynistic and objectifying. We see Ursa as being as enslaved by men as her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were.

Trying to make some sort of sense of who she is, and the past that she has inherited Ursa pays a visit to her mother, where she explores the story of her Mama and Martin, the father Ursa has never known.

“It was as if she had more than learned it off by heart. Though. it was as if their memory, the memory of all the Corregidora women, was her memory too, as strong with her as her own private memory, or almost as strong. But now she was Mama again.”

More than twenty years later, at the end of the novel we see Ursa, still singing about to be reunited with someone from her past. Corregidora is at times brutal, but it is quite perfectly and realistically told. Ursa is a wonderfully resilient heroine, affecting and memorable.

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