Review: “Gathering of Waters” by Bernice McFadden
Once or twice I year, I pick up a book that reminds me why I read. While others are enjoyable and even worth sharing, there’s always a couple that just wrap their way around me, both as a reader and a writer. Bernice McFadden’s “Gathering of Waters” is one of those books (and it’s only the first of hers that I’ve read).
As the number of pages between me and the end dwindled to a sliver, I realized I wasn’t ready to finish reading this book yet. Having torn through the first 220-something pages–and the generations of people in the town of Money, Mississippi–I made myself put the book down for a couple of days. There, its cover closed, the ending loomed like the soon-to-be ex-girlfriend I was ignoring, hoping to avoid the breakup.
A couple of months ago, an editor at Akashic Books, Johanna, sent me an email asking us to consider Bernice McFadden for the next Crossroads Writers Conference. Even without reading her work first, she seemed perfect for Crossroads. There wasn’t a novel of hers that I looked up that didn’t seem interesting. And Adam Mansbach, who attended Crossroads last year and will this year, and has also been published by Akashic, said, “Bernice is mad cool.”
And part of me wondered if it’s kismet. In her 2003 novel, “Loving Donovan,” McFadden named a character “Macon,” and in “Gathering of Waters,” she references both Otis Redding and Little Richard, two of our hometown heroes. The Brooklyn-based McFadden even has an ancestral tie to the area: her great, great grandfather was Rev. TM Robinson, a former slave who became the president of the Central City Times Publishing Company and founded the First Baptist Church on Cotton Avenue in Macon, which grew out of the First Baptist Church of Christ, a congregation that served both whites and African-Americans during slavery.
So yeah, we got Bernice McFadden lined up pretty quickly.
Then I started reading “Gathering of Waters,” and whoa. Now, I can’t believe how lucky we are to have her joining us this year. I’d seen the blurb by Dennis Lehane (author of “Mystic River”), the love she’s getting in book blogs, the insanely glowing reviews on Amazon and reviews in the New York Times and NPR, not to mention the selection as a New York Times Editor’s Choice. Usually, when a book is this hyped before I pick it up, I have a hard time liking it. The standard is too high.
But “Gathering of Waters” sucked me in. Again, this is as a reader and a writer. As a reader, it’s hard not to be swept away by the rhythm of the stories McFadden uses to give flesh to the parts of American history that *may* otherwise –sometimes at best–get a footnote. As a writer, I felt like I was being schooled. The story moves fluidly, though, in lesser hands, it could have seemed episodic. Likewise, other bold choices she made would have fallen flat or been corny if she weren’t so talented.
For example, the narrator is Money, Mississippi, the city where most of the story takes place. That’s a big enough risk: personifying a town. But there are times when Money addresses the reader directly, which is normally a gamble but doubly so in this case. Yet, McFadden pulls it off. In fact, it’s that magic that makes this novel sing.
You’ve probably heard of the “willing suspension of disbelief,” the way we surrender our opposition to the ridiculous in order to enjoy a book or film or TV show, etc. The gap between the ridiculous and your surrender to it isn’t based on the level of ridiculousness itself but rather how rewarding it’d be to give into it. In “Gathering of Waters,” the reward is great.
Here, I want to make a point: I enjoy painful stories and that’s why I love this novel. It is not a novel that takes it easy on you. The murder of Emmett Till is heart-rendering, as it should be, as all of our tragic past should be but often isn’t because of the passage of time that McFadden actually harnesses as the story’s vehicle. One of this novel’s great strengths is that you know what’s happening and never prepare for it, and that the hurt she puts on you isn’t because you “care so much about these characters” (though it does apply) but because she lets you enjoy–in good and bad ways–the journey to that terrible moment. I laughed aloud a few times, smiled warmly often and at other times, ravenously turned the pages because of that whore Esther. (You have to read it.)
“Gathering of Waters” is compelling for a purpose: to run you right up to this devastating event and make you feel it, then and forever through those closing lines and well after.
I can’t wait to meet her.