By Tayari Jones. Warner. 324 pp. $24.95
The story of Tayari Jones's new novel, The Untelling, is a deceptively simple one: A young woman discovers she's infertile just as she meets the man of her dreams. This might be a disappointing premise for a novel, too small to engage our sensibilities in any significant way, too confined to its small, solipsistic corner of the universe. But The Untelling widens and deepens as it goes, becoming not just the story of one woman's regret -- but a shrewd and knowing portrait of poverty, racism and the hopelessness of the oppressed and the unlucky. In the end, it is very much about what human beings do when the world turns its back on them.
The novel begins with a tragedy. Ariadne Jackson -- or Aria, as she is known -- is 10 years old when her father and her baby sister, Genevieve, are killed in a car accident. Aria, her older sister, Hermione, and their mother, Eloise, are also in the car that day, but they are spared, a blessing that continues to haunt each of them over the years. The car accident, which occurs 15 years before the present-day events of the novel, is confined to a brief prologue that ends with the sort of lyrical detail that appears from time to time in the novel like the proverbial rare flower struggling up out of a cracked city sidewalk. As Aria is driven away from the scene of the accident in a friend's car, she looks back "at the pretty dogwood trees that lined the road, staring at the bloody blossoms clustered on the gnarled branches like a hundred dying butterflies."
The lyricism of The Untelling is not generally of this pastoral sort -- the novel's world is too urban, too impoverished, too realistic for that -- but it arises out of the same acute awareness of detail. Jones is a keen guide through the novel's universe of the black middle-class neighborhoods and decrepit slums of Atlanta, and her descriptions, like this one, have an almost tender quality: "Lincoln and Genevieve Jackson are buried in Westview Cemetery, five gorgeous acres of grief," Aria says. "Although the cemetery is opulent, the neighborhood around it is decayed and rotting. I would never be willing to live over here. People like [her new boyfriend] Dwayne think that all depressed areas are the same, but anybody who lives in a less-than-desirable zip code can tell you different. This stretch of MLK, just before it branches off to Abernathy, near the Marta station -- this mile or two really has nothing to offer anyone. . . . Even if you were to raze the buildings -- the crumbling apartment buildings with No Trespassing signs, those condemned homes in which people live anyway, people with children -- even if these structures were leveled, it wouldn't be right to build on this land. The sadness permeates the soil like nuclear waste."
The sadness of poverty, especially the sadness of the poor black population of Atlanta, is both personal and political. The Jacksons are sad because two of them were shorn away in a car wreck -- "Don't tell me about sad," Eloise warns her daughters, who venture their sympathy for the ruined neighborhoods around the cemetery when the three women drive past. "I know all about sad." But nearly everyone in the novel, even the unnamed people who drive past on the street, is unfortunate. Neon signs on the street corners advertise "Best Buy Caskets," Aria observes, "to get the attention of people of the neighborhood who would need both discounts and coffins." That state of affairs -- the ineluctable realities, especially for poor African Americans, of death and poverty, with everything in between being a mighty struggle -- is like the scenery drawn across the proscenium stage of the novel's events, and it is impossible to forget. "Who are you to tell us what we should be grateful for, what should make us content?" Eloise demands of the self-assured black doctor who examines Aria and confirms that she is infertile; at that moment, we're squarely on Eloise's side: The Jacksons have every right to be mad.
Even the novel's minor characters are reminders of what a life of deprivation looks like. Cynthia, the crack addict who prowls Aria's neighborhood and one day breaks into the apartment Aria and her friend Rochelle share, is both criminal and judge, accuser and accused. "Why you act so biggity?" she taunts Aria. "You don't have nothing, besides that diamond on your hand. Y'all don't even have a couch." Aria, whose good fortune with Dwayne feels both precious and precarious, is horrified by Cynthia and what she seems to know. "What do you want?" she whispers. And Cynthia, of course, tells her, "I want what everybody wants."
Aria's job as a teacher with a literacy organization puts her in contact with a steady stream of unfortunates, including Keisha, who is 17, pregnant and desperate. Keisha's story is like that of the many young girls -- foolish, helpless victims heaped with enough burdens to bury even the toughest survivor -- who come into Aria's life. The novel, too, might sink under the dead weight of so much misfortune, but Aria's gift -- her grace -- is to be clear-eyed enough to see not only the sadness around her but also what is worth loving. Jones has made Aria a careful witness to her own life and the lives of those around her; her observations, sometimes wry, sometimes poignant, always honest, inflate the novel with hope, sending it soaring over its wasteland of woes. In the end, despite every obstacle, Aria has managed to acquire both dignity and sympathy, and The Untelling has worked a most improbable and most welcome charm.
Carrie Brown's most recent novel is "Confinement." She teaches at Sweet Briar College.