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The spellbinding ‘Revival Season’ makes Monica West an author to watch

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Monica West’s “Revival Season” is an emotionally fecund and spellbinding debut novel. The book opens with a Black family on a road trip through the American South during the summer of 2018. The Hortons leave their home in Texas in search of souls to save and bodies to heal. The family is helmed by a wounded healer, Samuel, a prizefighter turned pastor who rules his home with an iron fist. Joanne, his wife, is a prisoner in her marriage who bears the brunt of her husband’s emotional and physical abuse. The elder son, Caleb, is eager to mold himself in his domineering father’s image. Hannah, the youngest child, has cerebral palsy. Hannah’s disability is a kind of liability for the curative powers from which Papa derives his reputation and on whose earning power the family depends. The story is deftly narrated by Miriam, a 15-year-old girl who is wrestling with her father’s brutality, her faith in God, her mother’s unraveling and the revelation of her own healing powers.

“Revival Season” is haunted by two shadows: Samuel’s vicious handling of a pregnant teenager brought to him for healing during a previous revival, and the specter of Samuel and Joanne’s stillborn child, Isaiah. We spend much of the novel on tenterhooks, wondering how and when the lid on the father’s explosive anger will blow, and hoping for the best outcome for Joanne’s new pregnancy, about which she is ambivalent at best. Miriam asks the question on which the book turns: “Why does God let his children suffer?”

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West joins American writers who have tackled the significance of the Black church that serves as a locus for community organizing and mutual aid but also can harm those who seek spiritual refuge. “Revival Season” echoes James Baldwin’s debut 1953 novel, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” which he said in a Paris Review interview “was about my relationship to my father and to the church, which is the same thing really.” West’s book shows the problems with appointing fallible human beings to offer succor to parishioners even as they battle their own demons — in Samuel’s case, irrepressible rage and hubris. The book also questions the church’s stance on the roles of women, most important, that wives should submit to their husbands, and that women cannot serve as pastors and healers.

West movingly describes the ways that patriarchy, Christianity and gender-based violence unite in the person of the tyrannical Samuel. Miriam considers the inextricable link between her faith in God and her father: “Papa had carefully cultivated our belief in him. He never said it outright — Believe in me as you believe in God — that would have been obvious blasphemy and idolatry. But he was the all-consuming presence that had filled my entire life, taking up all the space in the house and in revival tents. In its absence was a black hole that seemed bigger than the presence that had inhabited it. Like the gap left behind after losing a tooth — the ragged, sore space in your mouth always felt larger than the tiny bit of enamel that fell out.”

Miriam is an unforgettable narrator whose storytelling evinces vulnerability, grace, grit and self-awareness. I was moved by West’s portrayal of Miriam’s spiritual awakening and coming-of-age journey as she forges an underground healing practice using her newfound powers to cure physical ailments, resists Papa’s violence and tries to show up as well as she can for her siblings as her mother slips into a deep depression. A beautiful passage reveals Miriam’s halting efforts at discernment: “It felt like God, who had always been near — the breeze behind me, the heat on my face when I prayed — was receding like the sun behind a cloud. As I was getting closer to my miracle, God’s will for me was getting more obscure.”

“Revival Season” offers a refreshing take on the lives of Black women and girls living with disabilities, depression and domestic violence. West avoids predictable tropes in writing about Hannah’s disability, making her neither less than human nor an object of pity. The novel’s powerful ending thoughtfully probes how people with disabilities are targeted with problematic, if well-intentioned, interventions through both traditional and alternative medicine. “Revival Season” should be read alongside books that tackle the insidious relationship between Christianity and toxic masculinity, especially Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Purple Hibiscus.” With its sensitive handling of Black women’s mental health, West’s book also is in conversation with Yaa Gyasi’s dazzling sophomore book, “Transcendent Kingdom,” and the late Bebe Moore Campbell’s landmark novel, “72 Hour Hold.”

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It is nearly impossible to avoid falling in love with Miriam and becoming entranced by this family’s story. I found myself deeply invested in Miriam’s arc and rooting for her as she came into a brave, tender version of herself. West’s debut marks the entry of a stalwart new voice in American fiction. James Baldwin famously said that his debut novel was “the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” We can only hope that West’s literary launch will similarly be the first of many.

Naomi Jackson is the author of “The Star Side of Bird Hill” and an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University at Newark.

Revival Season

By Monica West

Simon & Schuster. 304 pp. $26

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