A young girl goes for a ride with her father one night when her mother is at Bible study. They pass a neighbor walking barefoot along the dirt road. The father stops to pick up the woman and offers her a ride back to her trailer. But first he lets off his daughter at home.
Two years later, the girl is out for a walk on a sweltering night when she sees a man drop a baby down a well.
Thus begins Kalisha Buckhanon’s ambitious third novel, “Solemn,” which centers on the effects of that murder on the young girl, Solemn Redvine, and sweeps outward to examine the lives around her. The novel is set in the fictional town of Bledsoe, Miss., in a trailer park where working-class black people have worked hard to create stable places for themselves. The baby’s murder and the subsequent disappearance of his troubled mother threaten the sense of community and decency the residents hold dear.
Reading this story, I found it difficult (though ridiculously unfair) not to think of Toni Morrison’s first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” not only because “Solemn” is told in a similar, fragmented style, but also because both center on young black girls wounded by the actions of those closest to them. Morrison has said that part of what pushed her to write “The Bluest Eye,” published in 1970, was the yawning absence of black girls in our nation’s literature. “You’ve got the most vulnerable people in the world, which are children, female children, female black children, who have never held center stage in anything. If they appear in a book, they’re a joke or just some local color or a little walk-on part. The least important,” Morrison said in a 2004 interview. “I wanted to have a little hurt black girl at the center of this story.”
Solemn is not only hurt, but also traumatized by what she has witnessed. She struggles to understand what it reveals about the cruelty of life and her community. Haunted by the crime, she begins hallucinating voices and is constantly drawn to the well. She suspects the baby was her sibling, the result of an extramarital liaison between her father and the woman he helped that evening, a woman who lived “down the way.”
That thought alters Solemn’s relationship with her beloved father and alienates her from her mother. As Solemn grows into a rebellious teenager, she urges her father into a different crime: robbery. The result is detention in a group home for troubled girls and, eventually, a choice: embrace the darkness that has crawled from the well into her soul or find a way to seek the light.
Along the way, we hear stories of Solemn’s guilty father, her ambitious mother, her maturing brother and his girlfriend, the police officer who investigates the baby’s death and the mother of that lost child. This shifting narrative voice has the benefit of broadening the story beyond Solemn’s increasingly troubled mind. The problem is, it also diminishes narrative tension: This is Solemn’s story, and the reader is most engaged when she is front and center, struggling to understand what’s happening to herself.
Buckhanon also leans a bit too heavily on pop culture references. In the opening sentence of the first chapter, we learn that Solemn’s favorite song is Jennifer Lopez’s “Waiting for Tonight,” and the mentions just roll on from there: Beyoncé and Angie Stone, “The Poisonwood Bible” and “Boyz ’n the Hood ,” Dick Clark and the Fresh Prince. Oprah Winfrey and her show (and book club) are mentioned so often that I almost expected the Queen herself to pop up in a scene and offer the protagonist a new car. These shout-outs are meant to anchor the story in time — the early 2000s — while also situating the characters sociologically, but they insist too much. In storytelling, as in life, less is often more.
Still, the novel is a success for what it does well: giving voice to the desires, fears and lyrical language of ordinary Southern black people. And to one hurt little black girl.
Kim McLarin is an associate professor at Emerson College and the author of “Divorce Dog: Men, Motherhood and Midlife.”
By Kalisha Buckhanon
St. Martin’s. 296 pp. $25.99