Bookshelf (May/June 2021) | Book reviews

A Million Aunties

by Alecia McKenzie (Blouse & Skirt Books, 200 pp, ISBN 9789768267290)

“Oh. That is all I can say. Mi heart full and low at the same time.” Laugh and cry live abundantly in the house of Jamaica-born Alecia McKenzie’s A Million Aunties, a familiar world of extended family ties bound by blood and tenderness, set to the central motivation of journeys towards (and away from) home. When grief-stricken Chris arrives on the heels of a fresh New York tragedy to the fictional village of Port Segovia, he doesn’t imagine that Miss Della will soon become an “auntie” to him, unlooked for but solidly reassuring in an unexpected hearth. With spry humour, warm wit, and a strong balancing hand over her numerous, colourful characters, McKenzie makes us question the names we place on our life’s strongest domestic attachments, showing us that love animates everything.

Mrs Death Misses Death

by Salena Godden (Canongate Books, 320 pp, ISBN 9781838851194)

Drop the scythe, cast off the dour black hood: Mrs Death is here to thwart what you think you know about the Grim Reaper. Salena Godden, of Jamaican-Irish heritage, turns a poet’s political passion to the subject of her debut novel: what if death were a Black working-class woman, fed up to the back teeth of other people’s collective decease? Lady Death seeks out struggling writer Wolf Willeford to tell her stories, which come to the reader as disjointed vignettes, rife with ancestral pain and contemporary grisliness, including non-binary Wolf’s own violent remembrances of their abusive grandfather. Mrs Death Misses Death unfurls a fiercely nontraditional storytelling mode, employing galvanic stream of consciousness rants, piercing perspectives on mental illness, and the weight of death on us all — a poignant elegy during our current pandemic. 

An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading

by Dionne Brand (University of Alberta Press, 72 pp, ISBN 9781772125085)

To face Trinidadian-Canadian Dionne Brand’s newest work of non-fiction is to grasp a newly-forged key to your beloved childhood libraries, filled with gilt-edged books in the complex manner of the beloved colonial tome. We love what we love to read, Brand tells us in this time-bending reflection, first delivered as a Canadian Literature Centre Kreisel Lecture. How then do we begin to detoxify our reading practice in a way that lets the reader into the frame, away from the aegis of racism, xenophobia, and violence that layer our “timeless” classics? If no book is safe from Brand’s scrutiny, then no realm is immune to Brand’s visioning, either: the thinking uncovered in this miniature odyssey makes vast room for an originary and dauntless signifying.

Mama Phife Represents: A Verse Memoir

by Cheryl Boyce-Taylor (Haymarket Books, 136 pp, ISBN 9781642592665)

Driving hybridity’s generous heart into the deep chasm of grief, Trinidadian-American poet Cheryl Boyce-Taylor openly mourns and celebrates the life of her late son, iconic hip-hop trailblazer Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor of A Tribe Called Quest. Encompassing poems, prose, dream diary entries, letters, song lyrics, and forms of such raw anguish that they seem to transcend genre, Mama Phife Represents is a dense miracle of narrative bowing to experience’s weight, then flowing with it into a long, intensely braided melody. Phife was truly remarkable, Boyce-Taylor tells us, both as son and artist: and oh, how he was loved. Triumphant memory raises its head from the repositories of despair as the work leads us to a space where Malik’s spirit reigns sovereign, beautifully and complexly lit by the offerings of these invocations.

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