Saturday, January 21, 2012

Book Review: Corregidora

[T]hey didn't want to leave no evidence of what they done ... [a]nd I'm leaving evidence. And you got to leave evidence too. And your children got to leave evidence. And when it come time to hold up the evidence, we got to have evidence to hold up.

Corregidora by Gayl Jones
Thanks to my advanced literature courses, I am introduced to many interesting novels that I may have otherwise never have read; Corregidora is one of these novels. Like many of my planned reviews, it is not a new novel and probably has been reviewed hundreds of times, but being new is not a requirement here on my blog.

For those unfamiliar with the author, Gayl Jones, Corregidora (Random House, 1975) is her first novel, yet it does not feel like a first effort. Perhaps this is why it has stood the test of time. Though a work of fiction, it is a stark, gritty, and real look at the legacy of slavery. In the interest of brutal honesty, I have to admit that I am not a fan of this novel. While the language and various scenes can be considered, to some, to be obscene, it is the writing itself that was off-putting, rather than her almost gratuitous use of vulgarity. Still, Corregidora is a worthy read whose message is too valuable to be missed due to a story whose form may not be for everyone.

Corregidora is about a woman named Ursa Corregidora, a songstress in the mid-twentieth century whose foremothers were slaves. The story chronicles her two failed marriages, her brush with and obvious disgust for a lesbian experience, and the eventual glimmer of hope that she is finally growing and moving past the legacy left to her by her grandmother and great-grandmother.

This story is peppered with memories embedded into Ursa by her grandmothers beginning at the tender age of five. These memories are the most vital aspects of the novel; they are Ursa's inheritance, her heritage. They are not stories of perseverance and hope in the lives of enslaved women, rather, they are horror stories of forced and incestuous sex between the slaveowner and his male clientele and his female slaves, the grandmothers included. These stories are key to understanding Ursa and her struggle with intimacy and even her eventual decision in regards to her first husband which many readers might have considered a weakness or failing, but is actually a sign of her growth past the birthright passed down to her by her grandmothers.

Jones' writing in this novel is often celebrated as unique and stirring, but I found the writing stilted and sometimes rambling. Not rambling in the sense that she over-describes scenes, but rambling in that "suddenly distracted by another thought" kind of way. Whether this is purposeful and meant to act as a stream of consciousness or not, it is not my favorite style to read and distracted me from the story itself time and again. However, for a first novel, Jones' command of storytelling and novel writing is obvious and my own issues with the novel are purely subjective. Your mileage may vary.

If you are interested in learning how to craft a novel that is layered like an onion and filled with meaning, Corregidora is the ideal study. If you are searching for a novel that reflects the legacy that slavery left on later generations, this is an amazing book for that. If you are looking for a truly happy ending or a book that can go more than a page or two before using vulgarity, then this book may not be for you. It certainly is a novel that shouldn't be missed, either by true readers or true writers, but it is literary fiction and since the job of literary fiction is to make the reader uncomfortable, or to challenge them, or to make them think, it fulfills that role admirably.


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