Joshilyn Jackson's "The Almost Sisters" is a plainly yet artfully written book that tumbles headlong into the gluey morass of race and gender privilege in the Deep South. It tells the story of Leia Birch Briggs, a graphic novelist who, after a raucous, boozy night at a comic book convention, finds herself pregnant by a black stranger in a Batman suit. It sounds outlandish, but keep reading; it actually works.
Leia is 38 and has never married. She hails from a well-respected white family. They live in an Alabama town that bears the family name. Her pregnancy is a secret.
Her grandmother, the town matriarch, is sinking into dementia, and Leia must go care for her. Meanwhile, Leia's stepsister is facing the sudden breakdown of a seemingly perfect marriage. And the family as a whole has a secret: There is a body in the attic (yes, literally), the revelation of which would create a scandal deep enough to rend this traditional community apart.
So there's a lot to work with here, including the sisters theme of the title, which gives the book much of its surprise and subtlety.
First off, Leia's comic book features two heroines who are "kinda like sisters," but polar opposites in demeanor: Violet and Violence. One is all cloying sweetness, the other a knife-wielding superhero.
The novel as a whole revolves around intertwined relationships between women, mainly sisters and stepsisters.
But it's not so simple as to which sisters are good and which are bad, which of their actions are right or wrong. They all have frailties and imperfections. They are drawn weak, sometimes downright petty and even criminal, but deeply human and capable of profound love.
Leia, who in many ways resembles the sunny Violet character of her comic book series, is startled to realize that her biracial child will be black in the eyes of most people. Despite her whiteness and wealth, her baby will live in a world where his mother's privilege will not always protect him.
She goes through the same evolution that many mothers of black children experience: the fear that their child will be reduced to a stereotype or, worse, a statistic.
"The Almost Sisters" is sometimes emotionally difficult to read. It lays bare the brutality of racism and speaks to the ugly scenes we have all witnessed in the news about law-enforcement killings and racially charged confrontations.
The corpse in the attic is, in fact, the product of the racial violence of what the author calls the "second South." Not the South of sweet tea and church ladies in dainty hats, but the other place with its invisible, unscalable walls of segregation, where, as Billie Holiday sang, "Southern trees bear strange fruit."
How those two places exist together, implacably in historical lockstep, is borne out in the story of Leia's ill grandmother Birchie, and her lifelong best friend, Wattie, the daughter of the family's black housekeeper. The pair plod off to worship arm-in-arm every Sunday morning — one week to the black church, the next to the white church.
In the South that Leia imagines for her unborn son, the small town is a hopeful place where the possibility of a common ground exists. This hope feels naive and impossible in the way that only people who are not in the direct cross hairs of racism can dare to hope.
This estimable novel has its flaws. It feels slow to start and contains some implausibilities. But the story takes a more sensible, police procedural turn with the investigation of the corpse in the attic, offering thrills and subterfuge.
When the conclusion finally arrives, it comes in a breathy, exciting rush, with all of the pieces suddenly falling together so neatly you can almost hear them locking into place.
Michele Langevine Leiby is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.
The Almost Sisters
By: Joshilyn Jackson.
Publisher: William Morrow, 352 pages, $26.99.