Philadelphia, 1988: Thirteen-year-old Toussaint Wright arrives, battered and weary, at the burned-out shell of his former home on Ephraim Avenue. He carries with him letters from his mother, Ava Carson, sent from Holmesville Prison, and his grandmother, Dutchess Carson, sent from Bonaparte, Ala. After a final farewell, Toussaint is on his way to meet Dutchess for the first time.
From there, the plight of three generations of the splintered family at the heart of "The Unsettled" unfurls in flashbacks, alternating between the perspectives of Ava, Toussaint and Dutchess. A sophomore effort more than 10 years in the making, it follows Ayana Mathis' Oprah-anointed debut, "The Twelve Tribes of Hattie."
Three years earlier, when Ava arrived with Toussaint at a center for the homeless, she was asked to describe the circumstances leading her to seek assistance. "Two weeks ago my husband Abemi Reed threw us out of
our his home," she wrote.
After filling up all the space allotted, and the margins — "She knew that wasn't the kind of answer they wanted, but she had to tell somebody" — Ava turns in her clipboard. She and Toussaint are placed in a shelter and sent to Room 813, a mint-green box with gummy linoleum and giant cockroaches.
"Don't touch anything. We can't stay here," Ava tells her son. In fact, they have no choice. The exhausted child is asleep before she can even make the bed, and she is not long behind him.
The next day, in a condescending interview, the center's social worker ascertains Ava's utter lack of resources and alternatives. After a fusillade of questions, "813 took a deep breath and clenched her jaw. Well don't get mad at me, Miss Simmons thought. Somewhere along the line, Miss Carson had done some things, or failed to do some things, that left her on her own twisting in the wind."
Lynching is not evoked by accident. As Ava's story is revealed to the reader, we learn that her unsettled life is rooted in the moment she witnessed her father's shooting in a field.
As Ava and Toussaint struggle along in 813, Dutchess tells her story as a first-person monologue. "It's nobody left here now. Cows. Graves. Me. There's not but a thousand acres of Bonaparte left between us: Carter Lee and his wife, Juniata, Memma and Nip LaPrairie, and Erma Linner. Bonaparte was ten thousand acres once upon a time. Ten thousand free [expletive] acres." Her raucous, randy, clear-as-moonlight voice tells the story of her singing career, her love affair with Ava's father, his murder — and how she pushed her daughter so far out of the nest that the woman does not even know she has a grandson.
No more can be told without spoilers, but those who remember the horrific events involving the black liberation group MOVE in West Philadelphia in 1985 will see that inspiration here. Those of us who have more recently seen hell wreaked by the authorities in our cities — Minneapolis, Baltimore — will appreciate her fictional journey onto that scorched earth. It is an ardent, ambitious and carefully stitched tapestry of a novel, one that deserves and rewards our attention.
Marion Winik is a Baltimore-based writer and professor.
By: Ayana Mathis.
Publisher: Knopf, 336 pages, $29.