Delores Phillips’ “the darkest child”

51N14fU5oYL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_How can someone come seemingly from nowhere, deliver a devastating, masterful blow, and then once again disappear from the literary stage? I know next to nothing about Delores Phillips, but this, her only published novel, makes me fear what her dreams must be like. This story isn’t “horror”, it is a work of chilling, relentless despair.

From the very beginning of the story, Phillips seemingly tries to warn the reader against hope. When one of Rosie Quinn’s ten children is subject to unspeakable maternal brutality, the children react with rehearsed calm and dread: “We all begin to move, fetching water, tearing bandages, pouring our love onto a wound that will never heal. We work as a silent, defeated army, beaten down by our mother, tending our wounded. We do not retaliate for our victory is inconceivable.”

Rosie’s children, growing up in abject poverty, in segregated, racist Georgia, under the maniacal rule of their mother, possess a resilience that is unfathomable and exhausting. Though much of her efforts are to keep her children submissive and subservient, each finds his or her own, very different mode of survival and by the end the family is as shattered and dispersed as their hopes and dreams. Tangy Mae, the middle child and the story’s protagonist, deftly describes her ambiguous feelings towards a mother she both loathes and can’t resist loving.

“Sometimes I believed that she did not mean to hurt us, but could not help herself. She was, after all, the same gentle woman who had once, long ago, taught us to love, and I had learned to love with every part of my being. …I was baffled by the ambiguities of my mother’s emotions and behavior. She denied and feared God in the same breath. She allowed our actions to shame her, and yet she was void of shame. I truly believed that there was something unnatural about her – a madness that only her children could see. My yearning was not to understand it, but to escape it.”

Delores Phillips shares with her readers a story that is deeply, heartbreakingly heavy. But her writing is also crushingly beautiful and poetic. This story is a resonant, moving elegy; it is like a body-wracking cry with someone holding your hand. Here are two small samples of the way Phillips employs metaphor with an expert hand:

“And the silence began. And the sound of the silence was frightening. Rain pounded the tin roof like a thousand demons marching for their master, and the roof yielded. Liquid curses splashed down upon our heads and into the waiting vessels. In the gray shadows of a rainy dusk, then clock on the table ticked rhythmically, but the hands never moved. They were stuck.”

“People passed, spoke, and waved with no idea that innocence had sloughed from my body and lay in a heap at my feet.”

“the darkest child” speaks of poverty, racism, violence, family, and females. Women in this story, particularly as poor black women, have so few opportunities and nearly zero social standing. Women are seen as disposable objects, useful for sexual release and domestic servitude, but little else. Tangy is a gifted girl with dreams of a better future, but her mother and many of her siblings see those dreams as naive and selfish. Even Tangy’s best friend has internalized the message, presented overtly to her by her own father, that black women shouldn’t waste effort on ambition and dreams. She has decided to drop out of school, like most of the children in their town, and mocks Tangy’s hopes of graduating.

“After you finish school, what you gon’ do? You’ll get a job doing the same thing somebody doing that ain’t never went to school. My daddy say a colored woman ain’t shit. He say they ain’t good for nothing. Can’t do nothing but stand around putting a whole lot of weight on a man.”

I am so moved by and conflicted about this book. It is a captivating, stunningly wrought story that weighs heavily on the soul. Delores Phillips has created something masterful that deserves careful, thoughtful, and widespread consumption.

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