Included on the 2016 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist, Attica Locke’s “Pleasantville” is a mystery set in a middle-class, predominantly black neighborhood of Houston, Texas. One of the most striking and yet hard-to-pin-down characteristics of this novel was how visual the writing was; each page read almost like a script, with the scene and characters described in a way that called forth a clear mental picture even in a reader, such as myself, who rarely is conscious of visualizing a story. I wonder if this style is because Locke also writes for television and film, or if she is so successful at writing for the visual arts because of her ability to write this way. Either way, I trust that by creating a story that sets itself so firmly in the mind’s eye, Locke has a particular ability to reach her readers and to leave a more three dimensional memory of her stories in their minds.
In the early parts of the novel, there were times where the writing, though always well composed, felt almost too literal, too “made for TV”. As the story progresses, however, Locke begins to weave in beautiful prose passages that are meant only for the reader, their words and concepts not translatable to the stage.
“Whatever the fallout, their history has a sound, a ringing in his ear, the hum of a song’s final note.”
“The soft light in here is as gentle as a madam’s reassuring touch, letting any virgin souls crossing the threshold know that they’re safe here, that there’s no safer place in the world, actually, than a defense attorney’s office.”
One of the key ideas threaded throughout this intricate narrative is the short-term wounds and the long-term consequences of loss – of life, of love, and of belief. The omniscient narrator gives the reader a particularly insightful look at grief through the anguished thoughts of the protagonist, Jay Porter, who is coming off the first year after losing his wife and mother to his children. Struggling to stay connected without their anchor, the family, in Jay’s mind, finds that “there are things she knew about her family, not secrets so much as hard-earned intimacies, that she inadvertently took with her, leaving the rest of them to fend for themselves in this new, foreign land, meeting daily at the kitchen table, or passing in the hallway, without their shared interpreter.” Later still the reader sees Jay’s explicit belief that nothing can outweigh or out-hurt his grief:
“Standing over his bathroom sink at dawn, staring at the blood-crusted aftermath, he found the darkest center of the blackest bruise and stuck his middle finger straight into it, feeling nothing that a year without his wife hadn’t over prepared him for. What, after all, was a scratch on the surface of a body that had already been hollowed out?”
Locke creates a story that simultaneously is built around race and prejudice and is also somehow light of touch around racial issues, allowing the racial dynamics to play out as a subtle undercurrent that feels true to life. The struggles and biases her characters face don’t need flashing arrows and blazing lights; instead Locke builds race and racism into the set, the atmosphere in which her story unfolds. When Jay notices two lone black men on a jury, he decides to “play this whole trial to the back row, where they’re seated. Surely at least one of them has been accused in his lifetime of something he didn’t do.” To her characters and, Locke trusts, to her readers, racism is a given, is understood.
Attica Locke has created a compelling story of intrigue and community. Like any well-constructed mystery, “Pleasantville” provides a pacing and a trail of bread crumbs that pulls the reader along for “one more page” from start to finish. Its place among the Bailey’s Prize nominees is a feat unto itself – particularly given that it is of a genre (Mystery/Crime) that is rarely represented among such prominent literary awards. Equally exciting and of note, perhaps, is that its author is a young, black American, finding her place among an elite tier of women writers from across the English-speaking world. “Pleasantville” does its genre proud and is a solid piece of writing, worthy of the nod from the Bailey’s judges.