Oh the breathtaking beauty and the relentless, quiet strength of Bernice L. McFadden’s writing and the women she has created here. I am so grateful that this Year of Reading Women project and my desire to highlight black women’s voices for the month of February led me to this brilliant author, yet I am abashed that it took this project for me to find her. McFadden, after slugging through “jobs”, came to her “profession” in 2000 with this stunning debut and has since published eight more novels, all beloved and praised by her readers, as is evidenced by the fact that they all hold an average rating of 4 out of 5 or higher on Goodreads. I am cowed that such a prolific and expert voice escaped my (apparently narrow) notice.
McFadden’s writing is masterfully understated and yet filled with vivid imagery. Her descriptions of the simplest, meaningless scenes are lush and palpable.
“He was asleep on the sofa, the television watching him, a half-empty glass of Coke sitting on the floor, the ice melting loudly within it, a half-eaten bologna sandwich on a plate next to the glass. Sunday afternoon found him snoring in his second favorite snoozing place, after the far side of the middle pew in Bigelow’s First Baptist Church, the part that was hidden by a column.”
The depth of McFadden’s vision for and understanding of her characters is awesome. Her protagonists are fully formed and in the round, which makes their growth and transformations all the more stark. Pearl, a quiet pillar of the small Arkansas town in which she lives and a picture of true Southern decorum, possesses an innate feminine strength that drives her to fiercely protect her own. In a pivotal scene McFadden teases the reader with a glimpse of Pearl’s smoldering core:
“It was now obvious that they had pushed Pearl to the edge, she was ordering them to leave her house, to get out. Not feigning a headache or claiming that she had to rise early for church. No excuses this time, they had taken her way past courteous and dropped her off somewhere near I don’t give a damn!”
Sugar is often presented as Pearl’s foil, in the sense of the Yin and the Yang – two parts of a whole. Where Pearl is proper, shy, and retiring, Sugar is brash, caustic, and fiercely independent. No one is shocked more than she, then, when she finds herself smilingly embracing life and setting aside her steely armor. At this moment, McFadden’s language for such sudden, transformative love are a perfect outtake of her craft.
“Sugar was caught up in that joy. She had become a living, breathing part of it. [He] had become another limb she never knew she needed. The hours she spent away from him were crippling and made it, if not impossible, extraordinarily difficult to hold a teacup or flick a light switch. He was a third lung. Her breathing was labored without him. He made it possible for Sugar to see the beauty she possessed inside and out.”
Bernice L. McFadden doesn’t need my accolades or my fandom, but she absolutely has them. I dare to mention her name next to Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. I will devour more of her work, and I look forward to the imprint her characters will make on me. I suggest you do the same.