Wednesday, July 8, 2015
Review: Queen Sugar
paperback, 372 pages
Queen Sugar is one of the best books I've read this year. My husband and I made a quick trip to Columbia, SC in May for the South Carolina Book Festival, and we happened to sit in a session on writing about place.....which led me to meet Natalie Baszile and purchase her novel Queen Sugar. I read so many reviews that it's unusual for me to actually discover a book or a writer that I've heard nothing about. It reminds me of the days when I used to browse the library shelves and bookstore shelves and find that perfect book for my life at the moment.
Natalie Baszile brings together all the elements I look for in a novel: beautiful writing, a strong sense of place, well-written characters, and complexity. In Queen Sugar, Baszile tells a story that has enough twists and turns and narrative tension to keep the reader turning pages. Charley Bordelon is a woman on the threshold of a new life: recently widowed, she is coming out of a dark period of grief and depression. When her father passes away and leaves her an unexpected legacy, Charley and her daughter Micah leave their home in Los Angeles to move to Louisiana, where Charley's father has left her eight hundred acres of sugar cane land. Charley is definitely out of her comfort zone, but ready to change her life. She goes from teaching art in the inner city to farming sugar cane in Louisiana. Along the way she finds a strength she never knew she had.
Charley plunges into sugar cane farming as a complete outsider: she is female, African-American, and a native Californian, in a business that is run by white men. Charley and Micah move in with Miss Honey, Charley's grandmother, and immerse themselves in the culture and land of St. Josephine Parish, Louisiana. Baszile has done her research, and writes very convincingly about the intricacies of sugar cane farming. Charley encounters obstacle after obstacle, starting with her farm manager quitting as soon as she arrives in her fields.
One of the most satisfying elements of Queen Sugar is the narrative structure. Real life is complicated and messy, and Baszile achieves a high level of realism and emotional complexity by drawing together several narrative strands. As Charley and Micah are settling in at Miss Honey's, Charley's half-brother Ralph Angel is heading toward Miss Honey's in a stolen rental car, accompanied by his son, Blue. Ralph is a damaged soul, the son of Charley's father by a troubled young woman. Charley, on the other hand, has been brought up with comfort, education, culture, security--everything Ralph Angel has been denied. Baszile steers away from easy stereotypes, writing each of her characters with compassion and insight. The relationship between Ralph Angel and Charley is tenuous, fraught with jealousy, envy, and sibling rivalry of Biblical proportions. But Baszile avoids making Ralph Angel either a scapegoat or a martyr.
I was completely captivated by Queen Sugar. At times emotionally wrenching--this book brought me to tears more than once--Queen Sugar is resonant, immersive, and ultimately uplifting. There is even a romance, although Baszile keeps the focus primarily on Charley's journey of self-discovery and self-reliance. Highly recommended for anyone who loves good writing.