“Who could breathe under the weight of a genius father who was supremely brilliant and made a mysterious tragic exit?” Billie James hopes she can in this debut novel.
Billie comes from literary royalty, but you wouldn’t know it from the humble shack in the Mississippi Delta that she's just inherited from her grandmother. She spent time there during her early years, and it's where her father, Clifton, a gifted though underappreciated African-American poet, died under mysterious circumstances when his daughter was 4. Now in her 30s, and feeling the weight of not quite living up to her father’s standard, Billie returns to the Greendale, Mississippi, of her childhood and begins to seek answers to the questions surrounding her father’s death. As she turns stones long undisturbed, she makes a curious discovery: She was present when her father died, and yet she has no memory of the event. The ingrained tribalism of Clifton James’ relatives, friends, and lovers makes them reluctant—or only halfheartedly willing—to reveal the long-buried truth and see justice served. Their inability to provide straightforward answers propels Billie on a dangerous path. When she discovers an unpublished chapter among her father’s things, her determination shifts into high gear, putting her life in danger. The legacies of slavery, racism, segregation, and classism imbue the novel, along with the relentless insularity of small-town life. And yet the reader's foothold into this world is tenuous, much like Billie's as she is welcomed and repelled at the same time. Where the novel shines is in dialogue. The music of the spoken word shows that Benz (The Man Who Shot out My Dead Eye, 2017) has a strong ear and appreciation for Southern culture that rings true. Unfortunately, though, the reader is only occasionally steeped in the world of the novel.
The thirst for justice is difficult to make palpable, but Benz makes a valiant effort.