In Paige’s intense debut novel, the loves, ambitions, and treacheries of assorted characters play out against the backdrop of life in New York’s projects.
The author’s tale opens on the historic night that Barack Obama is elected president. Various people gather around a television discussing what his victory means. But project life goes on the same as before. The novel’s first part follows Miah, who lives with her mother, Barbara. Paige toys with readers’ sympathies through Miah’s first-person narration, establishing empathy for an unsympathetic character. Barbara, a crack-addicted prostitute who refers to her daughter as “that bitch,” is beloved in the neighborhood for her fried chicken. Miah goes to college, lands a job as a prison guard, gets fired, and begins a hustling life, teaming up with various alpha males such as Hoffa and the drug-dealing Mello. Paige describes Hoffa walking into Mello’s prison homecoming party alone and a group of blacks standing up at his presence (“He never needed an entourage. They were at attention like soldiers. Almost as if they were waiting on line to salute him”). After various machinations involving powerful men, cheating women, pregnancies, and births, the main story begins. Jasmine, an aspiring writer, turns out to be the author of this novel. A valedictorian, sincere and loving, she is the mirror image of Miah. Jasmine hooks up with J.R., who is a major player and Miah’s latest lover. This triggers a backlash of jealousy and scheming. Paige brilliantly embeds this tale of two women in the gangster milieu of sex, drugs, rivalry, and murder. She deftly sets the tone by opening with Miah’s vernacular speech. Though a well-worn technique, Paige is a master at wielding dialect, never overdoing it and never turning her characters into caricatures. Even those unfamiliar with the colloquialisms can appreciate the lilt and cadence without getting lost in jargon. For example, Mello tells Miah that if his underling Larry catches “you out there slipping, I’m giving him permission to get at you.”
Harsh, gritty, and realistically character-driven, this detailed look at project life should gratify anyone who loves a well-told, convincing urban tale.