A conjure woman who escaped slavery obliquely guides her descendants in 2017 New Orleans.
This second novel from Sexton confirms the storytelling gifts she displayed in her lushly readable debut, A Kind of Freedom. The new book opens as cash-strapped Ava Jackson is reluctantly moving herself and her 12-year-old son, King, into the mansion of a declining Martha Dufrene, her white grandmother. The first sentence—“It was King who told me we forgot the photograph”—suggests this object will matter. And indeed, Ava goes back for the portrait of Miss Josephine, her “grandmother’s great-grandmother,” a woman with second sight. Her part in the secret sect “the revisioners” is shrouded in time, but Josephine serves as the spine of this deftly structured novel. In one thread of chapters, she narrates her 1855 escape from bondage as a child and, in another, her rise to rural matriarch. In the framed 1924 photo, a widowed Josephine stands on the edge of her farm: “I still find new mercy in the fact this house belongs to me; that the pine boards overlap to keep the rodents out; the windows swing all the way open.” But this is the year that an aging Josephine makes the mistake of pitying a white neighbor, Charlotte, who confides that she married her brutish husband because “her mama said that he wore nice shoes, that his mama had all her teeth.” A third braid of chapters follows Ava, letting the reader slowly grasp a parallel treachery coiled in Martha and Charlotte. Martha’s creepy home conjures its own Get Out–flavored claustrophobia, and Charlotte eventually cozies up to the Klan. In this wondrous telling, King can lie on the sofa playing Fortnite in the same short book where Josephine’s fleeing family is hobbling “the other horses whose shoes need to be damaged so no one could follow us straight away.”
At the intriguing crossroads of the seen and the unseen lies a weave among five generations of women.