MacLean’s debut novel illuminates the difficulty of racial identity and the chaos it can create.
Having grown up believing herself to be a light-skinned black woman in a fairly poor, dark-skinned neighborhood in New Orleans, life has never been easy for Angela. Though she’s risen to become a world-renowned ballerina and married a dashing British lawyer, all is not well below the surface. On her deathbed, the woman whom Angela believes to be her mother reveals the troubling truth: Angela is not her daughter. In fact, she’s not even “black”—neither of her biological parents are African-American. She’s instead the daughter of a wealthy white family that has resorted to disturbing practices to hide any traces of black ancestry from its lineage. So begins a lengthy ordeal for Angela as she struggles to connect with her biological relatives while enduring a failing marriage and escaping from someone who’s trying to kill her. Dotted with ghosts, sex scenes and ramblings in New Orleans and abroad, the story can be thrilling but also drawn out. Facts that are obvious to the reader often take a while to become obvious to the characters—for instance, Angela’s husband might be an adulterer—in a pattern that grinds portions of the book to a halt. However, the narrative deftly investigates racism beyond simple black and white figures (Angela proves not “dark” enough for many of her black relatives, though most of the white world views her as “black”). Though some characters prove too simplistic to be of much consequence—e.g., a vulgar, racist Texan, a seemingly endless string of docile servants and a half-Mexican thug who loves burritos—their participation rounds out this astutely delicate dramatization of race relations.
Slow and obvious at times, but the story provides a worthwhile glimpse at how startling the answers to questions of heredity can be.