A first-time novelist offers medical horror with a political edge.
Lena Johnson’s grandmother has just died, leaving behind a staggering amount of debt. Lena’s mother is debilitated by an illness—or collection of illnesses—no one can diagnose or cure. When Lena is offered a position that pays an incredible sum of money and full health-insurance coverage for her mom, she feels that she has no choice but to leave college and become a research subject in a secret government project. Her participation requires her to lie to family and friends about what she’s doing, and she signs a nondisclosure agreement that discourages her from ever revealing the torture she and other people of color will endure at the hands of white doctors. The historical underpinnings of Giddings’ premise are obvious. Lena follows in the footsteps of black men whose syphilis went untreated even though they were promised health care for joining the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, and her experience echoes that of the enslaved women James Marion Sims brutalized while testing new gynecological techniques. It might seem that, unlike them, Lena has a choice, but does she? The position she finds herself in after her grandmother’s death is a reminder that hundreds of years of structural racism have made it difficult for black families to accumulate and pass on wealth. But this novel isn’t just about Lena’s physical ordeal. The emotional and mental strains of being black in an environment seemingly designed to punish blackness—and the necessity to pretend that everything is fine—are devastating, too. At the novel’s beginning, Lena is in the habit of noting when a person she’s describing is white, a powerful rejoinder to the widespread tendency to consider whiteness the default American identity. Toward the end, she has to consciously remind herself that she is still human. In terms of style and storytelling, Giddings doesn’t always succeed, but there’s no denying the potency of her message.
This is a thought-provoking debut, and Giddings is a young writer to watch.