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CAUL BABY by Morgan Jerkins


by Morgan Jerkins

Pub Date: April 6th, 2021
ISBN: 978-0-06-287308-8
Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

A first novel with fertility on its mind.

The book opens in 1998 with a dire prediction for the luckless and pregnant Laila, a brownstone-dwelling member of the Harlem bourgeoisie. Her dismal history near ordains it: “Some of the fetuses grew, saw the dents of their past siblings in her womb, and joined them in the ether.” Laila will end up having a book-length conversation with these spirits after she bloodily and publicly loses this pregnancy, then her mind. Her architect husband skulks away. Laila blames the Melancons, a notorious family of women up from Louisiana way. They refused to sell her a piece of caul, the amniotic membrane that encloses a gestating fetus. (Folk medicine links the caul to healing and protection.) The Melancons know how to fuse these membranes to their newborns’ bodies and cut away chunks as the child grows, always for a hefty price—mostly for White people. As the family line sputters, the Melancons luck into the clandestine adoption of a serene infant with a perfect, intact caul. The child's teenage mother, Amara, names her Hallow and hands her off to an intermediary, eyes instead on her path through Columbia and Yale. The twist arrives two decades later as Amara, now a Manhattan assistant district attorney, seeks to prosecute the reviled and grasping Melancons only to meet her doppelgänger, a grown Hallow. Cultural critic and essayist Jerkins, author of This Will Be My Undoing (2018), is drawn to questions of gender, family, identity, race, and belonging. The trouble lies in her leap to fiction. This novel sinks under the weight of clunky melodrama, a river of tears, an awkward bloom of adverbs, and a plot so far-fetched that interior logic collapses. Readers keen for the indelible links among Black generations would do better with Margaret Wilkerson Sexton's The Revisioners (2019) or any of Toni Morrison's novels.

An intriguing idea for magical realism in Harlem delivers too little of either.