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STIGMATA by Phyllis Alesia Perry

STIGMATA

By Phyllis Alesia Perry

Pub Date: Aug. 3rd, 1998
ISBN: 0-7868-6408-7
Publisher: Hyperion

Though it’s slightly over-indebted to Toni Morrison’s fiction (especially Song of Solomon and Beloved) and occasionally flawed by needlessly abstract statement, there’s little else wrong with this powerful first novel, the work of a Pulitzer-winning Atlanta journalist. It’s 1994 in Alabama when Elizabeth —Lizzie— DuBose, a black woman from a prosperous middle-class Tuskegee family, is released from her 14-year incarceration in several “nuthouse[s]” following what appeared to be multiple self-mutilations and suicide attempts. In a flexible and fascinating narrative that shifts among various years of Lizzie’s “illness” and recovery, Perry builds a harrowing, and eventually healing, picture of the continuity binding together the generations of a family whose shared burdens are simply summarized by Lizzie’s great-aunt Eva: “The past ain’t never really gone, is it ?” The truth of that question is thrust upon Lizzie when, in 1974, she inherits a trunk from her grandmother Grace, an “infamous woman” who had inexplicably abandoned her husband and children. The trunk contains, in addition to miscellaneous memorabilia, a diary recording their ancestor Bessie’s passage to America on a slave ship, and a quilt into which Grace had stitched the history and dreams of Ayo (Bessie’s African name) and their family. The dementia that others observe in Lizzie thereafter is, in fact, her possession by the reincarnated figures (“forever people”) of Ayo’s story. Lizzie experiences what her foremothers endured: blood flows from her body, and the “stigmata” of marks made by iron chains appear on her wrists and legs. The trancelike states in which she “becomes” her long dead kin are handled with great subtlety, and Perry contrives several really magnificent scenes: among other affecting moments, there’s Grace’s cry of pain during sex with her husband, when she relives Ayo’s rape by white slavers, plus Lizzie’s vision, while puttering in an asylum’s garden, of Ayo standing with a hoe in a nearby field. The ordeal of slavery and its victims’ courageous survival of its legacy have seldom found such memorable symbolic expression. (Book-of-the-Month Club/Quality Paperback Book Club Selection)