Author, Book review, Decolonise your bookshelves, Fiction, James Baldwin, literary fiction, New York, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, USA

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ by James Baldwin

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 192 pages; 1994.

First published in 1974, James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk is set in Harlem in the 1970s. It is essentially a love story between 19-year-old Tish and 21-year-old Fonny — but there’s a twist: Tish is pregnant and Fonny, a sculptor, is now in jail, falsely accused of raping a “Porto Rican”.

How their respective families deal with the situation — Tish’s family is positive and supportive; Fonny’s is less so — and the ways in which the couple hang onto their love forms the heart of the story.

The book is listed in ‘This is the Canon: Decolonize Your Bookshelf in 50 Books’, which I reviewed earlier in the year. I bought a copy for Monet, my 18-year-old, Melbourne-based niece, because I thought it might be something she would like. I had already spotted If Beale Street Could Talk on her bookshelves when I visited in early March (and she kindly decamped to her sister’s room to let me stay in hers).

Together, we thought it might be fun to read some of the books from This is the Canon and write joint reviews on an ad-hoc basis following a simple format.

This is the Canon describes If Beale Street Could Talk as “one of America’s classic urban love stories”, adding:

The backdrop of institutionalized racism in a pre-Black Lives Matter world, and the mistreatment of Black men by the police and authorities makes their lives bleak; they [Tish and Fonny] often feel beaten before they have barely started living. The fact that a disproportionate number of young Black males in the West are stopped on a daily basis by the police for something as simple as walking along the street, makes this story immediately universal and painfully current.

My thoughts

👍🏽 I really loved this story. It’s quick and easy to read but leaves a lasting impression. And it feels totally modern, even though it was written almost half a century ago! I loved the sparkling and witty dialogue, the frank confessions of Tish as first-person narrator and the wonder with which she sees the world.

👍🏽 It is so joyful in places, not just in the love between the two main characters but in the love that Tish’s immediate family show her when she reveals her pregnancy. Here’s what her mother tells her when she finds out her unwed daughter is going to have a baby:

“Tish,’ she said, ‘when we was first brought here, the white man he didn’t give us no preachers to say words over us before we had our babies. And you and Fonny be together right now, married or not, wasn’t, wasn’t for that same damn white man. So, let me tell you what you got to do. You got to think about that baby. You got to hold on to that baby, don’t care what else happens or don’t happen. You got to do that. Can’t nobody else do that for you. And the rest of us, well, we going to hold on to you. And we going to get Fonny out. Don’t you worry. I know it’s hard – but don’t you worry. And that baby be the best thing that ever happened to Fonny. He needs that baby. It going to give him a whole lot of courage.’

👎🏽 The language is a bit confrontational in places. The ‘n’ word is used a lot (the context has obviously changed in the time since the novel was first published) but there’s also a bit of swearing that might feel jarring if you don’t use this kind of language yourself.

Monet’s thoughts

👍🏽  I really enjoyed how much personality and soul the book had, and how that allowed me as a reader to gain such an attachment to the protagonists Tish and Fonny. The way the book was written and the perspective it offered pushed me to care so much about the characters that I ended up sympathising and feeling their emotions, especially that of Tish.

👍🏽 The writing style was super accessible, especially for a relatively new reader of the classics. The novel dealt with themes of racism, justice and prejudice, which were really eye-opening. They are definitely themes I would like to read about more in the future, whether through Baldwin’s other works or just in general modern classics.

👎🏽 The ending was too open-ended and sort of up for interpretation, leaving the story feeling unfinished. I would’ve loved a bit more clarity to the symbolism and things mentioned towards the end (no spoilers, haha).

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Monet’s rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

We chose this book to read from ‘This is the Canon: Decolonize Your Bookshelf in 50 Books’, which focuses on fiction produced by writers of African descent, Asian descent and Indigenous Peoples. It’s written by Joan Anim-Addo, Deirdre Osborne and Kadija Sesay George.

24 thoughts on “‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ by James Baldwin”

  1. I’ve only started reading Baldwin as an old man, and I think he is a genius. His writing is sublime. I’m actually sort of glad I didn’t read him in matric (and therefore failed) as I don’t think I was ready then either for the intensity of his language, nor to understand racism as a daily lived experience (for him and the families who populate his novels).


    1. I must admit I was tempted to rush out and buy his entire backlist on the strength of this one it was so good. The every day racism in this book is astonishing and yet I don’t think anything’s really changed. There’s a frightening scene involving a white cop who harasses the couple and lets them know he’s going to keep harassing them as if that’s a completely normal thing to do. They’re simply trying to buy tomatoes in a grocery store!


  2. Your joint review has reminded me that I want to read this book, having watched the film version recently. I’ll be keeping an eye out for your future reviews – what a great idea to read books together and compare your responses to them. I really enjoyed this first one!


  3. I have been meaning to read this for SO long. It’s been on my Novellas in November pile for a few years now. Sounds like I really need to get to it sooner rather than later!


      1. Ha – I was actually thinking about the logistics of trying to buddy read a book with my niece and get a written response! In some ways I’m glad to hear this 😀


        1. Yes, it was all very enthusiastic to begin with but life got in the way. Monet has just started university and I’m still finding my feet in a new job, so… 🤷🏻‍♀️

          Liked by 1 person

  4. What a wonderful thing to do – the joint review. I loved reading your different thoughts. I think I have Go Tell It On The Mountain on my shelves somewhere. I should try to find it and bump it up the tbr pile


    1. Thanks, Sharon, I like the sound of Go Tell it on the Mountain, which is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Giovanni’s Room is also listed.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a lovely project to do – hello Monet, and thank you for your thoughts. I really want to read this one but I REALLY want to read This is the Canon and think I must really put it top of my next book token splurge (when there’s a space on my TBR shelf again).


    1. This is the Canon is a handy resource to help shape your reading. The list of 50 books features some well known titles but also a bunch of new-to-me names, which is really helpful.


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