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.