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.

Triple Choice Tuesday

Triple Choice Tuesday: Book Around The Corner


Welcome to Triple Choice Tuesday. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers, writers and readers to share the names of three books that mean a lot to them. The idea is that it might raise the profile of certain books and introduce you to new titles, new authors and new bloggers.

Today’s guest is Emma, who blogs at Book Around The Corner.

Emma is French but decided to write her blog in English because she wanted to be in contact with readers outside of the Francophone world. “It worked beyond my expectations,” she tells me. “I also love the English language and its different yet familiar way to put our world into words.”

Emma says she has always loved reading but hated literature classes: “This explains why I’m a corporate executive and why I don’t have a degree in literature. To sum it up: I write about books without any academic baggage in literature or any writing skills and in a language that is not my native tongue. Yes, I’m cheeky.”

Without further ado, here are Emma’s choices:


pride-and-prejudiceA favourite book: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I’m not much into re-reading books even if reading Madame Bovary again as an adult has proven to be a fascinating experience. I had totally missed out on how Flaubert makes fun of society. I think that Pride and Prejudice is the only one I’ve read several times. It’s not a very original choice, I know. Why this one?

Pride and Prejudice is a rose. It’s lovely, it smells good and not offensive but it has thorns. Pride and Prejudice unveils the fate of women in Austen’s society. I love her feminism. I love that she created female characters who do not faint, cry or go into hysterics when things go tough. I admire her for showing to the world how limited a girl’s options were. And she’s had a witty sense of humour and incredible observation skills.

your-ticket-is-no-longer-validA book that changed my world: Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid by Romain Gary

I was 17 and something clicked between him and me. I fell in love with his prose, his turn of mind and his sense of humour. He always thinks out of the box and looks at things through a different prism. He was a humanist and his personal story influenced his writing. He was Jewish and emigrated to France in his teens. He was a diplomat and lived in different countries. His first wife was British and his second one American. He was truly a citizen of the world and assessed our world with amazing lucidity.

I would not recommend starting reading Gary with this one but with Promise at Dawn. There is more about this excellent French writer on my Reading Romain Gary page.

Going to meet the manA book that deserves a wider audience: Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin

Writing about Baldwin after writing about Gary makes me think that they have things in common. They know the feeling of being outsiders and being judged for it. Both lived in France and in America. Both remain kind towards humanity without ignoring the horror and its flaws. Both are lucid but hopeful.

No one I’ve read describes better the inner damages of racism than Baldwin.

Thanks, Emma, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!

But I’m not sure that my ever-growing TBR pile feels the same way. I need to add both Gary and Baldwin to the list asap. As for Jane Austen, what can I say? Lots of people have chosen this one as their favourite book ever since Triple Choice Tuesday began back in 2010, but I’ve yet to read it myself. I know. I know. I’ll go crawl back under my rock right now…

What do you think of Emma’s choices? Have you read any of these books?