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On Teeth and Jacqueline Woodson's Red at the Bone

What does it mean when we say something has teeth? Are we referring to a thing's ferocity, or to the potential harm it could inflict? Commonly used to explain an authority to compel, I can't help but think, too, of other things with teeth: a comb, a saw, a smile. With those more nuanced definitions in place, here's an assertion: Jacqueline Woodson's Red at the Bone has all the teeth.

Red at the Bone is fierce. There is a tension, the sense of a body coiled ready for a fight, coursing through all 196 pages of this powerful novel. It opens benignly enough: a gorgeous May evening,16-year-old Melody's coming of age ceremony.

"This was their perfect moment. ...This house with its generations cheering, saying Dance, y'all and Ashé and The ancestors are in the house, say what? and everything and everyone around me was their dream come true now. If this moment was a sentence, I'd be the period."

The first line of the book, however, hints at the truth that this is no fairy tale: "But that afternoon there was an orchestra playing." That first word, covered over in contrast, tells us there is more to this story, more to every story that has ever been. Melody describes it as "something moving through me like a razor in my chest - I didn't know then if it was rage or sadness or fear," and it is all these things plus the perfect moment. The ferocity lies in the truth of life: that sometimes we have to fight tooth and nail, to bite and spit and claw our way to ourselves. Melody knows this. Iris, her mother, knows this. In fact, all of the women in this book embody this tension. Even if the teeth of this book barely graze you, it's going to hurt.

Woodson is a poet, a storyteller, an artisan working in words, and there can be no doubt that what she crafts stands with authority. Red at the Bone asserts its authority in every small segment of narrative and in the deft hand weaving each voice and each section together. The story moves back and forth in time, between young love and lust and identity and age and elders and legacy and pain, and though the pea may seem to be hidden under the shell, you are never uncertain about Woodson's authority. This is a book that compels. But it is also a swift untangling of the snarls it creates. The comb wielded by your less-nice aunt, the one that will get your head tidied up, even if it hurts in the process. The saw that cuts, but only so as to build again. And lord, it is the smile. Because even though it may be clouded at times, the smile where your teeth show is all over this book, too. The full-throated belly laugh, head thrown back in glee or pleasure, or even the smile through tears of loss mingled with hope - it is all these things.

It has teeth, I tell you.


Red at the Bone is one of 16 longlisted titles being considered for the 2020 Women's Prize for Fiction. For the full list, click here. The shortlist of 6 will be announced on April 22. The prize is announced on June 3. For other reviewed titles on the longlist, see below:


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