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Hearing Voices : Learning life while keeping house : THE GOOD NEGRESS, By A.J. Verdelle (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill: $19.95; 299 pp.)

June 04, 1995|Diana Abu-Jaber | Diana Abu-Jaber teaches at the University of Oregon. She is the author of "Arabian Jazz."

With the current literary rage for "new voices," a reader may sometimes feel overwhelmed by the cacophony. To find a truly unique and resonant work is exciting. In this company, A.J. Verdelle's first novel resounds, her vibrant prose ringing clear.

The light and spirit of "The Good Negress" are contained in the voice of the narrator, young Denise Palms. It is a voice lush and supple, filled with the rhythms of life in an African-American community in rural Virginia.

Denise is left by her struggling and widowed mother to stay with her grandmother in the country. At first she protests, but in her grandmother Denise finds an educator and model. Between housekeeping and cooking, her character is forged. The language of home and food become her primary language, a natural element in which Denise finds a form of personal expression.

Language, in all its shapes and styles, is as realized and rewarding an element of this novel as are its characters. The act of naming foregrounds character. At first our narrator is called Baby Sister, then Neesy, Deneese, then finally Denise. She negotiates the names she is given as well as the desires of her family. Denise's sense of self and family is marked by her referring to her mother as Margarete. "I knew we agreed on a few things," she says, "the power of changing subjects, the serious significance of the wearing of clothes, the control we have over the naming of names, and how in truth the change of name can change the person, even if the change is done in secret, or is done by somebody else."

Denise is also shaped by her duties, her unending chores and the needs of the people around her. Her work is both a form of responsibility and a way of communicating with her family. Denise says of her cooking, "Ain't much food cain't show you 'bout people."

If cooking is a kind of speaking, then eating may be a form of hearing. This is the central dynamic of the novel: Denise cooking, her family eating. The plot is interwoven with references to food. After years of separation, she is reunited with her mother and brothers in Detroit in order to cook for them and Margarete's new baby. Denise believes that a poor, fatty diet--culminating in an Easter ham--is what led to her father's fatal stroke. And through cooking, she introduces herself to her stepfather, Big Jim.

Such kitchen work is also a part of the sadness of this novel. As the novel's title suggest, Denise's heart and mind are subjugated by her duties. The possibilities for this novel's young black men and women, growing up in 1963 in rural South or industrial North, seem limited and dreary. Denise's eldest brother David grinds himself into punishing labor as a furniture mover. Denise observes his "His shut-more-than-yesterday eyes. His bent-more-than-last-week head. His fantasies descending, dissolving with his days."

Her free-spirited and handsome brother Luke Edward is destined for an even harder path. He manages to hold on to his easy style, but their grandmother warns against this. "She told Luke more than several times he was spoilt and warn't no place for a spoilt Negro man in no world like this one." While he manages to charm the ladies, he is also forced out of the house by his stepfather, punished for stealing and finally chased from town by a former employer.

Denise's appointed destiny seems to be the life of the house, of menial labors, like her mother's life, producing children and working at a hair dresser's. Once she has returned to Detroit, however, this fate is challenged by a teacher, Miss Gloria Pearson. Miss Pearson presents Denise with the possibility of a new education: not, this time, of the home, but of English. Education, she tells Denise, is the key to a better life, and such education comes through the channel of language.

"Missus Gloria Pearson say the only thing she want me to think about is learnin to speak the king's English. I told Missus Pearson I wants to learn, and she say, 'Say I want.' "

The paradox of "The Good Negress" is that in trying to follow Miss Pearson's instructions toward fulfillment, Denise must work to suppress another part of herself: the heady, bluesy, complex voice that tells this story and swings and sways the reader with its telling. Independence appears to involve dependence on a white, Northern style of expression.

This paradox creates a clash at the very center of Denise's life. When Denise is removed from school in order to tend to her new baby sister, Miss Pearson decides to call on Margarete. She attempts to plead for Denise's return, and this attempt upsets and confuses both Denise and her mother. Codes of behavior slap up against each other. Denise thinks: "But Missus Pearson had a righteous nerve coming up in Margarete's house like that . . . coming in to tell a lady what she ought to do with her own daughter."

Formally, the structure of the novel follows the nuances and loops of Denise's voice and imagination. Given to dreaming, she swoops between spells and memories, reverie and concentration. While this effect adds to the organic quality of the narrative, it can, at times, be confusing. There are moments that read more like dream-state than novel; there are flashbacks and flash-forwards that emerge unexpectedly, to uncertain effect.

Still, despite these fluctuations, the language and sensibility remain true, and the story spills forth in a broad cape, its prose filled with the enchantment of Denise's telling. Haunting, at times mystical, this novel has all the dimension and beauty of song. To read "The Good Negress" is to fall under a spell, to open a window, to fly.

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