Book Review: Red at the Bone

My latest read from the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson. Told in vignettes, the novel opens at sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming-of-age ceremony at her grandparent’s house in New York, where she is surrounded by friends and family. As the book moves through various family members’ perspectives and memories, Woodson illustrates an intricate family history.

The book: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

This novel was surprisingly deep and delightful! Despite its short page count, Red at the Bone is powerful and almost instantly immersive. Woodson writes from the perspectives of five characters (Melody, her mother Iris, her father Aubrey, and her grandparents Sabe and Po’Boy) in an intimate and compelling way. While some characters are explored with more depth and nuance than others, I never felt like the novel suffered from lack of character development – an impressive feat for a novel that fits five distinct voices into just 200 pages.

Red at the Bone also compassionately explores topics including intergenerational trauma, sexuality, ambition, class and privilege, and parenthood. I thought that Woodson’s exploration of parenthood – largely done through the character of Iris, who became pregnant with Melody when she was 15, but still had ambitions for herself beyond motherhood – was especially skillful. I loved the way that Woodson flipped the script on some of the common tropes around teenage moms, and instead portrayed a mother who wanted to provide what she could for her child, but ultimately had the ambition and agency to realize that she wanted more from life. This portrayal worked well for me not only because it was different, but also because it was so compassionate: Woodson never insinuates that Iris is a bad person for choosing ambition over motherhood, nor does she suggest that Melody is inherently damaged from not having a close relationship with her mother.

I also liked how Woodson acknowledged some of the clichés and potential criticisms of her novel through the voices of her characters. In the vignette where Po’Boy describes falling in love with Sabe, he says “some people don’t believe that you can meet a person and know that’s the person for you for the rest of your life. I’m not going to try to argue with them on that.” Not only does this sentence convey Po’Boy’s love for Sabe, but it also acknowledges the cliché of the “love at first sight” trope. Woodson demonstrates this same self-awareness when Melody is recalling one of her earliest memories: “They say you don’t remember the early stuff, that you’re suddenly six and having your first memories. But that’s not true. I can go back to five and four and three.” That being said, I’m not sure that this kind of meta self-acknowledgement was sufficient to justify the “characters remembering their own birth” trope.

Overall, I really liked this book. While there were a couple things that didn’t quite work for me, and a couple topics that could have been explored more deeply (Iris and Melody’s mother-daughter relationship, for one), I found Red at the Bone to be a powerful and compelling read. The fact that Woodson managed to develop the novel’s characters and their intricate dynamic in under 200 pages makes it even more impressive. While I’m not actively rooting for this one to make the WP shortlist, I certainly wouldn’t be upset if it did. Based on my experience with this novel, I’d like to check out some of Woodson’s other works in the future.

Author: Hannah Celeste

Hi! I'm Hannah, a book-blogger from the Northeastern United States. I enjoy reading many genres, cooking and baking, doing yoga, and spending time with my two cats.

22 thoughts on “Book Review: Red at the Bone”

  1. This is one of the higher ratings for a Women’s Prize contender that I’ve seen in a while. I’m worried you all are terribly disappointed left and right this year! I love that quote about love at first sight — when I first met the man who is now my husband, it was as “wingman” for my roommate. I saw him and knew right away he was for me, even though he was smiling at her. Weird how the cliche can get tipped over; it’s how you sweep it up that makes the difference.

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    1. Haha! I was starting to feel that way too, so this read was such a relief. And that is a lovely story about your husband! I suppose “cliche” things are based somewhat in reality and do actually happen sometimes, otherwise they wouldn’t become cliches to begin with.

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        1. Oh, that’s surprising! I’ve also seen positive reception for Actress, Hamnet, and Girl Woman Other. Of the books that I’ve read, I think Girl Woman Other is the strongest contender for the Women’s Prize…but there are only like 3 books (so far) that I would be actively disappointed to see on the shortlist/awarded the prize.

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  2. Yes, I agree! The fact that it came out of the blue I can rationalize (since the actual event was also sudden and unexpected), but the emotional impact definitely could have been explored more!

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  3. Great review! I’m so glad you enjoyed this one. I was also impressed at how much the author managed to pack into so few pages, though there were definitely a few things I would’ve liked to see explored if the book had been given a little extra length (like that mother-daughter relationship!).

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    1. Thank you! It sounds like we had pretty similar thoughts on this one! I keep going back and forth on the things that could have been explored more (the mother-daughter relationship, the impact of 9/11, etc). On the one hand, I really appreciated the brevity of the novel…but on the other hand I don’t think that an extra 20-40ish pages would have hurt it!

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  4. Great review! I like how you phrased what Woodson did with motherhood: that she “flipped the script on some of the common tropes around teenage moms” and that it worked, most of all, because of how compassionate she was about Iris’s choices. I also liked how you pointed out the self-aware use of tropes; it really does redeem their triteness! Like you I don’t think this is a favorite but it’s definitely a worthwhile read. It’s a breath of fresh air from the more disappointing choices on the longlist, that’s for sure.

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  5. The trope of remembering one’s birth will never be justified in my opinion! It’s always so cringe-y. But I’m so glad to see you enjoyed this! I had a different experience with the book, but your review once again proves that different books work better or worse for different readers – and your review did help me see the book in a different light.

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    1. Yes, why do authors include these scenes?! And thank you! I read this right after The Most Fun We Ever Had (which is 500+ pages but doesn’t need to be), so I think I was especially impressed by the conciseness of this book because of that!!

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