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.