Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Book Review: All Aunt Hagar's Children

All Aunt Hagar's Childen by Edward P. Jones

This short story collection may have been the only thing I’ve read by Jones, but from this alone I am tempted to rank him among my favorite writers. In a way, his writing reminds me of Alice Munro. He weaves a character’s rich history with a voice that expresses a character’s isolation even among many others. He writes in a language that is comfortable to read, from sentence structure to tone. The characters themselves are rich and varied, even though they often suffer a plight that I could never understand.

I’ve often been intimidated by African-American writing, believing the experiences being described would be entirely alien to me. I’ve come to realize there’s something in the alienation of the African-American experience with which I associate. There is something in it that is similar to Céline. There something existential in all of it.

I’d read “A Rich Man” in, I think, the Best American series, and though the story didn’t necessarily linger and leave me haunted the way some stories have, I knew then that I wanted to read more. Seeing this collection along with Jones’s novel The Known World receive accolades only reinforced that I would need to read Jones. I was not disappointed. It took me a long time to get through because of other obligations, but flipping back through the stories, I’m reminded of their qualities. They are specific and gritty, fantastical and surreal, and all the time heartfelt.

One of the things linking most of the stories is Washington, DC. The city is nearly a character in the stories. It is a place where some long to go, and a place where others have come. Jones describes the city’s streets and neighborhoods, from the time where there was nothing across the Potomac in Virginia but pastures, to the near present. After reading these stories I feel like I know the city better than some of the people I know.

These are good stories. This is a good collection. I’m tempted to rank it right up there with Rock Springs.

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