I've enjoyed Morrison's *Beloved* and *The Bluest Eye* for years, but hadn't heard of *Tar Baby* until recently. Now that I've listened to *Tar Baby*, though, it's quickly replaced *The Bluest Eye* as my favorite Morrison text!
*Tar Baby* is a rich, complex love story that explores many questions, particularly those of race solidarity, heritage, and trauma. Valerian Street, a rich white retiree, lives on a tiny island in the Caribbean with his troubled younger wife, Margaret, as well as two faithful old servants, Sydney and Ondine—both black. Sydney and Ondine have long acted as guardians for their orphaned mixed-race niece, Jadine Childs, now 25 years old, a college graduate, and a successful international fashion model.
The household is thrown into chaos when Margaret discovers a strange black man hiding in her closet. This man, known as “Son,” has been squatting in the house for several days, yet Valerian inexplicably invites him to stay at the house as an honored guest. Jadine, though initially repulsed by the filthy, scruffy intruder, soon begins a clandestine sexual relationship with him. The ensuing romance drives most of the remainder of the novel and forms the backdrop for Morrison's provocative questions regarding race, gender, love, and power.
Desiree Coleman's narration of this book is excellent. I am moderately hearing-impaired, yet had very little trouble understanding her. The ways in which she dramatizes various characters' voices are consistent and appropriate--neither boringly bland nor over-the-top. Her narration was smooth and distraction-free, allowing me to get lost in Morrison's story instead of Coleman's reading.
In short, highly recommended!
Juani Casas is a 25-year-old Cuban American exile living in Chicago with her family and managing the family business, a lavanderia (laundromat). Throughout the novel, she interrogates the nature of memory as she constructs and deconstructs various “memories” in an effort to understand how they shape her and the people around her.
Juani and her family fled Cuba when she was very young, so her recollections of the place are mostly vague, colorful images or narrative sequences that she’s technically too young to remember. “Cuba” thus takes on mythic proportions for her: it is the place where she thinks she can discover the missing pieces of herself and thereby feel whole at last. Although she doesn’t physically visit Cuba in the novel, a key element of her growth and self-discovery is her gradual decision to leave the lavanderia and travel to Cuba, after which she hopes to embark on some sort of career of her own.
Juani’s relationship to her family is similar to those of many immigrant children struggling to navigate biculturalism. The family is extremely close-knit—almost a self-sufficient community of their own—and Juani must learn how to differentiate herself from her family while still maintaining their mutual love and connection.
My favorite aspect of the novel is how colorfully Obejas draws her characters. Her background in short-story writing serves her well. Aside from Juani, the characters are not necessarily all that complex, but they're entertaining and fairly easy to remember from chapter to chapter—Caridad, the battered wife; Jimmy, her sleazebag husband; Gina, Juani's semi-closeted lover who got away; etc. I'm almost sorry that I won't be hearing more about them, now that I've finished the book.
The emotional affect of the narration was way off. At first, I seriously wondered whether I was listening to a computer program reading instead of a person. Even after the narration developed a little more vocal variety, the emotions failed to match the words being read (a moment of trauma would sound like an amusing anecdote, for example). I only made it to the end of the audiobook because I needed to for a project. *Memory Mambo* appears to be the only book available on Audible from this narrator so far, so maybe the painful sing-song was due to a first-timer's nerves or inexperience. Whatever the reason, the shoddy narration very nearly ruined this book for me ... be forewarned.
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