If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin: when love is growing up

Written half a century ago and read against the backdrop of “Black Lives Matter” this modern classic is a reminder of the persistence of racial injustice, given added authenticity by the black American author’s personal experience. Nineteen-year-old Tish has a steady job and close-knit family, who accept with almost unbelievable equanimity her unplanned pregnancy, just when her fiancé and childhood sweetheart Fonny, who has ambitions to be a sculptor, has been arrested for a serious crime on a charge trumped up by a vicious racist white police officer. Made all the more poignant by the depth of the couple’s love, this novel is an unflinching portrayal of how the cards may be stacked to destroy the lives of an innocent couple simply because of their colour.

The approach is unusual in that the male author sets himself the challenge of getting inside the mind of a young woman, even to the extent of describing her orgasm. James Baldwin is also experimental in the flexible structure of the book. Tish narrates the novel in the first person, presumably to involve the reader in a more vivid experience of the drama, but when it suits him he replaces her voice with his own observations in his own style, as when he launches into an analysis of the mental differences between women and men. To portray events in which, say, Fonny’s friend Daniel is previously framed by the police and put in prison, or Tish’s mother Sharon visits Puerto Rico to make contact with the woman who has been manipulated into picking Fonny out of an identity parade, the author simply takes “writer’s licence” and has Tish describe scenes as if she has witnessed them in person.

With strong opening scenes, dialogues and sense of place, as the facts are revealed, I found myself engrossed in how they would play out. Although it seems inevitable that Fonny would be found guilty, would some twist expose a fatal flaw in the prosecution? The sympathetic white lawyer might be prepared to work virtually “pro bono”, but how would Tish’s family and Fonny’s loving but weak father Frank manage to scrape together the money for his bail, without themselves taking to illegal activities which might cause them to fall foul of the law?

The “bad” characters are too often caricatures with no redeeming features, like Fonny’s religiously fanatical mother who seems inexplicably hostile towards him – most mothers love their sons. His thinly sketched sisters are also pointlessly disagreeable. Although I am often intrigued by ambiguous or inconclusive situations leaving one free to form one’s own conclusion, in this case I was surprised and disappointed by an ending so abrupt as to seem incomplete. Yet perhaps for Baldwin, the development of specific scenes was more important than the arc of a plot.

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