Review: Libertie, by Kaitlyn Greenidge
This book was simply phenomenal. It's going to be in my top of 2021 list for sure.
It's a beautiful historical fiction set in immediately post-War of Succession in the United States, and centres around a Black mother-daughter duo in upstate New York. The mother is a doctor and she wants her daughter to become one too; the daughter wants something different, doesn't know what she wants exactly, and makes a lot of her choices in the context of not understanding or agreeing with her mother's politics and relationship to race (the mother can pass as white; the daughter, Libertie, cannot) and not understanding her own anger. The novel is a deftly interwoven tapestry of multiple different themes, based (loosely) on the life of Susan Smith McKinney Seward, the first black doctor in the state of New York and a woman I definitely want to learn more about now: race, gender, marriage, family, and colourism in a way that feels both very true to the time it is set in, but also a book that is modern enough in its scope and exploration of those themes that reading it in 2021 doesn't feel too much like historical fiction.
I'm not going to pretend to be able to fully understand or speak with any kind of assurance on the relationship the characters in this novel have with their race or what their dreams of the future look like for them, since I am a white woman who has never had to reckon with those questions or fears. The part of the novel I was able to most identify with and fully inhabit was the difficult, complex relationship Libertie, the central character and first-person narrator, has with her mother. She both worships her mother and also vastly disagrees with her, wants to please her more than anything but doesn't quite know how and makes so many choices in order to pre-emptively disappoint her mother (the perfect example of walking before the referee even shows the red card), and then how she punishes the both of them with her own guilt and anger and restlessness and dissatisfaction.
I found the plot of the novel almost incidental to how psychologically astute Kaitlyn Greenidge is throughout the writing, immersing us so fully inside Libertie's mind while also giving us enough glimpses of the other character that we can question her judgements and assumptions even while being inside her head. The sense of place and lush atmospheric details she gives for the three discrete locations in the narrative is excellent, and leads to a story that is completely immersive and wholly took over my imagination while I was inside it. I legitimately had to take a few minutes to bring myself back to the real world when I had to leave this book to get back to doing the things I needed to do, like work or feed myself.
Basically this is a beautiful, aching book that is definitely going to be in my top of 2021 list (that's going to be such a hard list to make, good grief) and I most definitely, definitely recommend it. It's just so... ugh. Good.