The narrator of Deón’s debut novel lives and dies (really dies — she speaks to the readers as a ghost from the afterlife) in the antebellum South. Naomi is born in secret on an Alabama plantation to a slave woman whose sole purpose is to give birth to more slaves — hopefully males. Under the protection of her older sister Hazel, Naomi manages to go unnoticed on the plantation by Massa Hilden for the first 15 years of her life, hiding beneath a barrel during the repeated, ritualized rapes that her mother endures. Naomi and her sister call the knocking behind the wall of their mother’s bedroom “Momma’s music.”
When Massa Hilden decides to make Hazel his new breeder, in a moment of deep terror and fierce protection of her mother and sister, Naomi spears Massa Hilden with a fire poker and then runs north, finding shelter in Conyers, Georgia, in a brothel owned by a hardened white woman named Cynthia.
Cynthia is an illustration of the complexity of Deon’s characters. She is a cynical, alcoholic prostitute who has experienced more than her own share of suffering, but beneath her mean-as-a-snake exterior, she is driven to protect Naomi — maybe even kill or die for her.
During Naomi’s two years taking a strange sort of refuge in the brothel, she falls in love with the wrong man and winds up pregnant. The reader can see, before Naomi does, that Jeremy, a white piano player with a hankering for gambling, is trouble. And yet we can’t help but want Naomi — after all the brutality she has experienced — to feel the joy, have the sex, and fall in love with Jeremy even if we know it won’t last.
Charles, the sweet man we know she should choose, becomes an undying friend. His love resonates with her even after her death, and he ends up being an unofficial adopted father to her daughter.
At the end of Naomi’s time at the brothel, she is 17 years old, near bursting with pregnancy, and hiding from bounty hunters. Before she is killed, she gives birth to a blonde, pink-skinned baby girl — Josephine — who, through an act of grace, is saved and handed over to Annie Graham, a nearby plantation mistress who desperately wants a child of her own.
At the moment of her death, Naomi chooses to stay with her daughter as a hovering presence who achingly attempts to mother from beyond the grave.
Deón has faith in her readers. She begins the story at the scene of Naomi’s death — Josephine’s birth — and plays with time by taking the reader both back in Naomi’s life and forward as we watch Josey grow up. If there is any initial disorientation by the movement of time, it is well worth the journey. The plot is a complex, intricately braided story of a mother’s life alongside her daughter’s and it is held together by Deón’s beautifully visual style, skillful characterization, and ability to create suspense:
The hanging sheet that separates the room billows as Josey run through it, behind it, already undressing. She rolls her new stockins up her bug-bitten legs, then buttons her skirt, her blouse, twirls on her way back through the sheet. She poses. Her blouse is hanging lopsided off her shoulder, her stockings are sagging at her knees, and her skirt is slid down on one side.
Deón pays unsparing attention to the constraints that institutional slavery put on slave women. And while we witness the pain and physical exploitation of women’s bodies, the deep emotional brutality endured by these women is equally excruciating. The profound maternal love of slave women is impeded. Mothers are tragically rendered powerless to protect and love their children. Naomi is witness to the rapes of both her mother and her daughter, and in both cases, she tries desperately and ineffectively to defend them. It seems that her desire for revenge is fruitless because in slavery, “[a]in’t no justice. Only grace.”
But the women in Grace are not completely numbed by the forces against them. Love persistently reaches for them. When Josey begins to feel the flutters of love for Jackson, a handsome boy that has grown up on the plantation with Josey, Naomi knows the motherly advice she wishes she could share with her even as she understands:
You cain’t reason with a fifteen-year-old girl who’s convinced she’s in love.
If I could talk to Josey, I’d tell her to always enjoy the present. To live in it. I’d tell her about love, too. I’d tell her the love she has for this boy, she’ll feel again. I’d tell her about real love. Tell her to not be fooled by what feels real.
It seems that love itself is not enough to protect the men and women in this story. It isn’t enough to keep Naomi’s mother alive, it can’t turn Jeremy away from his gambling, or give Naomi the power to stop the horrendous rape she watches her daughter endure. Love does not provide Charles the resources or know-how to comfort and heal Josey after she’s been brutalized. In this novel, the love is brushed on all sides by tragedy.
I can’t tell you if or how, as suspense drives this story toward its ending, these beautiful and enduring characters will be given grace.