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Book Review :: The Unsettled by Ayana Mathis

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

In this second novel by Mathis, the three main characters — Dutchess, Ava, and Toussaint — are each unsettled in some significant way. Dutchess spends her nights wandering through the woods of Bonaparte, Alabama, a fictional town created by African Americans after the end of slavery, where she often encounters the ghosts of those who have come before, another group of unsettled people.

Ava left that town and hasn’t returned, moving around the country before settling into an unhappy marriage in New Jersey that she leaves at the beginning of the novel, ending up in Philadelphia. She begins by having to move into a homeless shelter, then into 248 Ephraim Avenue, a house for the Ark, a place reminiscent of the homes the Black Panthers created in the 1960s. (One should also note that 248 is twice 124, the house in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Mathis explores trauma in her own way.) Ava’s son Toussaint has had to follow her, but, once they land in the shelter, he begins skipping school and roaming around Philadelphia.

While the bulk of the plot focuses on Ava and Toussaint’s attempts to find some sort of stability and meaning, with forays into Dutchess’s attempts to keep the town of Bonaparte from completely disappearing, what undergirds the novel are the systems that have oppressed and continue to oppress African Americans, especially relating to land and property. In the same way that the characters struggle to find a place that is truly their own, Mathis shows how systemic racism and white supremacy have denied African Americans a home in this country.

The Unsettled by Ayana Mathis. Alfred A. Knopf, September 2023.

Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. Twitter @kevinbrownwrite

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