Two things tend to worry me in novels by authors I’ve never read before. One is a setting in a period of American history that’s more than 50 years in the past; the other is a story told from the point of view of two or more narrators. For her debut novel, Saint Monkey, Jacinda Townsend has done both of them. She writes from both Audrey’s and Caroline’s point of view, and the book is set in the late 1950s. What’s more, she shifts the story’s setting back and forth between the Jim Crow-era South and Harlem. These are all difficult tricks to pull off, but Townsend executes them effortlessly.
Through the two girls eyes’, we see their Kentucky hometown. Townshend paints it colorfully, as a place where “the wind blows down from the mountain and starts to wear warm again on people’s bare arms” and a freak spring blizzard leaves “a covering of inches such that the strongest tulips find themselves peeking out of ice.” It’s also a place that offers few opportunities for its black residents, and where violence is always a possibility. When the army comes calling, looking for recruits for the Korean War, Audrey’s father sees an opening, believing that the G.I. Bill will help him get through college “with five hundred dollars a year to spare,” and eventually help him become a doctor. Unfortunately, a family member’s premonition comes true, and he is killed — just another poor man who dies in a war that rich men would start but never dare fight in.
Audrey and Caroline seem destined to get stuck in their small town forever. Although they both have big dreams, it isn’t until a talent scout, who her family figures for a “New York hustler,” hears Audrey play piano and offers her an opportunity to come to New York City and make $75 a week that Audrey gets out. “Takes me two months to make seventy-five dollars,” her mother says, eventually agreeing to send her daughter away to the big city.
What I gather is that Townsend is an unbelievably patient writer. The way she balances every element of the book — the time, the voices of the characters, the way the story blossoms — is evidence of an author who is willing to take time to make sure everything is just right. The two girls tell their stories in distinctively different ways; Caroline’s dialect never changes from the Southern slang she grew up speaking, while Audrey’s is smoothed out by her time in the North. We watch as the space between the two of them widens, as Audrey betrays the friendship and drifts further and further away from her roots, all against the backdrop of a scary and dangerous time for African Americans with references; Townshend mentions the murder of 14-year-old Emmet Till, the lynching of Mack Parker, and a president who is “deeply sympathetic” but does little to stop any of the violence.
From its overall tone to the period in which Saint Monkey takes place, comparisons to the work of James Baldwin are obvious. The little nod to Giovanni’s Room is an added clue that his fiction was an influence, but the book also reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s keen eye for everyday southern people. Most important, though, is the fact that Townsend is a fine writer who doesn’t let the historical setting weigh her story down, and juggles a pair of narrators without ever jumbling up the plot. She come out swinging with this first book, and gives us one of the best debuts of the year so far.