Review – The Untelling by Tayari Jones
“I wanted to tell him that I knew how he felt, though I probably did not. How can you know what another person is going through when your own life is so different from his? People had done this to me often enough, telling they knew how I felt because they had suffered this or that loss, felt some sort of pain. The words were in my mouth to tell Lawrence that I knew what it was not to be able to make the family you want to have, not because you are a bad person or because you haven’t tried hard enough, but because you just can’t. I could predict his response, his words, polite enough, thanking me for my empathy, my generosity of spirit. And I could imagine his thoughts, that no, I couldn’t possibly empathize. Our situations were not the same at all.” (215)
I picked up The Untelling on a whim from my library, intrigued by the cover and the dust jacket summary. I didn’t expect to read it, actually. I thought it would be one of those books that I had every intention of reading, but never got to, since it wasn’t actually on my list of books to be read. So when I picked it up, feeling the need for a drama after all the dystopian books I’d been reading, I surprised myself by finishing it so quickly. I really liked this book and it was exactly what I needed.
Aria, full name Ariadne, Jackson is only 9 years old when her father and infant sister are killed in a car accident. Her entire family was in the car and they watch the horror unfold. Unhurt and guilty, Aria and her sister Hermione grow up unsure of how to navigate their new world. They both make bad decisions, with Hermione marrying a man who was 5 years older than her father was, and Aria going from guy to guy. But that was when they were kids, now they are grown up and Hermione has her family and Aria is trying to start one of her own. She lives with her roommate Rochelle in a run-down neighborhood, not because they have to but because they want to. Aria has been dating Dwayne for a couple months when she finds out she’s pregnant. But she’s not really worried about telling him, she’s sure that’s he won’t mind starting a family.
But things change irrevocably for Aria. Everything she knew to be true becomes false when she discovers something about herself. The worst part is that she can’t bear to tell anyone, least of all Dwayne.
I really admired Aria, despite all of the mistakes she makes. She seemed so real and there are never any easy answers to her problems. She was so believable and, by the end, I felt like she was a friend of mine. Aria and I have had completely different lives, but I felt like I could empathize with her completely. Then I got to the quote above and it seemed like she was talking to me directly and I think that is a huge part of this story: we’ll all have different experiences. We all hold our grief differently, it changes our lives one way or another no matter what we do or say and no one else can say anything about it either. We are going to deal with things differently, no matter what, and for anyone to say that they “understand” is, on some level, lying. You can’t “understand,” you can empathize, you can sympathize, but you can’t really understand.
There are so many other subtle layers to this novel and Jones handles them all with grace, from questions of money and class and what that means for friends, to questions of gender and race. This is a novel that will appeal to a lot of people (and I personally think that everyone and their mom should read it), but I think especially those interested in the Women Unbound challenge or the Color Me Brown challenge from August.
So go read this!: now| tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR pile
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Also check out Tayari Jones’s blog!