I am sitting at my desk with three Susan Straight books: her 1990 debut, Aquaboogie, which won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize and ranks on my very short “masterpiece” list, 2006’s A Million Nightingales, the fictionalized story of a freed Louisiana slave named Manon Baldwin, called Moinette in the book, and 2010’s Take One Candle Light a Room, a story about Moinette’s many current-day descendants, specifically FX Antoine, and her troubled godson, Victor.
Before discussing Take One Candle Light a Room, some background on Susan Straight is in order. A Caucasian, she married an African-American named Dwayne Sims. The couple, who reside in Riverside, bore three daughters. Though they divorced, Straight remains close both to her ex-husband and his extended family. She has made writing about the black community her life’s work, setting her characters in a fictionalized Riverside called Rio Seco. In our incredibly fraught world of political correctness and agonized race relations, it takes tremendous courage for a white writer to write about the black community. Arguably, Straight has “inside” access via her family, but this is no way diminishes her unflinching rendition of what it means, even in our “enlightened” era, to be black in America. Straight writes not as a white woman looking in, but as a black individual looking out. What she sees, in finely wrought writing, sears the heart and soul. I respect and admire her work tremendously.
Which is why it breaks my heart to say Take One Candle Light a Room doesn’t work.
Any time a reader opens a novel, he or she must be prepared to suspend disbelief. We turn ourselves over to an author trustingly, hoping our need to be told a story will be satisfied. If we are very lucky, our wish is granted extravagantly, as in Aquaboogie. (If you haven’t read Aquaboogie, run to your nearest independent bookshop and buy a copy this instant.) But sometimes a story fails to enrapture us, and our disbelief snaps firmly back into place. No, a little voice whispers, interrupting our reading. Life doesn’t work that way. Maybe we start noticing how many plot twists are occurring in a mere 24 hours. Or we become confused by the cast of characters, who outnumber the walk-ons in War and Peace. Who are all these people, and do they really need to be here? Perhaps worst of all is the tale that reaches an ending so unbelievable, so impossibly unrealistic in every way, that the reader tosses up her hands.
In Take One Candle Light a Room we are once again in Rio Seco, in a secluded section called Sarrat. Sarrat is deep in the orange groves, inhabited by the Antoine family and close friends. The tightly knit group of Louisiana Creoles living within Sarrat literally lock their gates against strangers nightly. Outsiders, even African Americans, are not exactly welcome. Neither is leaving this thickly overgrown nest of family.
FX—Fantine Xavaierene Antoine—has done just that. A travel writer, she dashes about the globe, writing copy for upscale magazines. An intrepid traveler, she is unfazed by snow, ice, language barriers. She hides behind a uniform of 20 white shirts, 20 black shirts, jeans, boots, and the ability to pass as any number of ethnicities: Hawaiian, pan-Asian, Hispanic. Lying about her identity is second nature. Her family’s incomprehension of her choices, her life, and her efforts to pass pull at her, but are insufficient to keep her home. Nor, to her family’s dismay, is she married. At 39, she’s unlikely ever to settle down.
FX’s identity troubles, set against the inexorable pull of family, are more than sufficient material for a fine novel. But Straight’s agenda is larger than passing, taking in the continued mistreatment of and within black society, gang violence, and rape.
Fantine grew up in Sarrat with a legacy of rape. In Sarrat, Louisiana, her ancestral home, a serial rapist attacked three of her mother’s best friends. A fourth girl, Anjolie, the most beautiful of all, was kept home by her mother, locked in an armoire. She was untouched but grew up agoraphobic. Fantine’s father, Antoine, enraged at the white community’s dismissive response to the crimes, smuggled four of the teenaged girls to California, then killed the rapist, Mr. McQuine.
The girls eventually migrated to California’s Sarrat, built by Antoine and his lifelong friend, Gustave, both of whom were orphaned by flooding levees as small children. All of the girls married men in this second Sarrat, giving rise to Fantine’s dearest friends, including Glorette, daughter of Gustave and Anjolie. Glorette has the kind of beauty that only brings ruin; after giving birth to Victor, she becomes a crack addict, streetwalking to support her habit. She ends up murdered, her body dumped in a shopping cart, her death unsolved. Take One Candle Light a Room opens on the five-year anniversary of her death, as the women of Sarrat cook in preparation for her memorial.
Fantine, meanwhile, has grown and gone, but keeps in close contact with the intellectually gifted Victor. As his godmother, or Marraine, she cultivates his talents, bringing him books, notebooks, postcards printed with images. She encourages him to attend community college, hoping he’ll get into USC.
Victor is a sensitive young man who, strangely, is very fond of The Who, The Average White Band, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. More improbably, his troubles begin with winning tickets to a Dave Matthews concert. (I confess my dislike of the Dave Matthews band made this worse for me. This from the woman whose first novel is titled after a song by the mighty Parliament Funkadelic? ) Victor, who has no car, is in bad company—Jazen and Alfonso, children of Sarrat, now grown and up to no good. Alfonso is recently out of prison; now he’s dealing crack with Jazen. But he has a car, and Victor needs a ride into Los Angeles to get his Dave Matthews tickets.