Today we have a review from Book Review Challenger Francis.
Francis chose to read ” Red Clay and Roses” by S.K. Nicholls
Here is her review.
Red Clay and Roses by S.K. Nicholls
Nicholls’ novel is a story of real life events overlaid with a façade of fiction. Knowing this gives the stories an emotional impact that might not otherwise be present if one thought the author had simply ‘made it all up’. There is immediacy to the writing – as if one were turning the pages of someone’s diary.
A book, written in the way Nicholls has written Red Clay and Roses, breaks many of the conventions that readers expect when reading a novel – not necessarily a bad thing. We can all do with a shake-up now and then.
The story weaves together the life events of a small town doctor and his wife, a black family who work for them and a young woman determined to break through some barriers of oppression (opening her own business) but not others (being involved with a coloured man) – all of these stories come, in one way or another, through the voice or intervention of nurse Hannah.
The stories are overwhelmingly ones of unfilled dreams or dreams snuffed out only as they are about to be fully realized. The reader has a sense of pulling over to the side of the road to peer into a car wreck – the tragedy is quite real.
The Southern location leaps off the pages with artfully done descriptions of places and settings. Small details, like the way in which Hannah stops to wipe the red clay from her shoes onto the grass, sparkle with realism. The author has done an excellent job of conveying the type of racism that is ingrained in people’s thoughts and behaviours to such a degree that their actions appear, to them at least, to be the natural order of things.
This book does present challenges. The author admits to not taking a stand on a controversial topic that is central to the work. The result seems to be that none of the characters take a stand either and that makes the retelling less believable than it could have been.
Take the ‘good’ doctor, as he is constantly called. The man is a pivotal character in the story, yet he remains a shadow figure – the reader rarely hears his name. His actions are at times saintly, underhanded, criminal, racist, or down-right cruel. Women emerge from his at-home clinic either laughing in relief or suffering a botched procedure. Yet, Sybil, a character who has many personal experiences with the man, never expresses an opinion. Moses, the black man who has spent years in servitude to the ‘good’ doctor might come closest to actually taking a stand, though his is one of a forbearance born of oppression. Perhaps the author is hoping to convey the fact that people simply have no choice so what would be the use of getting all worked up. If so, I salute her efforts. And maybe the ‘good’ doctor must remain a shadowy figure as he operates in a world where there are no easy answers – right or wrong.
The writing of a local dialect, be it geographical or time-based (always hard to do) works in some cases – when the old black man, Moses, tells his story the atmosphere is palpable. It runs out of steam in other cases. The way in which colloquial expressions of the ‘50’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s are used to the point of being somewhat comic and at times indecipherable to an audience unfamiliar with the times or place.
The book begins with nurse Hannah, the character who will bring the stories to the reader. But we lose sight of her as the book progresses and it becomes almost jarring when she pops back in to make a cameo appearance. When she re-emerges at the end of the book for a longish section of tying all the story threads together, the reader does not know her well enough to enter fully into the details provided about her work life.
Overall, a worthwhile read for the immediacy and powerful sense the book conveys of the racial oppression of black people in the South through a defining period of American history. A lesser but just as important theme is the way in which control of women was exercised through the denial of birth control and appropriate access to safe and affordable abortion services. These themes come together in the extreme suffering of the black women in the story.
All profits from the book sales are now going to The Russell Home for Atypical Children.