Memphis – the debut novel from Tara M. Stringfellow – tells the multigenerational story of the women of the North family and their dramatic lives in the titular Tennessean city. Matriarch Hazel is nine months pregnant with Miriam when her husband Myron is lynched by his fellow cops. As an adult, Miriam escapes her violent marriage with her daughters, Joan and Mya, to live with her sister August, and August’s son, Derek. But when they were younger, Derek did something awful to Joan, who can hardly bear to be in the same room with him. And Miriam’s husband isn’t willing to let his family go without a fight.
There’s an awful lot going on in Memphis; arguably more than the slim volume can comfortably support. The story is told in short chapters that span the years between 1937 and 2003, but even within those delineated sections there are often flashbacks. Keeping the various intersecting narrative threads of Hazel, Miriam, Joan and August in your head (Mya is the sole North woman not to get her own POV chapters) can be difficult. When you combine that structure with a chronic overabundance of incident, a degree of airlessness permeates. You wish that things would just stop happening to these women for a few minutes so we could really get the chance to know them. It doesn’t help that there’s an unfortunate tendency for the characters to be defined solely by their main talent rather than their personality as a whole; August has an incredible voice, Joan is a remarkable artist etc.
Still, the relationship between the women is drawn with tremendous affection, particularly the two pairs of sisters. The way Miriam and August and Joan and Mya will go to bat for each other against any foe, however intimidating, is both moving and often quite funny – especially when it’s baby of the family Mya staring down men three times her age and twice her height.
Stringfellow does an admirable job of tracking the journey of inherited trauma, and the gargantuan task of overcoming the fallout from wrongs perpetuated generations ago. She paints a beautiful collective portrait of a community of brave, brilliant Black women, who have survived so much, and still have the strength to keep moving forward in the face of tremendous challenges. In prose that sings with love and admiration, she tells of the way they buoy each other up in their lowest moments. Thanks to this collective spirit, she leaves us with the hope that, just as the lives of Miriam and August are a little easier than Hazel’s, perhaps Joan and Mya will have fewer challenges to surmount than their mother did.
Tara M. Stringfellow wanted to write a glowing tribute to her home city and the Black women of the South, and she succeeded. Although the narrative structure of her novel is overly complicated and too burdened with incident, and the individual characterisations could have benefited from more texture, the love she has for the community that raised her and sustains her makes Memphis shine.
Memphis is published by John Murray on 7 April 2022