Review: Ugly Ways

03Feb14

If I haven’t mentioned lately just how much I’m appreciating all the leads I receive from For Harriet, let me do so now. Thanks to the writers there, I found my third challenge for the year, one that is going to take quite some time, but will definitely be worthwhile. The list is called 100 Books by Black Women Everyone Must Read, and while “must” can be a problematic word for some people, it’s not one for me in this case, because the full sentence in my head goes “Here are 100 books by Black women everyone must read if they want to educate themselves beyond their own lived experiences.” Which I do.

My first choice from this particular list? Tina McElroy Ansa’s Ugly Ways.

Image taken from author's website - click through to visit.

Image taken from author’s website – click through to visit.

The Lovejoy sisters have come home to Mulberry, Georgia, to bury their mother, Mudear. This might sound sweet, but the truth is that Mudear was an emotionally abusive, miserable woman who–after experiencing a mysterious incident called “the Change” that could be anything from a mental breakdown to a horrible perimenopause–took to her bed one day and never left it. The sisters–Betty, Emily, and Annie Ruth–also have some strange quirks, and  the narrative cleverly leaves it open as to whether those traits are the result of horrible parenting or inherited mental illness. The novel, which takes place over the course of the days it takes to plan and have the funeral, explores how each of Mudear’s daughters and her husband, Ermest, cope with the guilt and relief that come when a painful presence is finally out of your life….physically, anyway. Ansa also devotes a few chapters Mudear’s point of view, as her spirit hovers over the family, critical to the end.

This novel is hard to read, but important, because it pokes at the undersides of some sacred cows, namely the Strong Black Woman and the Good Black Mother. Deprived of good mothering, the Lovejoy women are forced to discover their own strength. All three are wealthy and successful in their fields, but at what cost? Emily frequently considers throwing herself in the river as a viable option. Annie Ruth sees invisible cats everywhere. Betty seems to have it together a bit better than her sisters, but with a failed marriage and a secret abortion under her belt, she too has suffered the mental stress of being a daughter who was never properly mothered. It’s only when the sisters start talking to each other openly and honestly about Mudear and the way she treated them as children that they’re able to start healing as adult women, to become more than “strong.”

From Ernest and Mudear’s ruminations, we learn the inner secrets of their marriage, what Mudear was like before “the Change,” and what factors most likely drove her to it. Ernest and Mudear are very different at the beginning of their marriage than they are at the end of it, and watching their personalities change over the chapters lends a feeling of frustration and helplessness to the narrative. It’s definitely one of those novels you read to bear witness to the fact that family dynamics like this play out in real life every day, that there’s so much pain being passed down through generations, and that it’s hard to talk about it. Ansa’s  book opens up the door for good conversations about these issues.

While tough to read, this novel will definitely appeal to readers who like Gloria Naylor or Dorothy Allison. I plan to check out Ansa’s other work, in the hopes that her other books are just as arresting and thought-provoking.

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