Author: J. California Cooper
Genre: Historical Fiction
Number of Pages: 240
This novel tore my heart to pieces and stomped on them and the really weird thing was, it was totally worth it. I don’t understand how classic African-American writers like Alice Walker and Maya Angelou are practically household names, yet I had never heard of J. California Cooper until I came across this novel in a used book store. It’s obvious from the beginning that Family is going to have painful subject matter, since the whole thing is about slavery. The surprising thing is how much beauty runs throughout it, too.
It reminded me a little bit of The Lovely Bones in how it was emotionally devastating but it was also infused with a sense of hope. The novel is narrated by Always, a slave woman who is raped by her master and has several children by him. At first I thought she was going to be the main character and focal point of the story, but not exactly. Early on in the book she desperately tries to poison her children and herself, attempting to save them from a lifetime of sexual violence and cruelty. Her children live, but Always successfully takes her own life. In the afterlife she observes the surprising turns her children’s lives take, past the point where slavery ends.
Always’ death isn’t really a spoiler, it happens pretty early in the story and since I didn’t know what to expect, it surprised the hell out of me. There are a lot of characters in this novel throughout several generations and there were times when I was confused. Family has the feel of an epic even though it’s a relatively quick read, not since The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman has a story of such scope been successfully delivered with relative brevity.
This novel made me feel so many emotions- sadness, anger, disgust, horror, and even fleeting moments of joy. It does a phenomenal job at portraying the absolute sense of hopelessness slaves must have felt, and the way women gave up their bodies to their masters when they were children and that was just totally normal. There’s a lot of sexual assault in this book (all of which is crucial to the storyline) but none of it is graphic, sometimes I felt too emotionally exhausted to keep reading but I knew I needed to see how the story ended. The way things turned out was surprising, heart wrenching, and ultimately very satisfying.