Review: If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

James Baldwin has long been a favourite author of mine because he created stories and characters that stay with me long after I’ve finished reading and subsequent re-reads of the same book always elicit some fresh new revelation. And after reading If Beale Street Could Talk, I can safely say nothing has changed in that respect.

Recently released as a film adaptation and garnering a well-deserved Best Supporting Role Oscar for actress Regina King, the novel tells the story of Tish and Fonny, two young lovers who have just got engaged. With the support of Tish’s family and Fonny’s father the two begin making plans for their life together, when Fonny is falsely accused of rape by a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers. In jail, with the odds heavily stacked against him, Tish, who has discovered that she is pregnant works to find evidence that could help free Fonny before their baby is born.

This novel is first and foremost a love story of two childhood friends whose love blossoms into more once they reach adulthood. The strength and intimacy of their love is instantly relatable to anyone who has been in love, and from the start, I was rooting for them to win. Their story is told from Tish’s perspective, who also serves as an omniscient narrator as the thoughts and actions of the other characters are also told through her. This is somewhat problematic, as it does make her an unreliable narrator, and it wasn’t always clear when the narrative was being speculative or a secondhand account.

The novel is also serves as a commentary on systemic racism in the justice system. Fonny’s friend Daniel, had also been falsely accused of a crime, and has a horrifying experience of the justice system, which more or less breaks his spirit once he is released. His story serves as a grim reminder of the terrible reality of being in a society that is systemically constructed to fear and subjugate African Americans, men in particular. It’s also a foreshadowing of what possibly awaits Fonny, if he is convicted.

Baldwin goes to lengths to debunk the myths surrounding African Americans, by humanising his characters in particular Fonny, who as an artist is far from the typical depictions of African American men at the time. Similarly, Tish’s family are shown to be strong and supportive of each other and go above and beyond to gather the funds and evidence to help Fonny’s case. Her family’s practical support is in contrast to Fonny’s mother’s neglect and self-righteous reliance that the Lord will prevail, again portraying another aspect of African American family life, which is a recurring theme in Baldwin’s work.

Though I enjoyed reading If Beale Could Talk, I wouldn’t say it was one of my favourites, but I would still recommend it to read, if only for the social discourse which runs right through. That said, I’ll probably read again and absolutely adore it. I’ve not seen the film adaptation yet, so can’t say how it compares, though I suspect it being Hollywood, it may well be a little more optimistic than the novel.

Have you read the novel and/or seen the film? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.

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