Sugar, set primarily in 1950s American South, opens with the brutal murder of a girl:
Jude was dead.
On a day when the air held a promise of summer and people laughed aloud, putting aside for a brief moment their condition, color and where they ranked among humanity, Jude, dangling on the end of childhood and reaching out toward womanhood, should have been giggling with others her age among the sassafras or dipping her bare feet in Hodges Lake and shivering against the winter chill it still clutched. Instead she was dead.
The book continues with the story of Sugar, a young prostitute, who finds herself in a small town where most of the black women are hostile to her very presence. It also covers the relationship between Sugar and Pearl, the mother of the murdered girl and the only woman in Bigelow who welcomes Sugar to the small town. In the course of their growing relationship, McFadden also narrates the sad history of Sugar’s life.
It is clear from the book that the author knows her community and her writing is warm and accessible. My problem with the book is twofold. The first has to do my own literary memory and the place of Sugar within it. The characters in Sugar felt recognizable given that I’m very familiar with literature by African-American writers. That, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. However, McFadden’s characters do not improve upon nor present a new or novel insight into these already-familiar characters. And this is truly a shame. Because, and this is my second problem with the book, McFadden fails to take advantage of storylines made possible by her own rendering of Sugar’s story. She very successfully lays the groundwork and setting for a character to experience a new way of being but then opts not to take the character down that path. She leaves her characters perpetually stuck in front these doors, all dressed up with no where to go. This invariably leads to an unsatisfactory and puzzling ending, with choices made that do not reflect the paths taken by the characters in the book. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading Sugar and I recommend it.
Sugar, written ten years ago, is McFadden’s debut novel. And it shows all the hallmarks of an extremely good storyteller, who with brevity of words depicts the lives of her characters with such grace, understanding and sympathy. It is a story with many interesting corners and I’m eager to read later works by Bernice McFadden.
Have you read Sugar? Have you read any of McFadden’s later works? Which would you recommend?