Overall: 4/5 stars.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a love story told from the point of view of Tish Rivers, about her life and her lover Fonny Hunt, who is wrongly imprisoned soon after Tish becomes pregnant with his child. Tish has to persevere and work together with her family and Fonny’s to do all they can to get Fonny out of prison. They have no choice but to keep their spirits and resolve in tact in the midst of an unjust system and society.
I’d heard highly of James Baldwin and thought I’d give his work a shot. This was a short but very gripping and dark novel. It also felt like a good opportunity to learn more about personal experiences of racial inequality, both historically and in the present day.
Some passages I highlighted:
Being in trouble can have a funny effect on the mind. I don’t know if I can explain this. You go through some days and you seem to be hearing people and you seem to be talking to them and you seem to be doing your work, or, at least, your work gets done; but you haven’t seen or heard a soul and if someone asked you what you have done that day you’d have to think awhile before you could answer. But, at the same time, and even on the self-same day—and this is what is hard to explain—you see people like you never saw them before. They shine as bright as a razor. Maybe it’s because you see people differently than you saw them before your trouble started. Maybe you wonder about them more, but in a different way, and this makes them very strange to you. Maybe you get scared and numb, because you don’t know if you can depend on people for anything, anymore. (7)
Tish and Fonny’s friend Daniel talking about his experience in prison:
“Man, it was bad. Very bad. And it’s bad now. Maybe I’d feel different if I had done something and got caught. But I didn’t do nothing. They were just playing with me, man, because they could. And I’m lucky it was only two years, you dig? Because they can do with you whatever they want. Whatever they want. And they dogs, man. I really found out, in the slammer, what Malcolm and them cats was talking about. The white man’s got to be the devil. He sure ain’t a man. Some of the things I saw, baby, I’ll be dreaming about until the day I die.” (89)
And then soon after, a glimmer of joy breaks between the three of them as they eat dinner in Fonny’s flat:
Fonny: chews on the rib, and watches me: and, in complete silence, without moving a muscle, we are laughing with each other. We are laughing for many reasons. We are together somewhere where no one can reach us, touch us, joined. We are happy, even, that we have food enough for Daniel, who eats peacefully, not knowing that we are laughing, but sensing that something wonderful has happened to us, which means that wonderful things happen, and that maybe something wonderful will happen to him. It’s wonderful, anyway, to be able to help a person to have that feeling. (92)
One of the more moving passages, when Tish is in a moment of despair but notices the subtle kick of the baby in her womb:
Well. We are certainly in it now, and it may get worse. It will, certainly—and now something almost as hard to catch as a whisper in a crowded place, as light and as definite as a spider’s web, strikes below my ribs, stunning and astonishing my heart—get worse. But that light tap, that kick, that signal, announces to me that what can get worse can get better. Yes. It will get worse. But the baby, turning for the first time in its incredible veil of water, announces its presence and claims me; tells me, in that instant, that what can get worse can get better; and that what can get better can get worse. In the meantime—forever—it is entirely up to me. (106)
And one of the scarier and tense moments in the book, when Tish realizes her body is the only thing keeping the cop from killing Fonny:
I was sure that the cop intended to kill Fonny; but he could not kill Fonny if I could keep my body between Fonny and this cop; and with all my strength, with all my love, my prayers, and armed with the knowledge that Fonny was not, after all, going to knock me to the ground, I held the back of my head against Fonny’s chest, held both his wrists between my two hands, and looked up into the face of this cop. I said, “That man—there—attacked me. Right in this store. Right now. Everybody saw it.” (119)
As for Baldwin’s writing style, while his imagery and phrasing was gripping at points, there were other points where he had long stream-of-consciousness-esque passages that made the story harder to follow.
I’m very excited to see Barry Jenkins’ film rendition of this.