Years ago, Nash County native Kaye Gibbons said that before she wrote her 1987 debut novel, “Ellen Foster,” she heard Ellen’s voice. Gibbons started writing and finished the first draft in six weeks.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Durham’s Raymond Barfield – a pediatric oncologist at Duke and an associate professor of philosophy in the Divinity School – had a similar experience with his stunning debut novel, “The Book of Colors.” His main character, Yslea, reminds me of the spirited Ellen Foster. Like Ellen’s, you’ll hear Yslea’s voice long after you’ve stopped reading.
Yslea grew up in a crack house, a mixed-race girl who looks “sort of white to some black folks and sort of black to some whites.” She’s 19 now and pregnant, having wandered from “the ladies shelter” into a cluster of rundown row houses that line the railroad tracks on the outskirts of Memphis.
Here she met Jimmy, who fathered the baby. Next door to Jimmy, the dying, elderly Rose, whom Yslea lovingly tends. Next door to Rose, Layla, who “services the bums” she brings off the tracks (Yslea has counted 87) while Layla’s daughter, Ambrosia, sits rocking all day, rereading her one ragged board book, “The Book of Colors.”
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As constricted as Ambrosia’s mind is, Yslea’s mind roams freely – her own “book of colors,” which is the vast world of ideas, possibilities, connections and concerns. The growing fetus anchors her and, as we all do, Yslea uses external structures – a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of Paris, a raccoon’s intricate skeleton she painstakingly reassembles, a stained glass window she creates for Rose – for comfort and solace and to hold her upright and steady in a chaotic world.
A brave novel, popping with hope.
The Book of Colors
Unbridled Books, paperback, 224 pages.