Review: 'Red at the Bone' is Woodson's dazzling new novel

“Red at the Bone” (Riverhead Books), by Jacqueline Woodson

Jacqueline Woodson begins her dazzling new novel, “Red at the Bone,” with an afterthought, in the middle of things, and breaking all the rules of grammar by starting with a “but”: “But that afternoon there was an orchestra playing.” With that sentence, readers are thrust into the midst of a coming-of-age ceremony for a 16-year-old girl named Melody in her grandparents’ beautiful old brownstone in Brooklyn, New York.

Earlier that day, her mother, Iris, told her some disturbing information — that when she got pregnant with her at age 15, Melody’s grandparents initially didn’t want her to have the baby. “Maybe this was the moment when I knew I was a part of a long line of almost erased stories,” Melody thinks. “I am a narrative, someone’s almost forgotten story.”

For the rest of the novel, all the major figures in Melody’s family will tell their stories in alternating chapters, moving back and forth in time, each one narrated in Woodson’s inimitable style — jazzy, melodious, allusive, at times bordering on poetry or music. In the process, Woodson will weave in references to nearly a century of African American history “almost erased” by the enduring stain of racism, poverty, violence and drug addiction.

One of the earliest memories belongs to Melody’s grandmother, Sabe, who recalls her ancestors telling her about the 1921 massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when rampaging whites destroyed the thriving middle-class black community of Greenwood. “I made sure Iris knew,” Sabe thinks. “And I’m going to make sure Melody knows too, because if a body’s to be remembered, somebody has to tell its story.”

Miraculously, Woodson manages to use this one particular Brooklyn family as a prism through which she explores profound generational differences in attitudes toward race, class, gender and sexuality. When, after giving birth to Melody, Iris goes off to Oberlin College, she falls in love with a female classmate without even understanding what it might mean to be a lesbian, just knowing that when they’re together, she “felt red at the bone — like there was something inside of her undone and bleeding.”

By the time Melody is a teenager, society has changed to the point where her best friend Malcolm, who among other things excels at voguing, already knows that he’s gay. Indeed, Woodson lets him recite what might be the coda for this warm and lovely novel: “Today you got introduced to society, Melody,” he says when her party is over. “Shoot, I love that people think the world is even halfway ready for what we about to bring.”