Saturday, 24 October 2015

Review: The Sleeping Night by Barbara Samuel

5 stars

Most of the time, I choose what I read with the care of someone choosing the paint colour for their house. Instead of holding swatches up again and again before buying sample pots and testing it on some small areas, I read the synopsis and the reviews, and, if it sounds like there's possibility it's a heartbreaker, I sometimes even skim-read the last chapter. Heresy, I know, but if I wanted inexplicable angst and sadness, I'd read the newspaper. And there is that I hate more than when something with a high sadness ratio slips past my vetting system and surprises me, even if there is an ultimate HEA. But this doesn't mean I don't understand the appeal of a emotion-laden book. Once in a blue moon - usually after a run of books that have left me completely apathetic - I pick out a book I know is going to make me feel. 

The Sleeping Night by Barbara Samuel was such a book. Given that it's an interracial romance set in segregated Texas immediately after World War Two, it was never going to be an easy read. At one point, I had to put it down to wash the dishes, and I spent the whole time fretting, because I honestly couldn't see how it was all going to be okay. My angst that there wouldn't be a HEA grew when I visited the author's site, and she had listed it with her 'women's fiction' novels and not her 'romance' ones. But it ultimately did turn out all right, and, in the end, my emotional involvement made The Sleeping Night one of the most moving books I have ever read, half romance and half treatise on violence and discrimination.

As children, Isaiah High and Angel Corey were best friends, despite their different races. But as they grow to adulthood, their parents realise things cannot go on as they are, and Isaiah is forced to 'learn his place'. Worried he'll end up on the wrong side of a mob one too many times, Angel's father convinces Isaiah to join the army, while Angel marries another, 'more suitable' childhood friend.  But when Angel's husband dies in the navy, Isaiah sends his condolences from the frontline in Europe and they start to correspond. The war ends, and Isaiah returns home, and it's here that our story begins. Angel has been ostracised for continuing to run her deceased father's grocery shop, which primarily serves the black community, and for resisting the advances of one of the town's foremost citizens. For Isaiah, Jim Crow is chafing like never before after the freedoms of Europe and he can't make Angel understand that any improperity between them - imagined or real - could mean the end of both of their lives.

The frustration that Isaiah and Angel had at being constrained by race and gender, respectively, was palpable. Isaiah was a tantalizing combination of standoffishness and endearing characteristics like humour, sensitivity and a desire for knowledge. With her baking, love for children and belief in a benevolent God despite the ugliness of the world around her, Angel had the potential to be a Mary Sue. However, Samuel side-stepped this neatly by giving her very human doubts. Given the setting, it would have been unrealistic for Angel not to have been affected by the stereotype of the hypersexualised black male. Several times, she starts to question whether she is safe with Isaiah, before reminding herself that he's Isaiah, her best friend. And they were, first and foremost, friends. I really loved that, and, ultimately, it was their transition from being friends to friends-and-lovers that puts this book on the re-reader shelf.

Because they could interact so little, they they did the old 'love-you-from-afar' thing. It's hard not to pine right along with Angel and Isaiah when each interaction was laden with so much unsaid, and this is why the intermittent inclusion of the letters they sent to each other during the war - along with the more honest versions they discarded - are so touching.

The spectre of the war hovers over the whole book. It obviously transformed Isaiah's life, but there was also a secondary character called Gudrun, whom Isaiah found after she was released from Auschwitz and brought to her aunt in his and Angel's hometown. Watching Gudrun come out of her shell and form a tentative friendship with the lonely Angel was very sweet. I had also never considered that the US Army was segregated, and blacks and whites were given different jobs.

Despite the joy I took in reading The Sleeping Night, I took a while to warm up to it. The Southern speech patterns and language were quite jarring until I got used to them, and while I enjoyed Isaiah and Angel's letters from the war so much, I disliked the prologue and epilogue that had an elderly Angel publishing them. I suppose it provided closure in that it allowed them to come back to the South and put the ghosts of the past to rest, but the 'all is forgiven and forgotten and society has rectified its wrongs' subtext of it just didn't work for me. Also, as nice as it was to see Angel and Isaiah as a devoted old couple, the part of me that hates heartbreak didn't want to deal with the fact that one of them would shuffle off this mortal coil soon enough, and leave the other behind. I'm too much of a realist to imagine a Notebook-style scenario.

Nonetheless, for its emotiveness and beautifully constructed romance, as well as its thought-provokingness, The Sleeping Night well and truly deserved its 5 stars.  

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...