Tough-minded, vulnerable, and brave, Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s precisely imagined debut explores burdened inheritances and extraordinary pursuits of belonging. United by the characters’ relentless struggles against reality and fate, My Monticello is a formidable book that bears witness to this country’s legacies and announces the arrival of a wildly original new voice in American fiction.
I’ve had a couple of instances this year where I read literary fiction despite knowing I don’t like the genre, probably because I thought this could be the one. This collection was as usual not something I had heard of at all. I had just finished reading the book How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith which me rethink a lot about plantations in general and the history of Monticello in particular. So when I saw this title while browsing netgalley, it immediately drew my attention and I wanted to give it a try.
The writing in this collection is wonderful and very effective at tugging our heartstrings or shocking us with the ideas explored. I can’t say I understood them all but they were all definitely unique. It was not at all surprising that race and racism forms a major thread through all the stories but what leaves a deeper impression is the strength of family – blood or found. I also listened to the audiobook in parts and I loved the idea of each story having its own narrator, with each bringing their own style to the storytelling. It definitely enhanced the experience.
So if you are a fan of literary fiction or short story collections, you should check this out. And if you only wanna read one story, it has to be the titular one because it’s quite unforgettable.
Below are my individual reviews…
CW: racist micro aggressions, assault, police brutality
I am frankly surprised at the premise of this story. It’s both horrifying in its idea but also a bit sad because it ultimately tries to answer the ONE question – what is it exactly that Black people have to do to be respected for their humanity and their achievements without devolving into racist diatribe or in the extreme, getting killed by cops for no fault of theirs.
Virginia is Not Your Home
Not my kind of story. It’s too realistic and hard hitting to read stories of women stuck in their lives as housewives and feeling like they haven’t achieved anything and don’t belong anywhere, and I just don’t have the appetite for them anymore.
Something Sweet on our Tongues
I had a hard time understanding where this story was going and especially that ending was kinda horrible.
Buying a House Ahead of the Apocalypse
This felt very prescient with all the preparations the narrator makes seeming very realistic. I especially was hurt by the despair that she was feeling having been unable to do enough for her daughter to be able to own a home.
The King of Xandria
CW: mention of child soldiers
This was heartbreaking. An immigrant father trying to piece his life together after his wife’s brutal death and ensuring his children are able to make a better life for themselves in the new country. But he also feels helpless because he can’t be the same sole breadwinner of his home in America and even more unmoored when he realizes that his children are growing up, able to make their own decisions and don’t always need him. It’s a tough situation for a father already dealing with grief and the author captures his anguish very well.
CW: racial violence
This eponymous story is basically a novella which covers almost 80% of this collection in page count, and I have to agree that it’s the most impactful. Tracing the story of a young Black woman descendant of Sally Hemmings during a near future America ravaged by effects of climate change, we see how the lack of resources has led to more racial violence, with white people terrorizing and killing Black people. In this backdrop, Naisha is a brave young lady who manages to drive away from her town with a group of neighbors, escaping the violence, taking refuge in the Monticello plantation. It brings up lot of questions in her about her identity and history and her relationship to the place, particularly at a time when her people are being hunted again. But ultimately this is a story of her and the rest of the group coming together despite their differences to struggle and survive and help each other during the direst circumstances. They never lose heart and are ready to fight back for the little home they have been able to carve on the hill in Monticello. Very well written and evocative story which leaves us thinking, and maybe even a bit scared.
PS: Thank you to Henry Holt & Co for providing me the advance ecopy through Netgalley and to Macmillan Audio for providing me the advance listening copy. All opinions expressed here are unbiased and solely mine.