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BookBrowse Reviews The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

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The Revisioners

by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton X
The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2019, 288 pages

    Paperback:
    Aug 2020, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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Three generations of women from the Jackson family experience racism, motherhood and a mystical connection that unites them across centuries of time.

The chapters of Margaret Wilkerson Sexton's second novel, The Revisioners, alternate between three timelines. In present-day Louisiana, 34-year-old Ava Jackson and her 12-year-old son King move in with Ava's wealthy grandmother, Martha, who is suffering from health problems and needs help around the house. Ava is mixed race, and Martha is the mother of her (largely absent) white father. Ava hopes this arrangement will allow her to save up enough money to buy her own home, but her Black mother Gladys tells her she shouldn't trust Martha. Gladys feels Martha was cold to her throughout her marriage to Ava's dad, and she believes her disfavor was racially motivated. Meanwhile, in 1924, Ava's great-great-great grandmother Josephine has worked her way up in life; born a slave she later became a sharecropper and now owns her own farm, which is managed by her son Major. A white couple moves in next door and Josephine grows close with the woman, Charlotte. But when Major and Charlotte's husband Vern get into a dispute over their property line, this tenuous relationship is upended and violence threatens Josephine's quiet life. In a third timeline, set in 1855, Josephine is escaping from the plantation she grew up on as a child.

Ava and Josephine are first-person narrators, but the reader also gets a good sense of Gladys as a person through Ava's memories and interactions with her. When Gladys tells Ava she can see and even speak to Josephine in her mind, Ava believes it because she recalls her mother making things happen by the sheer force of her will in the past. As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that Josephine, Ava, and Gladys are all connected spiritually, as they find themselves able to communicate with one another through time. (The women in this family share a talent for hoodoo.)

The three timelines allow the author to explore how race relations in the United States have changed and stayed the same across centuries. Josephine must contend with overt persecution—slavery and racial violence—whereas Ava faces more subtle bigotry, such as Martha's treatment of her as though she were a member of her household staff rather than her granddaughter. Conversely both Josephine and Ava worry about how their sons will fare in a world where white is the standard and Black men are viewed with suspicion or outright contempt. Josephine pleads with Major to be deferential to white people, but he strains against this societal expectation. As a reader, one wants to tell Major to listen to his mother for his own safety, but at the same time, when he sighs with frustration that the world "won't let [him] feel like a man," it is heartrending. He's a son, a husband, a good father, and a successful manager of the family farm, but in Louisiana in 1924, he is nobody to white America.

Meanwhile, Josephine's relationship with her neighbor Charlotte mirrors Ava's with Martha, as both Jackson women take on a nurturing role; Josephine is almost a surrogate mother to Charlotte, and Ava is a caregiver to her ailing grandmother. They are both warned by the other Black women in their lives to proceed in these relationships with caution, and these warnings prove prescient—both have their kindnesses betrayed. Sexton does not demonize her white characters, or damn them on account of their skin color alone, but she cleverly draws a thread through history that shows how blatant and violent racism has evolved (in many cases) into a subtler but no less pernicious variation. This is expertly captured in one scene, where Ava sits in on one of Martha's book club meetings. The group is discussing a book about desegregation in schools, and one of Martha's friends asks why the author focused on outspoken segregationists who shouted at Black students trying to integrate, when surely there were plenty of people who approved of the change. "In another house, in another moment," Eva thinks, "I might go down there...I might whisper to them that I have a suspicion some of them would be on the sidelines barking at those little girls on their way to school."

The novel's final plot twist might strain credibility, but it works, effectively providing one more link in the chain of connection among the novel's principal characters. Sexton's deft plotting structure creates one of the best, most layered family sagas in recent memory. She skillfully demonstrates how the past informs the present, and how we are all the sum of not just our own personal choices but also the intricate webs of our family histories. Perhaps most importantly, this is all conveyed effortlessly and subtly through a fascinating story with complex and engaging characters. The metaphysical connections between Josephine, Gladys and Ava are creatively drawn and beautifully rendered, and these relationships elevate the novel to truly impressive heights.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in January 2020, and has been updated for the September 2020 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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