Reviews of Perish by LaToya Watkins


A Novel

by LaToya Watkins

Perish by LaToya Watkins X
Perish by LaToya Watkins
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Aug 2022, 336 pages

    Aug 1, 2023, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book

Book Summary

From a stunning new voice, comes a powerful debut novel, Perish, about a Black Texan family, exploring the effects of inherited trauma and intergenerational violence as the family comes together to say goodbye to their matriarch on her deathbed.

Bear it or perish. Those are the words Helen Jean hears that fateful night in her cousin's outhouse that change the trajectory of her life.

Spanning decades, Perish tracks the choices Helen Jean—the matriarch of the Turner family—makes and the ways those choices have rippled across generations, from her children to hergrandchildren and beyond.

Told in alternating chapters that follow four members of the Turner family: Julie B., a woman who regrets her wasted youth and the time spent under Helen Jean's thumb; Alex, a police officer grappling with a dark and twisted past; Jan, a mother of two, who yearns to go to school and leave Jerusalem, Texas, and all of its trauma behind for good; and Lydia, a woman whose marriage is falling apart because her body can't seem to stay pregnant, as they're called home to say goodbye to their mother and grandmother.

This family's "reunion" unearths long-kept secrets and forces each member to ask themselves important questions about who is deserving of forgiveness and who bears the cross of blame.

Tackling themes like family, trauma, legacy, home, class, race, and more, this beautiful yet heart-wrenching novel, will appeal to anyone who is interested in the intricacies of family and the ways bonds can be made, maintained, or irrevocably broken.

The Flats, 1955

Helen Jean sat on the hole inside the musky outhouse and pushed her palms flat against the bench, willing her body to do the work she needed it to. She waited for the heavy knot to begin to throb and her bowels to break. For the familiar pain to erupt from the core of her stomach. She had followed all of Ernestine's orders, just like the first time. Nothing to eat all day but toast. Nothing to drink. Not even water. But all she felt was nervous.

She tried to remember exactly how it had happened before. Last time, she had been early on when she went to her cousin for assistance. This time, a tight knot had already formed on the inside of her belly, a knot that she was beginning to notice on the outside. A knot her father and three brothers had likely noticed, too. The one they all chose to ignore because it told each of them too much about who they were.

Ernestine had warned her, It might be too late, Helen Jean. Can't give you too much cause you be dead, too. Got to be ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. Bear it or perish yourself" is a recurring quote we read from Helen Jean throughout the book. Discuss the meaning of this quote and how it affected the characters' lives.
  2. Perish is told by different narrators, how did their point of view impact your view of their character or other characters in the story?
  3. Describe how the author creates a distinction between the east and west sides of Jerusalem. And in what ways do you think the areas shaped the family's lives?
  4. Is there someone to blame for the fate of Wayne (or Alex)? Did you empathize with them? And if so, when and why? Should they be forgiven for their actions?
  5. There are several significant moments in the novel that revolve around burning a hog. What do you think the hogs symbolize ...
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BookBrowse Review


This is the novel's central conundrum: What do you do with a family member who has done something monstrous? What if that family member also had something monstrous done to them? How can you love someone who has done something unforgivable? Perish is a remarkably well-crafted Southern gothic that shows no mercy. The climax features a shocking event — whatever you're imagining, I promise it's more shocking than that. Watkins takes risks at every turn and almost all of them pay off. It's not a book defined by human misery, though there is a lot of that. There is also triumph, audacity and brilliant moments of dark humor...continued

Full Review Members Only (894 words).

(Reviewed by Lisa Butts).

Media Reviews

BUST Magazine
[An] important and emotional read for anyone who's had to reckon with their roots and the influence they have on their future…readers will discover their own strength and ability to move past intergenerational trauma—and embrace their roots along the way.

Perish offers a moving look into Black communities, bringing complexity and nuance to this story of intergenerational trauma and the toll it takes on the human spirit. But for all the secrets, resentments, and bitterness here, Watkins has generosity of spirit enough to entertain the possibility of forgiveness; miraculous and moving, light glimmers at the edges of this wise novel.

Minneapolis Star Tribune
With Perish, Watkins has shaken off the shame of the ultimate taboo and brought it to light through the story of the unforgettable women who bear its burden. This novel will serve as a hand extended through the darkness to a great many of its readers.

New York Times Book Review
Watkins's prose is effortless and forthright...This is an impressive feat of storytelling...It's a difficult read and a tender story of silences and secrets. It's a novel about coming home, despite that home being broken. And it's a brave triumph of a novel that readers won't forget long after finishing it.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
In this devastating and gut-wrenching debut, Watkins explores the generational trauma and violence endured by a Black Texas family...Evocative language...tellingly illuminates the harm done to each of the family members, as they find some redemption in disclosing family secrets at Helen Jean's deathbed. With grace and aplomb, Watkins electrifies and shatters.

[Watkins's] bold and captivating writing keeps readers floating through time, leaving us with thought-provoking revelations regarding healing that begins with loving and forgiving oneself before it can be extended to others.

Kirkus Reviews
This is an incredibly bleak novel, and it comes close to collapsing under the weight of its own melancholy...But despite a melodramatic climactic scene, the novel is saved from total oblivion by Watkins' writing, which is strong, and her gift for realistic dialogue. It's not a bad novel, but one gets the feeling that Watkins is capable of much more. Suffocatingly sad.

Author Blurb Elizabeth Wetmore, New York Times bestselling author of Valentine
I'd be hard-pressed to say what I admire most about LaToya Watkins's debut novel—the nuanced, fully realized characters, the firmly rooted sense of place, or the author's fierce, elegant, and fearless prose. Perish is a heartrending story, urgently told, about family, trauma, and the salvific power of forgiveness and love. Helen Jean Turner and her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren will linger in my heart for a long time.

Author Blurb Jamel Brinkley, author of A Lucky Man
LaToya Watkins writes with a gaze that is warm and compassionate, but courageous and unflinching, refusing to look away from difficulty. Perish is a resonant debut novel, a robust family story told with beautiful cadences and textures. Watkins has a wonderful heart that animates every page from beginning to end.

Author Blurb Nancy Johnson, author of The Kindest Lie
From the early pages of this novel, I knew I was in the hands of a master storyteller. Watkins stuns in this impressive debut about how trauma travels with us across generations. This story of family and forgiveness will stay with you long after the last page.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Tiny Reparations Books

Covers of Tiny Reparations book LaToya Watkins' debut novel Perish is published by Tiny Reparations Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House launched in July 2020 with the goal of highlighting diverse voices that are often shut out of mainstream publishing. The project is a joint venture by Christine Ball, senior vice president of the publishers Berkley and Dutton, and Phoebe Robinson, a comedian, author, producer and actress perhaps best known for her podcast and HBO series 2 Dope Queens. Robinson summarizes the imprint's mission: "We are looking for queer, Black, Indigenous, people of color and neurodiverse writers, not only to publish them, but to launch their careers. We want them to have the experience of being appreciated and seen."

In a 2021 interview with ...

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