Reviews of The Unsettled by Ayana Mathis

The Unsettled

A Novel

by Ayana Mathis

The Unsettled by Ayana Mathis X
The Unsettled by Ayana Mathis
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  • Published:
    Sep 2023, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Valerie Morales
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Book Summary

From the best-selling author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, a searing multi-generational novel—set in the 1980s in racially and politically turbulent Philadelphia and in the tiny town of Bonaparte, Alabama—about a mother fighting for her sanity and survival.

From the moment Ava Carson and her ten-year-old son, Toussaint, arrive at the Glenn Avenue family shelter in Philadelphia 1985, Ava is already plotting a way out. She is repulsed by the shelter's squalid conditions: their cockroach-infested room, the barely edible food, and the shifty night security guard. She is determined to rescue her son from the perils and indignities of that place, and to save herself from the complicated past that led them there.

Ava has been estranged from her own mother, Dutchess, since she left her Alabama home as a young woman barely out of her teens. Despite their estrangement and the thousand miles between them, mother and daughter are deeply entwined, but Ava can't forgive her sharp-tounged, larger than life mother whose intractability and bouts of debilitating despair brought young Ava to the outer reaches of neglect and hunger.

Ava wants to love her son differently, better. But when Toussaint's father, Cass, reappears, she is swept off course by his charisma, and the intoxicating power of his radical vision to destroy systems of racial injustice and bring about a bold new way of communal living.

Meanwhile, in Alabama, Dutchess struggles to keep Bonaparte, once a beacon of Black freedom and self-determination, in the hands of its last five Black residents—families whose lives have been rooted in this stretch of land for generations—and away from rapidly encroaching white developers. She fights against the erasure of Bonaparte's venerable history and the loss of the land itself, which she has so arduously preserved as Ava's inheritance.

As Ava becomes more enmeshed with Cass, Toussaint senses the danger simmering all around him—his well-intentioned but erratic mother; the intense, volatile figure of his father who drives his fledgling Philadelphia community toward ever increasing violence and instability. He begins to dream of Dutchess and Bonaparte, his home and birthright, if only he can find his way there.

Brilliant, explosive, vitally important new work from one of America's most fiercely talented storytellers.



Cherry Street

It tinseled down on Ava Carson clutching her two suitcases in front of the Cherry Street Intake Center for the Homeless. Ava cried out and dropped her bags. The latches unlatched when they hit the pavement and the suitcases popped their guts like a melon thrown from a great height. Visions are not real, or they aren't real yet, but they do terrify.

"Toussaint!" Ava called out.

He was standing right behind her, just as he had been before the vision struck: a little boy of ten, small for his age, with both hands around the handle of his own suitcase. There they were, on a late August morning: mother and son, with three cases between them and a black trash bag bulging with their belongings.

"What were you doing on that street? Why did you . . . ?" Ava paused. She was shrieking, she realized. "No," she said. "Nothing."

She had never heard of Ephraim Avenue. Hallucinations. This is the...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. Many of the employees at Glenn Avenue judge Ava for behaving as if she is too good to be there. Is this judgment justified? From what we know of Ava's perspective of and experience at the shelter, why is she so determined to not accept it as her and Toussaint's home?
  2. Throughout the book, the characters refer to themselves and their homes by numbers: 813 is Ava and Toussaint's room at Glenn Avenue; 248 becomes Ark. What effect do these references have on the characters' ability to achieve a sense of home? Are the numbers more or less distancing—and/or do they prevent too much attachment in a world where home is unpredictable?
  3. Discuss the different vantage points we have of Toussaint while he and his mother stay at Glenn ...
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BookBrowse Review


Creating a larger social map, Mathis threads a fictional story with current events, such as the ongoing fight of rural black families in southern states to keep their ancestral land from developers and the suffering of the homeless. There is also mention of Frank Rizzo, Philadelphia's notoriously racist mayor, which adds gravity to Ava's story in its time and place. The plot, at times, is fraught with tension because of the impulsivity of its financially fraught characters. Nevertheless, the story is sensitive in the way a family story can be...continued

Full Review Members Only (764 words)

(Reviewed by Valerie Morales).

Media Reviews

[A] masterpiece ... The Unsettled is poised to be a significant addition to contemporary literature, affirming Mathis's status as a gifted and influential voice in the literary world ... An emotionally charged journey through the intricate tapestry of family, love, and the relentless pursuit of belonging.

New York Times Book Review
Poignant, heartbreaking ... Mathis skillfully and subtly drops allusions to historical events, sending the reader on a kind of intellectual treasure hunt.

Oprah Daily
A decade after taking the world by storm with her debut novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie—the 72nd Oprah's Book Club selection and an instant bestseller—Mathis is back with a highly anticipated and emotionally propulsive follow-up ... Through a chorus of distinctive and virtuosic voices, we gather the story of a mother, a daughter, and the land that both unites and divides them.

Ten years after The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Mathis again strikes story-telling gold.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune
An ardent, ambitious, and carefully stitched tapestry of a novel, one that deserves and rewards our attention.

Surprising and gorgeous...Mathis' long-awaited sophomore novel leaves the Great Migration of her lauded debut (The Twelve Tribes of Hattie) for the 1980s, but her sharp characters, vivid settings, and beautiful sentences remain...Hattie fans will not be disappointed.

Bookpage (starred review)
Outstanding ... Perfectly paced ... A heartbreaking tale about Reagan's America that deftly weaves the past and present into the possibility of a bright, if still-unfolding, future.

Kirkus Review (starred review)
An affecting and carefully drawn story of a family on the brink...Mathis powerfully evokes the heartbreak and ways best efforts are undermined by social and legal machinery.

Library Journal (starred review)
Another triumph for Mathis.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
A simmering family saga involving fraught efforts in building Black communities...Mathis ratchets up the tension all the way to a stunning reveal... Readers won't want to miss Mathis's accomplished return.

Author Blurb Jesmyn Ward, author of Let Us Descend
The Unsettled crosses generations and landscapes, digs in the Southern soil and walks mean Northern city streets. Expansive and explosive, this beauty of a novel showcases Ayana Mathis's grace on the page, as writer, as storyteller. A book to be read and re-read.

Author Blurb Marilynne Robinson, author of Gilead
Shelter without the grace of welcome is exposure to the worst coldness of the world. Loyalty and the offer of comfort satisfy needs we feel in our bones. In The Unsettled, Ayana Mathis brings these extremes of experience intensely to life. This is a fine, powerful book.

Author Blurb Yiyun Li, author of The Book of Goose
Ayana Mathis is one of the most brilliant writers working in today's America. A tour de force, The Unsettled is a poetic and fierce study of the conflicts between circumstances and personalities, between dreams and survivals, between the indifference of the world at large and the passions of individuals.

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Beyond the Book

Homelessness and Traumatic Brain Injuries

Image of scan showing damage from a mild TBI appearing as bright areas around the perimeter of the brain pointed out by arrows Ava Carson, the protagonist in Ayana Mathis's second novel The Unsettled, is homeless because of domestic violence. At the Glenn Avenue shelter, she can't sleep or eat. She is listless and emotionally paralyzed. Yet Ava never considers that she might have a traumatic brain injury.

Researchers who analyzed data from multiple countries, including Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, South Korea, and Australia, found that 53% of homeless people experience a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in their lifetime.

A TBI occurs when the brain suffers a significant blow, often from a fall, a car accident, or a physically violent act. A moderate to severe TBI is defined by "falling unconscious for a minimum of 30 minutes following the ...

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