“I will not always be here like this for you and your sister. But when the world is black, when you think you are alone, the spirits, my spirit, will be with you, living in your heart. When you don’t know the answers, just listen. Quiet. And the answers will pour into your soul…They might not be the answers you want, but the spirits always answer.” – Remembrance, Rita Woods
The are some books that just stick with you, tight to your bones, like they’ve always been a part of you. For me, those books tend to have a hint of magical realism and typically, but not always, a post-colonial framework. Two such books, Christina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban
and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea,
flitted about my heart while I read Dr. Rita Woods’s stunning debut, Remembrance
Remembrance is the story of four powerful and resilient women, all touched by the spirits, who always keep putting one foot in the other.
Gaelle, a refugee from Haiti, fled to our country after an earthquake ripped her’s apart. She works at Stillwater, a nursing home in Cleveland. There is an old woman in Stillwater. No one knows her age or her name. Gaelle is inexplicably drawn to her. The novel starts and ends with Gaelle. She is our present.
Margot is a young slave in Louisiana at Far Water in the years leading up to the Civil War. Her grandmother, Grandmere, talks to the spirits. She can see the things to come. (Like the Yellow Fever.) Her gift is why Master Hannigan has agreed to give Margot and her sister their freedom when they turn 18 – to show their appreciation to (and fear of) Grandmere. They don’t know that Margot also has a gift. But a death and bad debts result in her and her beloved sister being sold, being ripped from Grandmere, and sent to Kentucky where Margot soon begins her journey to freedom, to Remembrance.
“Master Hannigan is spit in the ocean, Margot,” said Grandmere finally. “In fifty years, a hundred, who will know his name? But the ancient ones, they will still rule the ways of the world.”
Abigail began as a slave in Haiti at the original Far Water. That’s not true. Abigail began as Kianga, but she was stolen from the lands that knew her by that name and taken to Haiti. She was in Haiti in 1791, at the start of the Revolution. She belonged to the grandmother of the woman who claimed Margot. Her husband had joined the maroons and had been captured by his master. She watched them burn him for his crimes. Her master then sent her to Louisiana with the mistress and young child, forcing her to leave her two boys behind and promising her he would keep them safe. She is a slave and has no choice, no say. She never sees her boys again. In a moment of despair, on the verge of giving up, Abigail becomes Yon Nwa, a much-feared voodoo priestess. She is Babalawa. And she is Mother Abigail to those who find Remembrance.
Winter is the child of a runaway slave, found protected by the body of her dead mother just outside the edge of Remembrance. She has also been touched by the spirits, but she doesn’t know how to control the power. Mother Abigail has taken her under her wing. She is the future of Remembrance.
Remembrance is just as much a character as these four women. She is a town along the Underground Railroad, created in the folds of the earth, that no man can enter unless Mother Abigail brings down the edge and lets them in. No white man is allowed. But Mother Abigail is growing old and the Edge is growing weak with her. Her spell is faltering.
And then there’s Josiah. A man I believe to be Papa Legba. One can’t have the spirit world without him.
The novel is beautiful. It’s weighty and magnificent. The dialogue gave me remnants of Christophine, and I could hear the voices, the French and the Creole, the musicality and beauty of the speech in my head. Being able to hear Gaelle, Margot, and Abigail so distinctly, the sparks of that language carrying through in text, is not an easy feat.
The way the novel glides in a non-linear fashion, moving effortlessly between characters, places, and times, triggered thoughts of Garcia’s novel. Dreaming in Cuban is one of my most favorite novels and not a comparison I make lightly – many authors are not able to successfully traverse their story in such non-linear methods – not like Garcia. And not like Dr. Rita Woods.
This has joined the list of books that stick close to my bones. Read it. Read it now.