A Million Nightingales (Magill's Literary Annual 2007)
Susan Straight, who is perhaps best known for her 1992 novel I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots, tends to focus on what Publishers Weekly has described as “the intersections of love, race, class and violence” in the modern United States. In A Million Nightingales, her sixth novel, she addresses the same subjects but moves her setting back in time almost two centuries, to a number of slave plantations thriving in the years after the Louisiana Purchase.
Straight begins this ambitious enterprise by taking two very large technical risks, both of which mostly pay major dividends as the narrative proceeds. From the novel’s first sentence, “In late summer, I collected the moss with the same long poles we used to knock down the pecans in fall,” the author jettisons any attempt at preamble or context and instead sends the reader headlong into the real-time thoughts and perceptions of the central character, a fourteen-year-old slave girl.
Simultaneously, Straight sets the reader down into a confusing polyglot of Creole, French, and African phrases, untranslated except for a glossary in the back of the book that contains several dozen of the most frequently used terms. In the hands of a lesser writer, either of these devices could have resulted in a story too self>consciously eager to show off its author’s painstaking historical research. Instead, the rich, sensuous language and strong...
(The entire section is 1636 words.)
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