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Red at the Bone: Longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2020

    • Ratings :
    • 4.3 stars
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'Sublime' Candice Carty-Williams
'An epic in miniature' Tayari Jones
'A banger' Ta-Nehisi Coates
'Generous and big-hearted' Brit Bennett
'A true spell of a book' Ocean Vuong
'A proclamation' R.O. Kwon
'A little masterpiece' Paula Hawkins
'I adored this book' Elizabeth MacNeal
'Pure poetry' Observer
'A sharply focused gem' Sunday Times
'Will remind you why you love reading' Stylist
'Haunting' Guardian
'A wonderful, tragic, inspiring story' Metro
'Prose that sings off the page... Gorgeous' Mail on Sunday
'A nuanced portrait of shifting family relationships' Financial Times
'As seductive as a Prince bop' O, The Oprah Magazine
'Razor-sharp' Vanity Fair
'Dazzling... With urgent, vital insights into questions of class, gender, race, history, queerness and sex' New York Times

An unexpected teenage pregnancy brings together two families from different social classes, and exposes the private hopes, disappointments and longings that can bind or divide us.
From the New York Times-bestselling and National Book Award-winning author of Another Brooklyn and Brown Girl Dreaming.

Brooklyn, 2001. It is the evening of sixteen-year-old Melody's coming of age ceremony in her grandparents' brownstone. Watched lovingly by her relatives and friends, making her entrance to the music of Prince, she wears a special custom-made dress - the very same dress that was sewn for a different wearer, Melody's mother, for a celebration that ultimately never took place.

Unfurling the history of Melody's family - from the 1921 Tulsa race massacre to post 9/11 New York - Red at the Bone explores sexual desire, identity, class, and the life-altering facts of parenthood, as it looks at the ways in which young people must so often make fateful decisions about their lives before they have even begun to figure out who they are and what they want to be.

New York Times; Washington Post; Time; USA Today; O, The Oprah Magazine; Elle; Good Housekeeping; Esquire; NPR; New York Public Library; Library Journal; Kirkus; BookRiot; She Reads; The Undefeated ***


Customer Review


3.5 Stars.

This is my intro to this author’s work and overall, I enjoyed this slice of family saga, multiperson storytelling, novel. This things this novel does beautifully all have to do with the emotion of it. There is complexity of feeling between all the different characters and emotion and relationships and interconnectedness being my favourite things about reading fiction, I liked that. In addition, I think overall, this book did a good job with race especially for multicultural societies where there is an endemic discrimination against black people. Race is a major theme and it’s all black confidence, black excellence, “hey society, the inferiority complex you’re were trying to give me didn’t take.” I also feel like colour and race play a huge role in how people see themselves in this book and their belonging and worthiness, is actually, based on their degree of blackness, as opposed to popular culture where the inverse is true. That said, as much as I enjoyed the discussion of race in this book, I felt that towards the end, the “be true to yourself”-type conclusion that was reached was calling for people to be true to a very specific experience of what is black- in terms of speech or food or loudness or experience or pain that some have felt they need to suppress in order to be successful in society.This is a novel in which “nothing really happens.” It’s not especially action-packed or telling a full on story with a build and a climax and loads of events. It’s a slice of life with a lot of various scenes and flashes that kind of tell a piece of a family’s story. There is a considerable amount flashbacks explaining how the characters got to the point where we meet them, some perspectives on a coming of age celebration, and an aftermath. But this is not one that has a developed story starting at point A and going to point B. The whole thing just hangs around level C. The premise is basically that Melody was born right on the eve of her mother’s (Iris’) coming of age ball (think cotillion) when Iris was 15. Her birth tore apart the dreams and expectations of two families and they look back and reflect on their relationships and love and loss as she (Melody) now celebrates her coming of age ball.There are a couple of interesting style things the author does that I’m not sure of- first, speech is italicized rather than quoted so that you’re left wondering if things are actually said or left unsaid, and whether these scenes are actually happening, or if it’s a sort of collective ancestral memory of this family’s current history. Second, there are 5 narrators and they all pick up and drop the story at different points but the author never tells you who’s who. I mean, reading on, you can kind of eventually figure out whose perspective you’re getting but I didn’t see any reason not to just tell the reader. Also, with the 5 narrators in this length of book, I felt like we only got flashes of their full characters, and I felt very led to put them into certain trope boxes based on the nuggets we were fed- Iris is the fall girl, Aubrey is the angel, the grandparents are pretty much The Cosbys, and we’re barely given anything of Melody enough to form an opinion other than the fact that she’s the hope of success and vindication of a painful family line?If lyrical, poetic storytelling is your jam, this book has loads of that. This in many parts requires reading the sentences over and over to understand the meaning. My preference personally is simplicity and accessibility in art but I could appreciate the lyricism and the flow of this. I feel like however, sometimes there was a disconnect with the lyricism and revelations the characters had versus what they revealed about themselves in their stories. And that if we wanted to be strictly true to the character as opposed to the narrative the author wanted to further for the overall purpose of the book, there was sometimes a divergence. For example, Iris spends most of her own narrative scornful of the “dreams of her ancestors” and mainly wants to leave for school to escape the situation she’s unwittingly gotten herself in, but when the author describes Iris right before she leaves, she makes it look as though Iris is going because she wants to fulfill some ancestral destiny when that is not the case. I feel like sometimes the characters were saying and showing one thing, but the author was telling another lyrically for effect.Okay ultimately did I like this, yes. The style isn’t my favourite, the character development to me wasn’t all it could be, there isn’t much of a story per se. But given all those things, the emotional punch this book packs is EVERYTHING. This author made me feel the emotions of characters I barely knew or even liked. The themes of pain, resilience, survival, succession, love, loss, rebuilding, victory and just pure black magic that survives hurt came through and ultimately this was a really strong, healing, emotional read that I highly recommend.

by J-Phi, November 6, 2019


deserving of the praise it has received

This is a beautifully written story of love, loss and a family. Centered around Melody, it's the story of her mother, her parents, her father, and his mother. The families come from different places on the socioeconomic ladder and for different reasons. Iris, Melody's mother, fell pregnant unexpectedly and to her own mother Sabe's great grief, at 16. Her father Aubrey loves Iris unconditionally and Melody, if possible, even more but Iris must leave and go to Oberlin for college. It's Aubrey and her parents who raise Melody. You learn bits and pieces about each person as they tell their story. While centered in Brooklyn, the city isn't that large a character until the end. There's a secret in the house, something Sabe talked about but only in vague terms. Thanks to Edelweiss for the ARC. This is fast read with gorgeous language and people you will care about. It well deserves the praise it has received.

by kathleen g, September 17, 2019


Simply Stunning

I’ll admit the Trevor Noah interview with the author inspired me to read this book. You could tell Trevor was not just impressed by it, but deeply moved. It did not disappoint. Elaborate in emotion but concise in style, I was captured by the beautiful prose and thoughtful crafting of this family’s stories. I reread sections simply because they were so good it was crime to read them only once.

by Seattle Girl, October 9, 2019


Knocked it Out the Park

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson is a master of the game. Predominately known for writing middle-grade and young adult fiction, Red at the Bone is her second foray into adult fiction.Red at the Bone deals with teenage pregnancy and the impact on a family generationally. The book kicks off with Melody's sweet sixteen party. An orchestra warms-up playing "Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac" before Prince's "Darling Nikki" ushers in the birthday girl. Oddly, Melody dons a white dress commissioned sixteen years prior for mother, but she did not wear it. Why?Red at the Bones is not a linear narrative. Woodson drops the reader into a family that has seen its fair share of hardship. In real-life can a story be told from the beginning? Generational baggage and trauma haunts every family and gets passed down as heirlooms. This trauma impacts everyone before they even enter the world. To emphasize this point, the reader enters the heads of family members, and through their point of view, a multi-faceted story unfurls. Secrets hidden in dark crevices reveal themselves slowly and "villains" are humanized.Woodson purposely subverts stereotypes about motherhood, fatherhood, and Black generational wealth. She does not shy away from writing a seemingly unsympathetic woman! In life, there are many questions and no easy answers. Woodson allows her characters to be human without judgment, and does this with prose bordering on the poetic. Her writing is like listening to jazz with its leaps, bounds, and improvisations. Oh, and you get a minor history lesson on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

by Kindle Customer, October 1, 2019


Quick read but Inspiring

This is the first book I have read by this author. The story though somehow disjointed with different perspectives from all the characters gel into a story I won't soon forget. It's that good.

by Kindle Customer, September 18, 2019


Stellar Fiction

Jacqueline Woodson's writes a profoundly lyrical inter-generational black family drama, its history, of race, class, the trials and tribulations of being alive, of identity, sexuality, love, loss, grief and ambition. It begins with the coming of age of Melody, her 16th birthday, wearing a dress that her mother, Iris, never got to wear, at the tender age of 15, Iris was pregnant with Melody. Woodson uses this family event to weave a moving web of family history and interconnections in a narrative that deftly illustrates how the past is writ large in the present, continuing to shape the future. The repercussions of a teen pregnancy, an Iris for whom motherhood is not enough and abandons Melody to be lovingly brought up by her steadfast, contented and committed father, Aubrey, and her grandparents Sabe and Sammy. It takes in the impact of the 1921 Tulsa race massacres, driving the family to relocate and triggering its focus on ambition.Woodson's stellar novel imprints itself indelibly on my memory with its insightful and acute observations that go into highlighting the complexities and complications of family. She has a real gift in characterisation with so few words, bringing a humanity and authenticity to the people who inhabit the book. This may well be a short novel, but it is epic in scale, containing such beautiful imagery, with an underlying sense of universality when it comes to family, of what it takes to survive and endure, the importance of remembering, the tragedies, the heartbreak and the joy and hope too. A poignantly stitched together multilayered reconstruction of a specific family and its past amidst which lies the history of a nation. Highly recommended. Many thanks to Orion for an ARC.

by sevenpin, February 9, 2020


Raw. Honest. Heart-breaking. A must-read!

Jacqueline Woodson and her magnificent ability to convey so much heart in just 196 pages is a read I’ll never forget.Red at the Bone dives into this family’s mosaic history, from 1921 to 2001. The book begins at Melody's coming of age ceremony. She’s 16 years old, surrounded by friends and family, and making her way into the world. The ceremony is a treasured part of her family’s history, taking place in the home of her middle-class grandparents. But Melody's mother, never reached her imperative celebration. And the reason why has affected three generations of family members.Jacqueline Woodson’s writing is remarkably powerful. In my opinion, there’s no other way to interpret it. Her words carry weight and emotion but are formatted in short and smooth sentences. Despite its length, the novel doesn’t feel like a quick read. It has a balanced depth as the reader comes to understand the history, mindset, and make-up of Melody’s family. We get to see her grandparents’ journey, her parents’ journey, and the beginning of hers through a variety of African-American perspectives.Red at the Bone highlights the outlooks of race, class, love, parenthood, desire, and freedom. It’s impossible not to be swept up by the poetic plot. The chapters read like an emotional song, with its compelling highs and crushing lows. It has both joy and mourning, success and misery. Each verse has its own level of passion and intensity, which changes and reshapes as the family does. Every character has their own battle, whether it appears as they grow into adulthood or later in life. And as the story moves back and forth in time, the reader discovers what events shaped its narrators.The novel teaches us how impactful our decisions can be. It may be short in length but is rich in wisdom. And it comes through experiences of the characters, as well as their relationships with others. For example, Sabe’s memory of the Tulsa race massacre, Aubrey’s fierce love for Iris, and Iris’ longing for education and liberty. Every ordeals trickle down to Melody’s perspective in 2001. It’s a vibrant tapestry that can be explored over, and over, and over.Everything about Red at the Bone is impeccable. The spotless prose, the authentic characters, and the diversified presentation of each of its themes. It never feels overcrowded, sluggish, or insignificant.Anika | chaptersofmay.com

by Anika May, August 28, 2020


Beautifully Raw

RED AT THE BONE begins in 2001, as 16-year-old Melody enters her coming of age ceremony in her grandparents' Brooklyn brownstone, wearing a white dress made to measure for someone else. The story moves back and forward in time, tracing the history of her parents & grandparents, showing how the threads of family pull towards the present.My favourite moments were the two-handers: the private moments shared between two characters & the perspective through which Jacqueline Woodson chooses to convey the intimacies of these personal experiences. The tenderness of a first sexual experience described from the male perspective; a nursing mother's experience of arousal; a Black mother's experience of childbirth and encounters with medical professionals; Black queer sexual awakening; the earliest childhood experiences (the layering of memory here almost reminded me of Sister Night's nostalgia trip and hearing her grandmother's voice echo through her memories of William - Watchmen HBO ep 6); the significance of that white dress. In this novel, pleasure and pain are tightly wound together; Woodson poignantly captures the ecstasy of being.Like a lot of the books I've read recently, this sparked my interest in what we pass down through the family line and what is inherited - be it mannerism, temperament, belief - how trauma is engraved in our ancestry and woven through the generations. Sabe and Tulsa will be on my mind for a while.There were a few moments when I wanted a little more from the narrative, but stories like this are making me hungry to read.

by Sammii-Louu, March 22, 2020


Not all life shattering experiences are negative

Iris has been brought up in New York in a happy black family that still bears the scars of the 1921 Tulsa massacre. By the age of 15 she’s sexually active so the pregnancy that prevents her from having her coming of age ball shouldn’t have been such a shock to her but she’s surprisingly ignorant about birth control. She decides to keep daughter Melody and her parents immediately move to a new neighbourhood where nobody knows them. Melody is brought up by her adoring grandparents and father in this new house after Iris runs away to college and never really returns. Fast forward 16 years and the 5 of them are together for Melody’s coming of age ball where Melody is wearing the dress Iris should have worn. The story of those years from 1921 onwards is lyrically told in very short chapters by each of the character in turn. Much of the story is left to the reader to pick up by using their imagination but I enjoyed this nuanced approach. As you would expect from a YA author Woodson sensitively handles the scenes between the young characters but I also enjoyed reading Iris’s parents stories.

by Judith Jesp, May 19, 2020



Another absorbing story from Jacqueline Woodson, read in one sitting as couldn't put it down. The story starts with Melody's 21st birthday party and then moves round the family to explore each character and give some of their history. Each person is brought to live, in a way that also acts as a way to tell Black history from how Brooklyn has changed, to people being turned out of their home and business in Oklahoma. Some major plot points are left hanging and not explored further, whilst it's the inner worlds of her characters that are so evocative, Woodson excels at getting inside people's hearts and minds and letting you understand how people can be affected by life.

by Claire Estelle, January 22, 2021

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