I first heard of Tayari Jones when someone sent me a link to her blog post explaining why she was boycotting a writers conference in Arizona. After reading that piece, I reserved her 2005 novel The Untelling at the library.
Nine-year-old Ariadne (Aria) was in a car crash that took the lives of her father and baby sister, and left her mother shell-shocked. Aria, her big sister Hermione and her mother subsequently led dysfunctional lives under a shell of normalcy, until the girls were old enough to move out. The now twenty-five year-old Aria lives in Atlanta, where she has a regular job, and a regular love life with her boyfriend Dwayne. And then Aria misses a period or two, and is sick in the mornings, and her belief that she’s pregnant leads to a trail of falsehoods that loop back to her childhood tragedy.
The Untelling is one of those deceptively simple novels that convince the uninformed that writing is easy. There aren’t any literary pyrotechnics here–Jones isn’t pioneering a new style or genre, and prose is accessible and straightforward. But the story gradually reveals its depths, examining how secrets and lies twist and strain relationships beyond repair. When things go wrong, how does the “awful weight” of truth compare against the “hollow clatter” of lies ? Can we “untell” lies, can we achieve forgiveness–especially when it comes to family?
Aria is a fractured, believable protagonist whose trespasses are all too understandable and yet without reason, whose problems are at once simple and immensely convoluted. She reminded me so much of one of those heroines Alice Munro delights in–ill at ease with who she is and not quite sure what she’s seeking to escape, a girl-woman who distorts her own reality until an unavoidable moment of truth illuminates her life, troubled, but not tragically so. Moreover, Jones often displays a Munroesque deftness of touch when it comes into insights into human nature. Consider:
“I have never been good at playing hard to get, that faked indifference that is supposed to make everyone love you. In romance it wasn’t a matter of promiscuity, no matter what my mother might have said. I’ve never slept with any man for the thrill of it, just because I was curious about how he might move, how it might make me feel. It was more that I was desperate and optimistic at the same time. When a decent-seeming man asked me to lunch or dinner, or just asked for my phone number, my optimism said that he could be the one. My desperation is what made me co-operative, wriggling out of my clothes after only a few kisses.
In a manner that is both different and identical, I am the same way with Hermione, constantly offering myself to her, in the form of cookies baked to honor some greeting card holiday or volunteering to babysit, although she always refuses…”
The Untelling is set in the American South in the nineties and Aria is black; as expected, issues of race–sometimes articulated, sometimes implied–inform the story. During Aria’s first meeting with her (white male) gynecologist, the doctor, seeking to put at her at ease, asks what she does for a living, where she is from and how she managed to get rid of her accent. This sort of thing–questions about the way I speak– is so familiar to me, and Jones really nails the unthinking behind the remarks well-intentioned people often make about people of color. The book’s cover features a bud and a blossom, and while the inference is obvious, I like to think my feelings towards Jones’s writing are mirrored in this illustration–I’ve moved from acceptance to liking to full-blooded admiration for this book and its writer. Strongly recommended.