A family’s attempts to cope with loss are complicated when their personal tragedy forms the seed of a larger movement.
Malawi Walker, the youngest of three daughters of a prominent upper-middle-class black family from Washington, D.C., has recently moved to Florida to work as a teacher and be closer to a man she’s dating. On her way home after a long evening spent hanging out with a fellow teacher, Malawi crashes her car and, with no cellphone service to call for help, walks up to the home of Jeffrey Davies, a white man, who shoots her twice after she knocks on his door. When she succumbs to her injuries, the Walker family quickly unravels, each remaining member coping with Malawi’s death in his or her own sometimes-destructive way: Malawi’s father and mother, Malcolm and Bet, rely on substances to deal with their pain, while Malawi’s two sisters, Kenya and Ghana, are forced to confront the realities of their relationships with their romantic partners, their parents, Malawi, and each other. Several of the characters will be immediately recognizable to readers—the high-achieving but unsatisfied older sister, the hippie middle sister—and at times Hatter (The Color of My Soul, 2011) seems to want to shoehorn other storylines into the novel, such as the coming-of-age of Malawi’s nephew, Junior. Hatter does try to make her characters more than stock types, and she generally succeeds, weaving the events of the story with the characters’ pasts, unveiling their motivations, and encouraging readers to regard them with compassion, all while attempting to capture the energy of a larger social moment. But in an effort to seem evenhanded and tie a neat bow on an otherwise difficult and complicated story, Hatter defangs the movement she attempts to fictionalize and portray with respect.
Though it’s a nice effort, Hatter falls short of giving Black Lives Matter the literary treatment it deserves.