No one in Iris’s family, or Aubrey’s — Iris included — is trying to hurt anyone. Sturdy, lasting love, consideration and everyday kindness: These are as integral to a good life as they are challenging to portray in fiction. Villains can be so much easier to bring to fictional life, and, often, the more evil, the more compelling: Consider, for instance, every blockbuster superhero movie. The characters in “Red at the Bone” are doing what they can, in a world and nation that’s often very hard. Occasionally mentioned, and never forgotten, is the fact that Iris’s family moved to Brooklyn from the South in 1921 after white people in Tulsa burned down black people’s schools, restaurants and beauty shops. It’s not just that the past informs the present, nor is it just that the past isn’t past; it’s also the case that the past has to be remembered, has to be kept alive.
“I must have heard it a hundred times by the time I was school age,” notes Iris’s mother, Sabe, reflecting on her family’s stories about the 1921 fires. “I knew. And I made sure Iris knew. And I’m going to make sure Melody knows too, because if a body’s to be remembered, someone has to tell its story.” Accordingly, as though to underscore how present this history is, the novel is narrated in short sections that jump frequently around in time, narrated in turns by Iris, Sabe, Melody, Aubrey, Iris’s father, Po’Boy, Aubrey’s mother, CathyMarie, and back around again.
“The old folks used to say that from the ashes comes the new bird,” Sabe says. With its abiding interest in the miracle of everyday love, “Red at the Bone” is a proclamation. There’s a striking moment when Aubrey, who grew up in more difficult circumstances than Iris did, details a treasured childhood memory: “Once, a cardinal alighted on the kitchen windowsill and he found himself squinting long after it had flown away again, trying hard to hold on to its beauty.”
Beauty leaves us, as does, in time, everyone and everything else, but memory lets us hold on for a while.