Novels are depictions of history through captivating stories, fiction or nonfiction. They tell of society’s anxieties, dreams and horrors, all somehow reflective of the time period surrounding the author. This is especially true in “If Beale Street Could Talk” by James Baldwin as he addresses ideas of race in the US during the 1970s. Reading it in the context of the 21st century United States hits like a punch in the gut.
Tish is 19 years old and three months pregnant. Fonny is 22 years old and in jail as he hears about his baby through a pane of glass with Tish on the other side. As an African-American falsely accused of rape, Fonny is trapped behind bars while Tish and her family scramble to prove his innocence. The novel explores the love and hardship surrounding Tish and Fonny, creating a wholesome story through flashes from the past building with progress in the present.
Given entirely through Tish’s perspective, the story is framed by the mind of a girl who is young and somewhat innocent, though not oblivious to the harsh realities of the world. Baldwin took a risk allowing his expressive story to be told through such a young and feminine narrator, yet the choice was a brilliant one. Tish’s identity pulls readers in since she is unassuming and inoffensive, yet she is confronted by challenges of gender, socioeconomic status, stereotypes and race on every page. Baldwin is incredibly talented in his ability to evoke depth and intense feeling. Often, these emotions are pressed into the reader through skillfully shaped one-liners that stand out because of their subtlety. The reader is forced to traverse a difficult terrain of social questions tied with emotional topics.
Prepare to be pulled into a story that can’t be put away, as the thoughts within “If Beale Street Could Talk” will run through the mind long after the final page. As Baldwin said, “One of the most terrible, most mysterious things about a life is that a warning can be heeded only in retrospect: too late.” The end of the novel leaves the reader with a feeling of insecure finality: entirely uncomfortable but attractively thought provoking.