BOOK REVIEW: If Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin

The Verse’s Ciara Brennan reviews If Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin (published in 1974 by Dial Press): “a 5/5 (…) this tale of systematic racism, and the power of love, is one we should all take heed of.”

When 19-year-old Tish’s 22-year-old lover Fonny is arrested for a crime he did not commit, the two lovers and their families must navigate how to stop and what caused his imprisonment. And when Tish finds herself pregnant with Fonny’s child, not only does it cause her to look back on their love story but on the urgency of freeing Fonny as well.

In the face of a world pitted against them because of their colour, will Fonny and Tish ever be free to love each other? Can the oppressed come together to defeat the oppressor?

When reading this book the first thing that comes to mind is how freely it flows, each sentence working perfectly with the other in unison. Often, even great books can be clunky in parts and difficult to digest for the reader but in this work, Baldwin makes the words a pleasure. This is one of the reasons I devoured this book in such a short period of time. Baldwin finds the perfect balance between intrusive, personal, free-flowing, understated and yet powerful in his writing. So much of the book is spent within the mind of Tish, and it would be hard to say it doesn’t often seem like we are intruding on someone’s space. More specifically, we are in her mind at the moment she loses her virginity, but it would be a far cry to say this moment is anything but real, raw. The scene captures the moments of lust and loss the first time encapsulates for both women and men alike.

Withstanding the deeper message the book is based on, the love story presented is pure and wonderous. It is perhaps one of the shining lights of the tale, knowing that whatever the characters go through they have each other as something to hold onto. We see the memories they have to hold onto too, some marred in sadness though made better in the knowledge that that sadness is overpowered by the love they hold on to.

The one theme running throughout the book, the antagonist, is racism. It intrudes on their sexuality, their freedom, their simple right to walk freely down the street. It’s found in small moments in the novel like the linking of lighter-skinned characters to beauty. And in the overarching knowledge that Fonny was imprisoned because of the vendetta of a racist police officer: the knowledge a white man’s lie has more power than the black man’s truth. The book has both pessimism and optimism running alongside it, optimism is found in their youth and love, the idea he may one day be free. But pessimism is found in the sad acceptance of the reality in America for black men and women; the system was set against them from day one. There are gut-wrenching moments, such as their friend speaking about his experience in prison. And there is the ending, itself a call to the next generation; their voices are loud and will be heard.

There too has to be an acknowledgement of how Baldwin does not let the experience of victims of sexual abuse be lessened. The tale speaks of an injustice done to two people, the woman who has had a terrible act done to her and a man being framed for doing so.

The book is one we should all be reading right now; its relevance is not only here but amplified. With the death of black men and women at the hands of the police, this tale of systematic racism, and the power of love, is one we should all take heed of. We must listen to the words of black men and women, and make sure their experiences are not relived. I give this book a 5/5, I can find no way to fault it.

Link to the 2018 movie If Beale Street Could Talk:

Link to the paperback version on Amazon:

Featured image property of Google images and Amazon.

Ciara Brennan

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