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Song of the Shank: A Novel Paperback – June 17, 2014
This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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*Starred Review* Now a fairly obscure historical figure, Tom Wiggins, born a slave, became an international sensation as a pianist. In the extraordinarily talented hands of Allen, Tom is a mysterious and compelling figure, a blind black boy at a time when his perceived infirmities, including his race, should make him insignificant. Apparently an autistic savant, Tom exhibits both giftedness and odd behavior, which unnerves and enthralls those around him. Allen uses Tom as the central figure as the novel explorescomplex relationships and the interior lives of black and white folks, including a mother with little authority over her child, a fairly benign but self-absorbed slave owner, ambitious promoters, an assortment of orphans and former slaves at wit’s end about their future, and a genius oblivious to the tumult around him. Told from various perspectives, shifting between the pre– and post–Civil War periods, Allen’s tour de force sweeps from the rural South to New York City and between lonely apartments and raucous refugee camps, encompassing the strife of war and the draft riots. Amid the larger drama of slavery and its injustices, Allen offers the more intimate drama of one young boy’s life and the financial and emotional investments involved in the question of what’s to be done with his exceptional talent. A brilliant book, with echoes of Ralph Ellison and William Faulkner. --Vanessa Bush
“[A] masterly new novel. . . . It sagely explores themes of religion, class, art and genius, and introduces elements of magic realism . . . resulting in the kind of imaginative work only a prodigiously gifted risk-taker could produce.” ―The New York Times Book Review (front cover)
“Allen's elaborate novel unfurls like a tapestry, its minutely detailed tableaux illustrating the vast, unhealed bruise of American racism.” ―The Boston Globe
“Powerfully evokes the life of the 19th-century slave and enigmatic musical savant, Blind Tom.” ―Vanity Fair
“Epic and brilliant. . . . [Allen's] unhurried and unconventional novel is a celebration of an utterly unique American artist.” ―The Los Angeles Times
“Inventive, earthy, lyrical, demanding, rewarding. . . . There are echoes . . . in this potential Great American Novel of past masters Faulkner, Hemingway, Ellison, Melville, John Edgar Wideman, Ishmael Reed.” ―San Francisco Chronicle
“Beautiful. . . . [Allen's] style is at once dense and spare--his prose poetic and heavily evocative.” ―Chicago Tribune
“An eerie fever dream of a historical novel. . . . [Allen] carries the resources of the poet and the psychic in his trick bag.” ―Bookforum
“[An] explosive vanguard novel . . . a chilling orphic drama full of polyrhythmic shakers and shells. . . . A landmark of modern African-American literature. . . . Reading through this sagacious volume is like stumbling on a crooked monument covered in celestial carvings, something that aims for the stars and ends up reconfiguring constellations.” ―The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“If there's any justice, Allen's visionary work, as startlingly inventive as one of his subject's performances, should propel him to the front rank of American novelists.” ―Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“[A] delightful literary gem.” ―Essence
“[A] sprawling, Faulknerian work of fiction.” ―The Kansas City Star
“In the extraordinarily talented hands of Allen, Tom is a mysterious and compelling figure. . . . [A] tour de force. . . . A brilliant book, with echoes of Ralph Ellison and William Faulkner.” ―Booklist, starred review
Top customer reviews
Focusing on the autistic savant “Blind Tom,” the world-renowned piano prodigy born of slaves Allen’s novel creates an indelibly realistic portrait of life in both the North and South before, during and after the American Civil War. Compared by the New York Times to Faulkner, Allen’s narrative fractures the chronology of Tom’s life while exploring the question Who should profit from the talent of an artist who cannot care for himself?—a question both timely and timeless. Tom is handed off from owner through a series of managers, both black and white, astonishing audiences with his gifted recitals and baffling those close to him with his oracular utterances.
Allen’s narrative, which stretches from Georgia to New York City and beyond to the segregated island of Edgemere, evokes the violence and dangers that showed that Emancipation was not the same as freedom—a truth that is as current as today’s headlines.
Perhaps Chinua Achebe’s words best express the importance of a piece of literature like Song of the Shank: “It's not difficult to identify with somebody like yourself, somebody next door who looks like you. What's more difficult is to identify with someone you don't see, who's very far away, who's a different color, who eats a different kind of food. When you begin to do that then literature is really performing its wonders.” The world of Blind Tom is indeed very far away, but we need to recognize its echoes in our own world, how some songs remain the same.
Kudos to Jeffrey Renaud Allen. His artful literary devices may have slowed down his readers, but we needed to read it slowly and let the ramifications of this tragedy sink in. Stream of consciousness -like text (in the third person) in 2-3 page long paragraphs definitely presents a challenge. It's not Faulkner, but it IS effective. Jumps in time and out of sequence episodes also made one reed and reread. It was well worth it.
We chose it as one of our bookclub selections. It won't be read by all members-- but it should be!
Although one gets a sense of history from the story, you have to remain very focused as you peruse this book. I think if one is drawn to poetic prose, this is a book you will absolutely love. If you desire to have that prose married to heady pacing and readily identifiable settings and context, you will be underwhelmed. All in all it is a fascinating story of a riveting historical character, but it failed to be engrossing for me, and I could never get in a comfortable reading flow, hence the 2 stars.
Do not waste your money or time. This author writes for the few literary critics and not for the rest of us.