"Libertie," Kaitlyn Greenidge's second novel, set in Brooklyn, opens in 1860, when "freeborn" 12-year-old Libertie Sampson becomes her mother Cathy's apprentice. Cathy, a homeopath, helps slaves escape to their freedom, along with tending to typical ailments among people in town. Greenidge explores the complexities of race seamlessly in her novel, placing in the mouths of Black characters a note of dismay when they contrast Libertie's dark skin to her mother's lighter shade; Cathy is "light enough to pass" for white, though she chooses not to do so.
In the opening pages, the child regards her mother with a worshipful gaze, and it is something of a relief to watch Libertie feel revulsion as she feeds her mother's cats: "The smell of their food made me ill, not because it was putrefying but because of how much it made them want me, made then mimic the action of love to get it. … Their need was monstrous." Greenidge's prose is at its best when these visceral moments extend into understated metaphor.
Neither Libertie nor Cathy can forget Cathy's failure to save a man known as Ben Daisy — the "Daisy" borne of his incessant ramblings for a lost love. Heartbroken, Ben eventually drowns himself, and this loss convinces Libertie that love is too costly; she wants neither Ben Daisy's fate nor her mother's. When Libertie leaves for college at her mother's behest, she decides, "I would banish her from the very recesses of my heart."
There is a mystic heaviness to Libertie's language — her speech, her writing, her thoughts — and Greenidge structures the novel in sections hinging on significant plot points: the death of a patient, the founding of a hospital, traveling to college, getting married and giving birth. The spectrum of Black skin color surfaces again and again, an urgent reminder that the word "colored," which appears throughout the work, is an oversimplification of a nuanced, individuated experience. "I was not strong enough for this world," Libertie reflects, though Greenidge gives her narrator no shortage of strength; what she has is considerable anger and empathy.
Libertie's marriage to Emmanuel Chase — and their move to Haiti — establish a significant shift in tone. The story focuses closely on the development of the marriage, the pressures of life as an unwelcome in-law, and the cultural differences between Libertie's old and new countries. These sections make up the novel's richest, most intimate pages, while maintaining the work's overall interest in concepts of love, freedom and righteousness.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy's writing has appeared in Electric Literature, Lenny Letter, Narrative, the Millions, Harvard Review and elsewhere. She held a 2014-16 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
By: Kaitlyn Greenidge.
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 323 pages, $26.95.