An American epic about race and family, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers' debut novel, "The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois," sprawls across centuries and continents, rural and urban, past and present. The heroine is one Ailey Pearl Garfield, pushed toward a career in medicine but far more inclined to study history. She's curious and a little angry, a chip on her shoulder for anyone who suggests who or what she ought to be.
Or perhaps the heroine is Ailey's mom, Belle, who marries her light-skinned college sweetheart Geoff and recoils at every word spoken by his toxically color-conscious mother, who is thrilled when her other son brings home a white woman.
"Love Songs" is one of those books that delights in detours, shining its spotlight on one protagonist for hundreds of pages, introducing another character in the margins, then foregrounding that character throughout the next section. But they all live along the same continuum, with the themes of autonomy, caste, color and education carrying over from section to section.
What the various generations have in common, among other things, is the fictional historically Black college Routledge; Ailey divides her formative post-high-school time between there, the small Georgia town of Chicasetta, and a city that is known only as the City. The rural South, as depicted in flashback (mostly through the words of Ailey's Uncle Root), is as dangerous as you might expect. There's plenty of blood at the root of Ailey's family tree.
But "Love Songs," whose title plays off the T.S. Eliot poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," is also kissed with nostalgia, not in the form of naiveté but as an openhearted remembrance of things past.
Ailey's college years fall in the early '90s — her parents were class of '66 — and these chapters come to life with a resurgence of Black nationalism (by way of the rap group Public Enemy) among the guys and a thorny sorority rush among Ailey and her friends. In such moments "Love Songs" exudes the energy of Spike Lee's "School Daze," especially in a classroom scene that erupts in a debate over skin color.
Ailey counts Native Americans and Scots among her ancestors; race is never a simple matter in "Love Songs," not even among those who want it to be. Jeffers has a lot to say here, and at 816 pages she gives herself ample space to say it. "The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois" is an investment, but a worthy one. It's the kind of epic that deserves its own place in the sun.
Chris Vognar is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications.
The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois
By: Honorée Fanonne Jeffers.
Publisher: Harper, 816 pages, $28.99.
Virtual event: In conversation with Lissa Jones-Lofgren. 5:30 p.m. Aug. 25, hosted by Rain Taxi. Free, but register at raintaxi.com/honoree-fanonne-jeffers.