Thursday, September 12, 2013

Review: Nine Years Under by Sheri Booker

I spent a long time reading Sheri Booker's Nine Years Under, and now I've spent nearly as long thinking about what to say about it.

from here
Booker's prose is fluid and engaging. Her promise as a writer is immense, but her story didn't engage me the way I wanted it to. Maybe because I read A Chance to Win, and it is such a great book about inner city life, that I wished for too much from Booker.

First, she has the disadvantage of being a memoirist and limited to her own story, as opposed to a reporter/ biographer who has multiple story lines to choose from.

Second, perhaps Booker's publicist did her a disservice by promising
With AIDS and gang violence threatening to wipe out a generation of black men, Wylie was never short on business. As families came together to bury one of their own, Booker was privy to their most intimate moments of grief and despair. But along with the sadness, Booker encountered moments of dark humor: brawls between mistresses and widows, and car crashes at McDonald’s with dead bodies in tow. While she never got over her terror of the embalming room, Booker learned to expect the unexpected and to never, ever cry.
While all those things are evident in Booker's memoir, they never feel like they take center stage; they are scenery, but the play is about a young girl struggling through the process of growing up, through having and leaving a beloved first job.

What was most missing from Nine Years Under was what I thought was its most obvious angle: Booker's parents. Her mother appears as half a character; she is her cancer, appearing only in horrid cycles of remission and recurrence. Her father is a presence but not a character. He's a Baltimore cop who can't watch The Wire because it hits too close to home, who has dedicated his life to make sure his daughter makes it out. But he never speaks, never offers advice or counsel.

Without her family, the characters of her life are limited to the funeral home's major players. But their interactions seem too limited to truly fill the surrogate family roles Booker assigns them. What was perhaps a compelling story in a 10,000 word magazine feature because drawn out and overwrought in a 300 page memoir.

Perhaps, in another few years, we'll see a second installment from Booker. I'd read it.

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