Remembrance by Rita Woods is a multi-generational, historical fiction book authored by a Black woman that follows three to four generations of Haitian women. The first story is about an immigrant lady, named Gaelle, in present day that is struggling to get control of her life after a terrible earthquake that hit Haiti. A mysterious elderly woman that she meets at her job will change everything she thought she knew about herself. The second story takes place in the late 1850s and follows a young slave girl named Margot who is sold just before her 18th birthday in the wake of tragedy, causing her to lose her promised freedom. The third story follows a girl named Abigail during the final decade of the 1700s as she’s forced to abandon her children and take her mistress to safety in New Orleans.
Here is a book that had plenty of potential to be outstanding, however, due to inconsistent pacing and added surrealist traits, its strength ended up becoming its weakness.
The best parts of the book are definitely its characters. When I first began the story, I was immediately swept away by Gaelle, who immigrated to America and suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after a terrible earthquake in Haiti wiped out her entire family; and also by Margot, who was a slave during the 19th century, living on a plantation in Haiti. Their individual complexities make it very hard not to become inexplicably invested in their journeys, especially as I waited for their paths to cross. The representation of PTSD, Major Anxiety Disorder, and a natural suspicion/hatred for one’s oppressors was alarmingly relatable and heartbreakingly sincere. From the initial twenty to thirty pages, as the foundation for each lady’s unique plot was laid out, I was hooked, utterly unable to put the book down.
Then as we read onwards, we are introduced to another lady during the end of the 18th century named Abigail, which slowly starts to connect the different narratives. While I was wholly caught up in the storm of trauma, abuse, identity crises, heart-breaking familial dynamics, and much more, I remember thinking to myself that this was going to be one of the best books of the year for me. However, the fantastical elements began to take more of a prominent role within the plotline, and then all of the meticulous character development and the unique weaving of tales started to feel unnaturally convoluted. It’s like the book was trying really hard to be even more original, which it totally didn’t need. Additionally, these fantasy characteristics initiated some unexpected tragedies that felt like their sole purpose was of shock value, and that’s something I tend to loathe in books. I understand the need for deaths and tragic events once in a while, but when they are placed in a manner as to elicit nothing but shock, or to make an already compelling story become more diluted with forced evocativeness, then I begin to question its purpose and inclusion, which I did often with Remembrance.
Here’s the thing. There are plenty of multigenerational novels out there, especially about traumatic and fucked-up things that have happened in history. Yet, Gaelle’s, Margot’s and Abigail’s journeys are unique enough to really set them apart. Not to mention that with historical fiction, so few of them are diverse, meaning that they don’t usually include people of colour (not without some sort of fetishization, sexualisation, or trauma porn), and fewer of them are authored by people of colour. Plus, it follows Haitian women, of which there’s even less narratives So, right there we have some great reasons to pick up Remembrance. Because of that, the need to include this element of fantasy or maybe even magical realism (to a certain degree) was completely unnecessary, more so when you consider how much space it took up. I feel like the only reason for it was to bulk up the book and to create a justification for the tragedies that occur later on. There were times when these fantastical things were taking place or happening, and my mind completely checked out because it was such a disconnect from everything that made me so damn compelled to binge-read Remembrance to begin with.
Beyond that, everything else about Remembrance is actually quite good. As mentioned before, the character development is phenomenal as the novel is highly character-driven, which is something I adore within the genre. The writing is beautiful with its depictions of Haiti’s scenic landscapes (not the plantations) and even New Orleans with all of its ritziness. There’s superbly written historical exhibition too. I would warn that it’s incredibly difficult to read at times because we are reading about the oppression and abuse of Black people who were enslaved during the 18th and 19th centuries. They are treated like garbage, and it’s excruciating to read, particularly if the reader is a person of colour who may have a history of oppression and racist abuse and bullying, and even more so for Black readers. The “N” word is used quite often, but it’s in French, which felt weird. I know French was the dominant language of Haiti as the colonisers of Haiti were French. Nevertheless, it made me feel super uncomfortable reading it because I don’t know if the use of French was supposed to be for authenticity’s sake, or to cushion the usage of such a disrespectful and offensive term. I’m a strong believer that it’s 100% possible to write authentic historical narratives without the use of the “N” word, so… I personally felt it was unnecessary. (Bowties and Books is a booktuber and bookstagrammer who does a marvellous job of explaining why the “N” word is unnecessary in historical narratives).
Overall, Remembrance is a good historical fiction book. Some readers may appreciate the fantastical traits that the writer threaded into a story about strong Black women being placed in unbelievably painful situations and circumstances. Others may feel that the experiences the women face are more than enough for the story to be compelling, evocative, and original without the added fantasy and surrealist qualities. I’m of the latter, but I’m also not going to say that y’all shouldn’t read it just because it wasn’t my cup of chai. It very well may be yours!
If you’re in the market for a book such as this, which is authored by a Black woman (I also believe she’s Haitian-American, but I’m not 100% sure), then I recommend you check it out for yourselves.
Content Warnings: Use of “N” word. Graphic scenes of racist violence. Child death. Child abandonment. Racist language.
2.75 fires outta 5!