I won Tumbling
as a First Reads giveaway, and I was expecting very little from it. The bright and happy cover and jacket blurb (a story about the black experience in Philadelphia in the 40s, somehow linked to the jazz scene) seemed compelling, even though both proved to be somewhat misleading. Tumbling
over-delivered on its promise, but this is by no means a bright and happy story; nor is it much about Philadelphia's 40s jazz scene. Instead, the book revolves around the maternal Noon and the two girls she adopts, plus a tangled web of relationships and personalities that tumble around her.
First off, I truly enjoyed these characters. They were carefully rendered, wounded in their different ways but self-aware. Mostly, they were trying to be loving and gentle with one another, even when they strayed (Herbie), were flighty (Ethel), behaved with shallow self-interest (Liz) or were paralyzed by their own pain (Noon). Even when their choices or acts seemed heartless or cruel, McKinney-Whetstone never failed to remind us--with a light and masterful touch--how human each was, and how the pain they inflicted on others was almost an inadvertent and understandable consequence of their own, greater, pain.
The story really revolves around Noon and around a trauma so deep, so horrific that she has been rendered frigid. The way McKinney-Whetstone tells this story (or doesn't tell it, more precisely) is one of the most successful aspects of the novel. We hear about the experience that shaped every aspect of Noon's life (and also Herbie's; and secondarily, Ethel's) only in oblique references until a pivotal late scene. The narration and plot unfolds to reveal the trauma only gradually, and only as quickly as Noon will allow it to emerge. Very clever.
Instead of presenting this critical event in graphic detail, McKinney-Whetstone lets the consequences of the act show it for what it is. As Noon and Herbie struggle with the devil in Noon's past, which is never fully-known to either of them, the novel becomes almost unbearably intimate; as though one is peeking in a window at an excruciatingly private scene, through curtains that have mistakenly been left open. It is here that McKinney-Whetstone has ripped a page from Toni Morrison's book (or maybe several); although to her credit, the novel never feels derivative or inferior to Morrison's work. It just feels similarly filled with secrets that loom in the shadows, threatening and influencing every aspect of the characters' lives.
There's an honesty to these characters, too. Even though they each do their best to hide their pain and keep their own secrets close, they 'leak' -- at least to the reader. And so, the reader is drawn in ... watching, hoping that each will somehow find the courage to confront their fear, and speak their truth openly, sharing their pain to exorcise it.
These are my favourite novels: those that pull me into the characters to empathize and bond with them, despite their flaws. I came to care about these characters, deeply; I wanted to protect them; I wanted them to find happiness. And this bond makes the ending particularly suspenseful and dramatic (and worth the lag in plot that happens at about the 2/3rds mark).