Book Review: No One Is Coming to Save Us, Stephanie Powell Watts
Fiction: No One Is Coming to Save Us, Stephanie Powell Watts
Ava wants a child. Desperately. Achingly. Approaching her late 30s, married for many years to Henry, all she can think about is how much she wants to become a mother. Sylvia, Ava’s mother, misses her son Devon. Desperately, Achingly. In her 60s, separated from her children’s father, Don, all she can think about is how much she wants to connect with her absent son. These two women, both focused so intently on the children who are absent from their lives, are the central figures in Stephanie Powell Watts’s novel No One Is Coming to Save Us. And their stories, mother and daughter, inseparably woven together, make for a compelling and beautiful work filled with heartache and longing and compassion and love.
Ava should be happy. At least, that’s what her mother thinks. Married to a beautiful (looking) man, with an excellent job, living in the house where she grew up, she has everything she needs to be happy. But what she wants most is a child. Sylvia should mind her own business. At least, that’s what her daughter thinks. But Sylvia insists on interfering in the lives of other people, still coming to Ava’s house to clean (and meddle) and talking on the phone to Marcus, a young inmate who reminds Sylvia just how much she misses her son Devon. Sylvia manages to see Ava’s unhappiness, but cannot quite bring herself to reach out through her own pain–and Ava manages to see Sylvia’s unhappiness, but cannot quite bring herself to reach out through her own pain. Then, JJ returns.
JJ Ferguson. The boy who made it. JJ had been the orphaned foster child who lived nearby. He knew Devon, befriended (and loved) Ava, and adored Sylvia. He had been gone for years, made some money, and was now coming home. He built a large house on the top of the hill, bigger than the houses of the white folks, nicer than the houses of the white folks, the local boy who did well. And in coming home he is bringing the echoes of a lost past, the mists shrouding paths not taken, and the dreams of a future that may never come.
Watts tells the story of these women and the men in their lives: the beautiful but dissolute Henry, the cad Don, the absent Devon, the once absent and now present JJ. She reveals their sharp edges and their lost dreams, their failures and their ambitions, their longings and their realities. She neither judges nor exonerates. They are who they are, warts and flaws and lusts and longings and fears and joys. And as they rub against each other, often rubbing raw and leaving each other bruised and bloodied, they reveal the painful humanity that unites us all. These characters may be African Americans struggling to make financial ends meet, but their desires and depths are common to people of all ages and races and strata. Watts’s characters are both black and universal, both poor and universal, both coastal Carolinian and reflective of people from any place and any time.
And her language sings! Even in her descriptions of incidental characters, she uses words to paint frescoes. On a single page, two little girls are said to be taking “small bites that might register under a microscope. It was clear to anyone who had ever been a child that they hated everything on their plates.” Weren’t we all those little girls, once? I remember plates like that, and I’m a middle aged man! Later in that same paragraph, those girls’ father and grandmother are described. Their grandmother “spit out” their father “identical to her and slapped a big porn star-approved mustache on. Never have you seen two separate people more alike. Both happiness killers. If they came close to a flicker, a spark of happiness, they’d stamp it out quick before it spread.” I know I’ve met those same people. Most of us have. We just didn’t know the right words to describe them, until Stephanie Powell Watts did it for us.
No One Is Coming to Save Us is beautiful, with memorable characters who are as universal as they are unique, and with language that appeals to all the senses. Read it–and keep a tissue box handy.