Book Review: Palmares
by Gayl Jones
Publication Date: Sep 14, 2021
List Price: $27.95
Format: Hardcover, 592 pages
Imprint: Beacon Press
Publisher: Beacon Press
Parent Company: Unitarian Universalist Association
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Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming
No less than the esteemed late novelist Toni Morrison, the chief editorial gatekeeper of Random House, was stunned by the narrative power of Gayl Jones’ first novel, Corregidora. The book of incest and topsy-turvy desire was published to critical acclaim in 1975. Jones was 26 at the time. Then Eva’s Man, a collection of painful flashbacks features the main character, Eva Medina Canada’s emotional unraveling into mental illness, which culminates in the castration of Davis, the man who imprisons her so he can repeatedly rape her. The book in 1976 totally hooked her readers who clamored for her next literary escapade.
Next came her books, White Rat, The Healing, and Mosquito completely bewitched her fans, enticing them to camp outside stores to grab her latest product. Some were surprised when The Healing was named a National Book Award finalist and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Eventually, Jones vanished from the hectic public scene of publishing after marrying Robert Higgins and left the US in the early 1980s.
Now, after more than two decades, Jones’ mammoth work, Palmeres, emerges on the bookshelves, seeking to enthrall old fans and snare new readers. The genesis of this hefty book was the spark of creation stemming from a volume-length poem, Song of Anninho, which was published by Detroit’s Lotus Press in 1981. It also was inspired by the church plays from her maternal grandmother, Amanda Wilson, and the childhood tales written by her mother, Lucille Jones. Jones, a keen observer of history, culture, and tradition, absorbed the concept of utopia — a place where oppression and intolerance would not be acceptable.
“When you tell a story you automatically talk about traditions, but they’re never separate from the people, the human implications,” Jones once said. “You’re talking about your connection as a human being.”
In this bold, massive historical novel, Palmeres, Jones imagines an alternative society of unshackled souls in this hallowed place in a 17th century settlement in the mountains of Brazil. This area, “a free African state,” was created by escaped slaves, wanting to find a safe community for their children and family. The writing of its cosmic narrative, told by a black woman, Almeyda, is powerful and evocative as she chronicles the rise and fall of Palmeres, resistant to foreign intervention and attack. Also, the novel is a true love story of a deep bond with her man, Anninho, two souls intertwined by romance and challenge.
As Almeyda recovers from the terrible maiming, she remembers the fall of Palmeres, assaulted by colonial Portuguese troops. Her passion with her man, Martim Anninho, never wanes. While the collapse of the settlement is at the center of the epic book, Jones describes how incredibly cruel slavery was to a woman, a female child who grows into adulthood under the evil oppression of colonial whites. As a native of Lexington, Kentucky, she is quite familiar with the difficult legacy of slavery, and later Jim Crow, and the negative effects of their harsh relationship with rural and urban African American girls and women.
If you’re a reader of Jones’ books, you’re familiar with her deep dive into the emotional and spiritual consciousness of her female characters. From Ursa Corregidora to Almeyda in this book, she moves through the powerful evolution of the feminine mind and soul through some of the adverse situations and conditions. Pain yet courage are their constant companions. “There are things that a woman sings, and only a woman knows the full meaning,” she once said. “You may sing for men as well as women, but only a woman knows your full meaning. I am not a feminista. I only think a woman should be true to who she believes herself to be. Or who she wants herself to be. Or who she imagines herself to be.”
Anninho, a man worthy of admiration, speaks of Palmeres as a haven of strength, love, redemption and renewal. He says: “Those who escape here on their own are free. Those when we bring against their will are not. Those who go against the laws here are slaves again. Those who desert are executed. Murder, adultery, theft, desertion are punishable by death. That is the way it is.”
Critics have cheered the first half of the novel, where Almeyda, aka Almeydita, is a spiritually blessed child living on a Brazilian plantation with her mother and grandmother. A Jesuit priest gives her a basic education, based in Biblical teaching, geography and literacy. Her grandmother, a healer and seer, trains her young charge in old forms of magic and spirit power. Yes, this is the most inventive, effective prose of this huge odyssey by Jones, but it forms the foundation of what follows.
The criticism begins after Almeyda is sold to a new owner, with the resulting chapters becoming shortened yet no less potent than the early glimpses of her world. Her search for Palmeres and Anninho first takes her alone on a perilous journey through jungles, mountains, villages, and along the shore. It is sometimes a collection of harrowing experiences and events, but the concept of liberation and freedom arrives with the various people who cross her path. The value of the latter section should read as a primer of spiritual, mystical growth rather than the obvious search of the dark-skinned woman’s mate.
In one sense, Jones is setting the table with this first installment of Palmeres with this open-ended conclusion. The odyssey continues as the book will be the first of five offerings from the author in the next two years. If the upcoming volumes reach the artistic promise of this new work, we readers have much to expect, for Palmeres is a rich, challenging, imaginative treasure from end to end.