I first learned of The Book of Harlan by Bernice McFadden from a Black History Month display at the library. The cover featuring the image of a Black man in an old-fashioned suit, tie, and fedora jumped out at me. At first glance, I thought the book was going to be about a private investigator, something like Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books. It’s not.
The back cover explained that the book is actually about a Black musician from Harlem who travels to Paris around the time the city falls to the Nazis. Quite different from my assumption but still intriguing.
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The Book of Harlan begins telling the story of how Harlan’s parents, Emma and Sam, met and married. It wasn’t a perfect love story but their devotion to each other was sweet in its own way. At the time of his birth, Harlan’s parents were still quite young and trying to find themselves. This resulted in them leaving Harlan with his maternal grandparents while they moved from city to city seeking opportunities. On the one hand, they did the right thing by leaving Harlan in a stable household. Yet, they fell short by failing to maintain consistent contact with him during his early years. They were pretty much strangers to Harlan when they later reunited.
This resulted in Harlan viewing his grandparents as his parents and developing what I saw as abandonment issues. His aloofness hurt his mother and his father reacted violently in her defense. This dynamic plays out repeatedly throughout the book. Emma loves Harlan but her guilt over abandoning him as a child leads to her being over-indulgent. Sam makes some attempts to reel Harlan in but Emma butts in and threatens Sam into leaving Harlan alone. Harlan hones his manipulation skills on Emma and becomes a self-absorbed young man. His mommy issues coupled with his egotism results in him growing up to become an unrepentant womanizer.
This is where the book started going off track for me. Male characters like Harlan are over-represented in pop culture and media. He’s an absolute cliche. The only real difference being that Harlan is an African American man who spends time in a concentration camp. You would think that would be a dramatic experience but it came across as flat and tedious because it’s told through Harlan.
Harlan starts out as a sympathetic character with multifaceted layers but the life and feeling are sucked out of him the moment he leaves his grandparents to reunite with his parents. That could have been a great jumping off point for exploring how these early emotional traumas affect the development of men. And to some degree it was. But, once Harlan became a man, McFadden lost her way with the character. The book flowed well up to that point but then felt like it hit a brick wall. Once Harlan’s emotions closed off, so did my interest in the character. Harlan witnesses and experiences major events in history but falls right back into his old ways of boozing it up and chasing women. The character doesn’t evolve.
The supporting characters were more complex and interesting. I enjoyed the chapters about Harlan’s parents, his parents’ friends, and his young girlfriend. The stories of the people surrounding Harlan would have been a good book in the form of a collection of short stories. I found myself slogging through the chapters about adult Harlan but wanting more of the secondary characters.
Part of the problem is that Harlan’s life covers the Black experience from about the 1920’s to the 1960’s/1970’s. McFadden uses Harlan as a plot device to name drop Black celebs through the ages and tie together moments in history. But many of these mentions felt random and lacked purpose.
Don’t get me wrong, the concept for The Book of Harlan was interesting but the execution felt off. This is the first book I’ve read by McFadden and she is a gifted writer, blessed with the ability to craft phrases and describe scenes in a captivating way. Some of the chapters are enthralling, McFadden struggles to tie everything together and Harlan isn’t a strong enough character to carry the book. As a result, The Book of Harlan reads like random moments from history shoehorned into a story.
The Book of Harlan felt both too long and too short. Too long because of all the events crammed into the book. Too short because Harlan doesn’t feel fleshed out and some of the storylines feel under-developed.
The book has won several awards and has good reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. It’s not a terrible book but I felt like it was overrated. I honestly didn’t get what all of the fuss was about.
The Book of Harlan is worth checking out if you’re a fan of the author. You might also enjoy this book if you like books that explore society and culture through the ages. Though, be warned that McFadden takes some liberties with historical facts and events. Also, the author’s views creep through when discussing Malcolm X and Marilyn Monroe’s death/suicide.
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