Saint Monkey by Jacinda Townsend
Pookie is more charismatic than good looking. Audrey describes her: “He didn’t notice me at all, and it salted up the difference between us. Tortoise-shell glasses, shit-colored wool stockings, a head full of high-flown literature, and hair that never grows longer than two marcels on a bumper, is what I’ve got. Two different bloods don’t meet up in my face and explode there: I’m not capable of riling up some minister enough that he starts quoting scripture at me.”
As they grow up, Audrey manages to escape to New York City thanks to her gifted piano playing. She joins a jazz group and learns about love, racism, sexism, and the constraints of work. Caroline stays home, attends church, sells makeup, and tries to reign in her natural sarcasm. Audrey writes Caroline letters, telling her everything, though Caroline almost never responds. They interpret each other’s thoughts and actions long distance, feeling connected to the core, frustrated, and envious.
As women, they’re joined in despair and occasional delight. “And I remembered back when I’d of had Audrey to come over and share this all with, all my grief and all my wanting, and you know I’d never tell Audrey this now, but it was a time I loved her something terrible… I knew I’d loved her better than I’d loved my own self. But she grew off and left me… And even though it’s been a long time happening, she’s such a force she done broke my heart without even meaning to.”
The alternating narration made Saint Monkey difficult at first. Audrey and Caroline think very much the same — often about each other — which is confusing. However, Townsend, with her gift for language, made my heart feel things my mind couldn’t easily grasp: Audrey and Caroline’s panicked desire to flee the past, their deep yearning to find love against the odds. Whether or not readers feel at home in this story, they’re sure to be enraptured by the language. Townsend’s descriptions not only illuminate the people and landscapes they’re describing – they all come with an emotional core. “I closed my eyes and saw, on the backs of my eyelids, the coal-pregnant mountains and their ceiling of sky, the women of Queen Street crucifying their laundry with wooden clothespins. All the tender things that raised me, the things that made me more than a poor girl passing by someone’s sitting room.” In fact, there’s so much emotion in this book, it can be overwhelming. I could read it again and again and always find something new that matters.