Book Review: Novels About Family Destiny

Oct 16, 2017

Two new novels about family destiny, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and Alice Hoffman’s The Rules of Magic, distinctly explore how burdens of the past manifest for generations. Ward draws on elements of the Southern Gothic tradition while Hoffman’s novel harkens back to the Salem Witch Trials.

Jesmyn Ward's jolting, hypnotic novel takes us on a road trip in sultry, poverty stricken present day Mississippi Gulf Coast.  We meet Jojo and his toddler sister Kayla living with their Grandpa and grandma, who is sick with cancer. Pops protects Jojo from painful family history, but when their father is released from Parchman Farm, their drug addicted mother Leonie fetches Jojo and Kayla, the novel becomes a modern day Odyssey. When ghosts of the past present themselves only to Jojo, he is the glue that often painfully binds the past and the present. 

Alice Hoffman breezily guides us through the heady days of the 1960s in Greenwich Village with siblings, Franny, Jet, and Vincent.  Their mother hoped to permanently distance them from relatives in Boston with clairvoyant powers and magical spells and potions.  When they are summoned by an aunt, secrets are revealed and recipes are passed down.  Hoffman’s signature use of the supernatural to shelter oneself from the heartbreaks of life-- at the expense of loving and losing-- is as smart as it is entertaining.

Hoffman’s novel--a prequel to her bestselling Practical Magic--focuses on the strength of family bonds through sorrow and joy provides relief from Ward’s fully immersive nod to great novelists like Faulkner and Morrison.  Every family has a story and these two are both spellbinding and full of magic.

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