Editorial note: I received a copy of Memphis is exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.
Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow is one of the best novels you’ll read this year. An extraordinary work of fiction covering three generations of a Southern Black family.
There are some novels you know will be great. You read the synopsis, a bit of background, and yes, even an amazing cover all contributes! So Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow has been on my radar for quite some time. I couldn’t wait to dive into this story. And in exciting news, Jenna Bush Hager selected the novel for her Read with Jenna Book Club!
I thought Memphis was fantastic. The writing is compelling, vivid and the story is fascinating. Author Tara M. Stringfellow said when crafting the novel, she wanted to write a Black fairy tale.
It’s one of those novels you have to read. There’s so much going on. Lots of joy, sorrow, pain, betrayal—it’s very layered and the characters are quite complex. I loved each of the four main characters.
What’s the Story About
Memphis covers over 70 years. The story is told from four Black women of the same family based in Memphis. We meet Joan as a 10-year-old who has just fled her home with her mother, Miriam, and younger sister, Mya, after her father committed acts of violence against her mother.
They’re now back in Memphis where Miriam grew up and are living with their aunt August and cousin Derek. Joan’s grandfather built this house in the historic Black neighborhood of Douglass—only to be lynched days after becoming the first Black detective in the city.
Joan is uncomfortable being back as she experienced a horrific and traumatic event at the house when she was a toddler. While Joan tries to settle in, the past is relentless with its memories.
The story moves back and forth between the past and the present timeline and features the perspectives of Joan, Miriam, August and their mother, Hazel.
We get to know Miriam throughout the years when she first meets their father, Jax, who seemed like the perfect package but darkness lingered.
August is an extremely talented singer but she has to put everything on hold to keep an eye on her son. She runs a hair salon out of her house, which is the focal point for the women of the community.
And finally, we follow Hazel, who after experiencing a devastating loss, eventually becomes one of the first black nurses in Memphis.
I really enjoyed the shifting timeline—it’s not linear but more so follows certain themes of the novel: love, motherhood, trauma, perseverance, racism, the power of a community and more. It’s been a while since I’ve read a multi-perspective story where I truly loved each of the characters. I thought they were so interesting and vivid—very richly drawn. Sometimes fiction just feels real and this one did. Tara M. Stringfellow did base part of the story off of her own family’s history.
Each of our four main characters are distinct and I especially loved Joan and wanted to give her a big hug. I do want to give a warning that this is not an easy read in some aspects and early on, we learn that there was child abuse and brutality. I will say the author Tara M. Stringfellow does handle it with as much care as possible without minimizing the horrors.
Sometimes a city serves as a character in itself and it does in this case. The author showcases Memphis is all of is glory and also its reality too. She shows how the city has changed over 70 years. What has remained is a sense of community.
It makes you think about what a community means to you. Is it simply just a place to live or is the neighborhood an extension of your own family? I’ve personally moved quite a bit both as a child and an adult and I’ve never really had a sense of community (at least not yet) so I think it’s fascinating to read about.
Also I have to say, I especially loved the scenes at August’s hair salon where the women of the community gather to discuss anything and everything.
Memphis is a must-read. You’ll love the women of the family and it doesn’t shy away from hard topics that are still prevalent today. Tara M. Stringfellow is an author to watch for sure. For book clubs, check out my discussion questions here.