Book review: My Monticello, by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

Set in a crumbling America of the near future, My Monticello is relentless in driving home its anti-racism message, writes Stuart Kelly
Jocelyn Nicole Johnson PIC: Billy HuntJocelyn Nicole Johnson PIC: Billy Hunt
Jocelyn Nicole Johnson PIC: Billy Hunt

This is a striking, if sometimes strident, novel. It is set in a near-future America where climate catastrophe and massive power failures that take out mobile phones and air travel have left the country “unclear whether we were under siege, or whether the world was toppling under its own needless weight.”

Such a situation has a predictable side-effect for some of the residents of Charlottesville, Virginia. White supremacists are taking full advantage of the apocalypse. The racism has long been in the system but what was latent is now overt. The casual but offensive “pretty for a black girl” slides into “expel them for they cannot make white babies” on the university campus. As one of the “True Men” recites, “We are chosen to redeem the great state of Virginia from darkness… We pledge to do what must be done, to restore our Legacy! Our Monuments! Ourselves!”

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My Monticello is chilling, affecting and intelligent, but it does seem to be critic-proofed. Who, after all, would criticise a novel that calls out racism? That said, there is a difference between agreeing with the moral and political propositions of a book and understanding its status as an act of literature.

My Monticello, by Jocelyn Nicole JohnsonMy Monticello, by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
My Monticello, by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

The novel is narrated by Da’Naisha Love, and it opens with her and many others fleeing from the Klan-like vigilantes. She has with her her grandmother MaViolet, her college boyfriend Knox who is a white student, her ex-squeeze Devin and several others. In a novel about inheritance and ancestry, it is significant that Knox takes with him a book Da’Naisha has given him: Toni Morrison’s Song Of Solomon. In some ways this is much more like a European existentialist novel, along the lines of Camus, than Morrison’s work. My Monticello is sparse and indignant, pared back and simmering.

I would very much have liked more about Da’Naisha and Knox’s relationship, in that he veers between being genuinely concerned about his white privilege (and is even estranged from his father through dating someone of colour) and his incapacity not to patronise. Swiftly, they reach Monticello, where Da’Naisha once worked as a tour guide. It was the planation home of the founding father Thomas Jefferson. As they huddle in, afraid and hungry, the question of whose the “My” of the title is comes into sharp focus. Da’Naisha is keeping two secrets. The first is her middle name – Hemings – who was the mistress of Jefferson and the mother of his children. She was “his baby-mama, his darker but not very dark never-wife”. The second is that she is pregnant, and does not know whether Knox or Devin is the father. These are all elegant ways of making the problem human. What do we bequeath and what do we pass on? What is the present due from the past, and what will the future think of the present?

Once they have reached Monticello, there is a scene which is neat, cute and darkly ironic. The refugees decide to write a list of rules, in a kind of homage (or is it parody?) of Jefferson. They make a sign saying “WE ARE HERE”, which is both literal and metaphorical. “We all agreed that we would protect one another”, which is indeed a noble sentiment but lacks the rhetorical power of “We hold these truths to be self-evident”. It becomes more complicated when later in the book there is an invocation to “Life. Liberty. Happiness”, given that it is the pursuit of happiness, not the promise of it that the Constitution enshrines.

The problem with the novel is not in intent, but in structure. I read through it expecting two closures. How would the group deal with the impending storm of racists, determined that they should vacate the building, and what resolution would we get about the father of Da’Naisha’s child. The second is rather beautifully left unanswered, with a “what does it matter” resignation. Throughout the book I had questioned what we call “the condition of narration”. A first person narrative in which the person never seems to be writing, or telling us why they are writing, can be slightly off-key. The reader is given an explanation: that the book was being written all the time and has been hidden in Jefferson’s library, as a kind of counter-narrative to his own works. Clever, but the absence of any scenes where the narrator actually puts pen to paper or types renders it slightly unsatisfying. The battle is coming, but we are never told the outcome. This is deft, but also a dodge. Would these people take up arms against those who would harm them?

The characters are always identified by the problematic notion of skin. Johnson runs through a whole spectrum of ways of describing skin colour, but there is one consistency. Black is always Black, where brown, olive, honey, golden, pale, white are all in lower case. One can see the point: this is an assertion of Black identity. Nevertheless, it jars. Hierarchies are not disrupted by reversing them. For all its virtues, My Monticello is relentless in driving home its message, often at the expense of expanding the secondary characters. I could not tell you much about the personality of the twins, the religious neighbour, the students activists on the run, the fascists. Most of us have had the memo. What we require is the humanity.

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My Monticello, by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, Harvill Secker, £12.99

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