“A book you can read for the writing alone” – Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks

IMG_2022-4-28-065903No matter how many books you’ve read, no matter how well read you consider yourself to be, there are, you will find (if you haven’t already), many, many, many books that you (a) have not read and (b) have not heard of. This is a fact.

Faber’s series of reissues is a case in point. Mrs Caliban. Palace of the Peacock. And now this marvel: Maud Martha. Gwendolyn Brooks, for the uninitiated, was the first African American woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize (in 1950, for her poetry collection, Annie Allen). Poet Laureate of Illinois. The first African American woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. A celebrated woman of letters, then, you might say, for large swathes of the twentieth century. But news to me. (Which is fine, in a sense, but also damning of both me and society in another, if I’m allowed to extrapolate my ignorance outwards.)

Maud Martha is (according to Brooks herself) a novel composed of 34 “tiny stories”. In the introduction, Margo Jefferson says they are like:

“a sonnet sequence, each story delights in sensory and emotional details and each reveals another aspect of Maud Martha.”

This is the story, then, of the titular Maud Martha, who may, in some respects, be said to resemble or mirror Brooks herself. We follow her from childhood up to the Second World War, our interest piqued, the book alluring, across many small moments. And the writing. Maud Martha is a book you can read for the writing alone.

How about this for you?

“New York, for Maud Martha, was a symbol. Her idea of it stood for what she felt life ought to be. Jeweled. Polished. Smiling. Poised. Calmy rushing! Straight up and down and yet graceful enough.”

Or this?

“It was hard to believe that a thing of only ordinary allurements – if the allurements of any flower could be said to be ordinary – was as easy to love as a thing of heart-catching beauty.”

Or this, cut from a slightly different cloth?

“There were these scraps of baffled hate in her, hate with no eyes, no smile and this – this she especially regretted, called her hungriest lack – not much voice.”

As you’d expect, Brooks gets into the experience of being black in America, and it’s easily as relevant now as it was then (Maud Martha was first published back in 1953). It feels like the kind of book that should be taught in schools if schools weren’t busy trying to toss out any kind of book liable to make a kid think.

Whether you approach it as a collection of loosely linked vignettes, tiny short stories that accumulate a sense of self, whether you approach it as an important book that missed out on greater appreciation, whether you approach it as a novel that shines a light on America (then and now), whether you approach it to see simply what you’ve missed – howsoever you approach it, know that it’s worth your while, know that there’s treasure here.

Any Cop?: Faber reissues have done it again. Consider us broadsided and blindsided. We lapped it up and we’re happy that a copy is sitting on our shelves. We recommend you don’t miss out on this one.


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