Unusually for me, this is the third book I’ve reviewed this year which is far from shiny and new. Something of an American publishing sensation, Ann Petry’s The Street was the first novel by a black woman to sell over a million copies in 1946. This new edition is introduced by Tayari Jones, whose An American Marriage won last year’s Women’s Prize for Literature, placing it neatly in its literary and social context. It tells the story of a woman trying to do the best she can in the face of a deeply divided society.
Lutie Johnson has worked hard to better herself, cleaning by day and studying by night, hoping to ensure a future for eight-year-old Bub. She’s spent years away from her son, working as a maid for a white family in Connecticut to help pay the mortgage on their home when her husband loses his job. When she discovers Jim’s unfaithfulness, Lutie kicks him out but can no longer afford the house. Instead, she finds an apartment in Harlem on 116th Street, far from the respectable end of the neighbourhood. She rents the attic rooms, repelled by the caretaker who conceives an obsession for her and wary of the madame who runs the downstairs whorehouse but unable to afford anything better. Lutie saves what she can, maintains her respectability and makes sure that Bub understands the value of money. One evening, she treats herself to a drink at the local bar, a beautiful woman alone, attracting the attention of Boots Smith, the bar’s bandleader who dangles the prospect of a singing job in front of her. Lutie is no naïve young girl but she spots a chance of eking out her small salary persuading herself that leaving Bub alone at night is a small price to pay. Meanwhile, Jones the caretaker has devised a scheme he hopes will deliver his tenant into his hands setting in train a chain of events that can only end badly.
According to Jones’ introduction, The Street was originally marketed as a piece of noir, its various lurid-sounding jackets suggesting pulp fiction rather than literature which no doubt helped those record-breaking sales along. Several of Petry’s characters fit that mould – the grotesque caretaker, the madame with eyes everywhere and the white nightclub owner with a taste for black women – but she takes care to explore their backstories, steering them away from the two-dimensional. Lutie is a strong woman, fiercely protective of her respectability and determined that she and her son will have a bright future but stymied at every turn by the prejudice that steers her towards a different role. Petry’s metaphor of a wall between black and white is a vividly effective one – even the liberal white employer happy to chat to her on the train firmly puts her in her place at their destination. How wonderful it would be if Petry’s novel was no longer relevant.
Virago Modern Classics: London 2019 9780349012933 403 pages Paperback