Lots of brouhaha surrounding Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s My Monticello which, as I know from experience, doesn’t always lead to a satisfying read. I wasn’t entirely sure whether to accept when I was offered a copy but decided to give it a try given it’s a Harvill Secker title, one of my favourite lists. Set against a backdrop of race riots and climate change, Johnson’s debut follows Naisha who, with her grandmother, boyfriend and assorted neighbours, flees Charlottesville heading to Monticello, overlooking the town.
Their rifles gleamed as if they’d only just been bought: a megastore militia
Naisha and her boyfriend are visiting her beloved grandmother when First Street is filled with marauding white supremacists, storming the neighbourhood in their SUVs, armed to the teeth. They’ve no choice but to run, no time even to grab the inhalers that MaViolet needs for her asthma, three young black men fending off their attackers as they board an abandoned bus. Naisha drives towards Monticello, home to Thomas Jefferson and his many slaves, the ancestor of MaViolet and Naisha. The storming of First Street is the latest episode in ‘the unraveling’ which has seen planes falling from the sky, storms robbing the city of power and violence perpetrated on a terrifying scale. At first, the group stations itself at Monticello’s welcome pavilion, unwilling to breach this bastion of the nation, but as the days wear on they make their way up the hill to the house. After a disastrous foray, it’s clear the city’s mayhem has only become worse. Nothing to be done but prepare to fight as the mob inches towards their refuge.
Such a short time here and look how industrious we’d been – our threadbare striving!
Johnson’s choice of venue is potently symbolic as is Naisha and MaViolet’s lineage, the descendants of one of the nation’s founding fathers and his slave Sally Hemings. Without explicitly referencing the 2017 Charlottesville riots, the subject of Donald Trump’s infamous, provocative remarks, she unfolds events from Naisha’s perspective, a bright young woman whose very presence at a prestigious university offends right wing extremists, choosing to give her a white liberal boyfriend. The tensions which play out within the disparate group reflect the tensions within the city to a degree, resolving themselves into a cooperation which is at first wary then generous. All of this could very easily have backfired but Johnson handles her subject deftly, telling her story in vivid prose against a backdrop of social disintegration, pulling the thread of suspense taut as the novella edges towards its conclusion. Deserving of all that brouhaha, this really is an audacious debut, daring and ambitious. It’s published in the States together with five short stories which I hope might make an appearance here in the UK.
Harvill Secker: London 9781787303027 160 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)