There are so many things that amazed me about this book, from the intricacy of the characters to the extraordinary storytelling, to the intense depth of the research. But most of all, I was amazed that I had never heard of it or of the Atlanta child murders. Both the book and the murders seem so central to modern Black American history that their invisibility (or erasure) seem deeply poignant.
It took me nine months to read. It is a long book, but it also needed space to read, digest, and understand. Ostensibly, it is a book about a mother looking for her child who has disappeared during the spate of murders of Black children in Atlanta from 1979-81. Zala, the protagonist, becomes an active community member, joining up with other parents of disappeared young Black children who try every avenue possible to find their children. It tells the story of the Atlanta child murders from a Black perspective, but this is also a foil for a deeper story that depicts the trauma of Blackness and the implicit violence of white America, the dysfunction and negligence of state police, the emotional experience of the families of the disappeared, the paranoia of loss, and how people live their lives within all of this maelstrom. It creates lived experience, not metaphor, and for that it is exceptional.
Toni Cade Bambera has their own unique voice, reminiscent of another generation of writers; Tolstoy sprang to mind several times while reading, for the depth of character and interlinked events, but Cade Bambera has a soft touch that is magical. It is a rare skill for a writer to empathise with grief in such a beautiful way.
Those Bones Are Not My Child is definitely one of the 'Great American Novels', although it is never mentioned in lists of that canon. In fact, I've read many of the novels that are in these lists, and they are not in the same league, and its lack of visibility is telling.
In the end, for all its other merits in highlighting Black womens' experience in a violent place, what will stay with me is the strength of community togetherness and family, and how people learn to carry on together even in the worst situations. Despite the difficult subject, the hope is welcome.