Released in July 2021, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is a remarkable debut novel from Jeffers, depicting thirty years in the life of Ailey Pearl Garfield and 200 years' worth of maternal ancestors.
The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois is both an intimate character study and a sweeping epic, telling the story of Ailey Garfield and her maternal family line, reaching back several centuries. Longlisted for the National Book Award, Jeffers’ stunning 800-page bestseller follows Ailey from three years old through her mid-30s, weaving Ailey’s narration with the lives of her sister, mother, and maternal ancestors--indigenous, enslaved, and slave-owning. Through these characters, Jeffers explores subjects as far-reaching as first love, colorism, abuse, and “passing,” making concepts that could be vague and intangible emotionally resonant through her fully realized characters. I picked up this book knowing little about it--somewhat intimidated by the page count--and left wishing there were 200 more pages, having become deeply attached to Ailey and her family. This attachment is a testament to both Jeffers’ beautiful prose and her skill in crafting complicated, nuanced characters.
Mothers abound in Ailey’s family history. Beyond Ailey’s mother Belle, whom we see as both a middle-aged woman and a college student, there are grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and long ago ancestors, reaching back to Kiné in Africa, whose daughter was kidnapped and enslaved in the United States. Throughout the novel, readers bear witness to numerous incarnations of maternal relationships, exploring addiction, generational trauma, and the ever-present terror that Ailey’s enslaved ancestors will be denied the right to raise their children. Like the characters in her novel, the visions of maternity that Jeffers presents are compassionate and multifaceted, though, in a manner that is vaguely reminiscent of One Hundred Years of Solitude, there are echoes across generations.
The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois is certainly my favorite among the books I read this year. I was taken in by the story of Ailey and her family, finding myself supremely satisfied with the book’s ultimate integration of the past and present. Read this book; I am sure it will remain with you for a long time.
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