Suns and Lovers : DAUGHTERS <i> By Paule Marshall (Atheneum: $21.95; 416 pp.) </i>
In “Daughters,” the heroine, Ursa-Bea, recalls swimming as a child: “She’d do a sudden flip . . . pull the water like a blanket over her head and dive to the bottom of the pool and sit there. Just sit in the wavery blue, sunlit silence. . . .” This story of a black woman’s coming to terms with the people and places she loves is like a dip in Ursa-Bea’s pool. Paule Marshall’s prose, dappled, strong and delicate, invites you to submerge in her narrative of an extraordinary family: a New England mother, a Caribbean father and their back-and-forth daughter.
Marshall, herself a Brooklyn-born daughter of West Indian parents, has published three much-acclaimed novels since 1959: “Brown Girl, Brownstones,” “The Chosen Place, the Timeless People” and “Praisesong for the Widow.” Once again, she does honor to what she has called her own artistic heritage: the literary giants, white and black, of the last two centuries, but also the giants of her own oral tradition, the Caribbean women around whom she grew up, who by their dazzling everyday speech first taught her the art of storytelling. Marshall’s way with language is unrhetorical yet full of cadence and consciousness; her writing is nourished by the honest respect she feels for her characters.
When we first meet Ursa-Bea, 34 years old, an unemployed research analyst, she is slowly leaving an abortion clinic, buttoning up to return to her tiny apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Her thoughts shift from one person to the next: her friend Viney, her lover Lowell, her parents on the tiny island of Triunion, where she herself was reared and where her father is running for reelection to parliament. Then these people take their turns, each one standing tall or short, light or dark (“Our folks come in every shade but green”) speaking their minds from the inner monologues that course through them, circulating and recirculating the details of their experience.
Marshall moves through these complex narratives as a somnambulist walks through rooms without tripping. It’s inevitable that her characters confront racism, sexism, urban blight and imperialism, but they do so as variously as their own histories, their own homelands. When Viney’s 9-year-old son is mistakenly arrested, she fights back by taking the police officer to court. Malvern, the impoverished, gossip-mongering mother living in a Triunion slum, names one of her sons after a British warship stationed offshore, “ The Woody Wilson. The whole name. Mark my words.” Primus Mackenzie, Ursa-Bea’s father, cooperates with Triunion’s puppet government to achieve small gains for his people. His wife Estelle, for her part, struggles against her husband’s political and sexual betrayals, instilling in Ursa-Bea a consciousness of strength and equality which only offends the Triunion community. Whatever the situation, we are grounded in a world rich in incident, and not in “isms.”
The novel does falter for a bit, however, in its last third. When Ursa-Bea begins a study of a mostly black town in New Jersey, Marshall presents us with a new scene, which, though pertinent, comes too late. The black activist woman and the charismatic mayor we meet here feel like shorthand sketches, included merely to spur Ursa-Bea on to her own final choices.
At her best, Marshall moves us by her patient humor and sympathy. She has a knack for showing how people may occasionally break through their own preoccupations actually to see, if only for a moment, those they profess to love, hate or need.
The layering of past and present selves, so that history and sensation merge--this is the special province of “Daughters,” making the two-month time-span of the book stretch to include generations. Here is Ursa-Bea’s grandmother:
“The fat woman paused . . . and forgetting herself for a moment she smiled. . . . She smiled and it was as if someone had suddenly taken a knife and made a slit straight down her middle, had cleaved her open from her throat down past her navel, and out of the great slit had stepped another woman, a young, large-boned woman like herself but stripped of the fleshiness . . . and this young woman who still thought of herself as Ursa Louise Wilkerson, daughter of a seamstress in Hastings Village, as she had been before becoming Mis-Mack, the shopkeeper, refused to spend her day like the overweight woman she now inhabited, surrounded by barrels of pickled beef and pork and hundred-pound sacks of flour, cornmeal and rice, and cheap yard goods stacked on a shelf.”
Gaining independence--both personal and political--and using it wisely are acts of heroism in “Daughters.” Except for the hopelessly impoverished, Marshall’s people struggle in the painful middle ground where oppression and entitlement contend. But even the poor are blessed with easy, heartfelt language and a need to be decent and responsible. In such a sympathetic world, heroism stands a chance--and gets one.