In The Two Lives of Sara, Catherine Adel West relates the powerful story of a young single mother in Memphis while threading through Black history and freedom. The novel weaves through grief and oppression in a sharp and elegant way, graceful as it shows the life in 1960s Memphis, a time when the city was still segregated. Sara, the book’s narrator, is a young Black woman, keeping inside her a painful past and carrying her child with her to a new state, for a new life.
West doesn’t mince words, showing life in the 1960s with all the ugly parts, and interlacing beautiful parts of the story between the pain. It is a novel of found family, of joy and heartbreak, and of fear to hope again. Sara finds a home for herself in The Scarlet Poplar, a boardinghouse in Memphis. There, she cares for the boarders,, still hiding the past she tried to run away from in Chicago.
The Two Lives of Sara is a prequel to West’s debut novel, Saving Ruby King, in which Sara was first introduced. The novel has references to Black literature and music, frequently mentioning how representation in the media helps Black people’s lives and the way it gives hope to people. The story also examines the political climate in America during that era, weaving in stories of the fight for equal rights in different parts of the country while mostly focusing on life in Memphis. A lot of the little details that often go unmentioned are brought together in this story.
At one moment in the book, when Sara is at the Church for Revival with people she barely knew, with whom she only shares a neighborhood, she talks about her hope for joy, the way she yearns for it, and yet pushes it away for the fear of being weak, of losing her power: “Another precious piece of time where I consider there might be something in this life called joy; there might be a world in which I don’t wait for disaster.” Sara fears loving someone, and the times when she does show her love, she feels weak and powerless.
“Love in any shape leaves me hollowed out,” she says. “Desolate. Love is better left to the undamaged. Love means someone else can control, manipulate the very fabric of who I am, and then render me powerless.”
The other characters in West’s book are just as realistic, and each character is introduced with a purpose. Every detail of Sara’s life is portrayed with equal importance, and the friction that truth creates is beautifully portrayed. The story is rich with emotion and history, with the kind of hope that loss brings, and how Sara deals with her fear of love and hope will be relatable to people struggling with heartbreak and loss.
The book conveys the strength that Black people have always had, to fight back, to claim what’s theirs: “We are immortal; our struggle and unwavering ability to fight on is immortal.”
West’s powerful use of language brings her book to life. The story moves through moments of joy in a quick, cutting manner, talking of pain in a way that leaves the reader feeling the sorrow the characters experience.
Of grief, Sara says: “Grief and loss don’t go by a calendar, and they really don’t give a damn about your sanity or your schedule.”
West’s prose is full of cutting humor, and a view of the past in all its trauma, pain and joy. The story brings hope to the reader, and while it is fast paced, it’s not rushed. Sara changes as a person throughout the story: as a mother, as a friend, as a lover, and as a cook at The Scarlet Poplar.
The Two Lives of Sara is a view into a time when future seemed bleak, pointless, and West delivers the story in a compelling manner. The novel is not an easy read, and as Sara’s mother says, “I’m not gonna tell you the world is a terrible place.” West doesn’t show how bad the world is; she shows how Sara overcomes it. It’s a story that brings her hope and trauma to the surface like a wound, and I’ll leave you with one thing the story stands for: Black stories matter, especially when told by Black people, and this story contains many emotions, ones the reader will feel. Be careful when you read it, be willing to learn and understand, and be open.
Publisher: Park Row
Publication Date: September 6th, 2022
Reviewed by Mrudhula M