A review of

The Untelling

by Tayari Jones

Central question: How does a family survive unfairness, untruths, and unmitigated sorrow?
Format: 336 pp, hardcover; Size: 5.5” x 8.25”; Price: $24.95; Publisher: Warner Books; Editor: Caryn Karmatz Rudy; Print run: 14,500; Cover design: Diane Luger; Typeface: Bembo; Number of awards and honors received: 28; Number of readings given from first novel, Leaving Atlanta: Over 100; [Jokingly] professed title claim: “most misunderstood black woman in America”; Number of times she rewrote The Untelling: 2; Representative sentence: “A neon sign advertised ‘Best Buy Caskets’ to get the attention of the people of the neighborhood who would need both discounts and coffins.”

Over and over, in Tayari Jones’s darkly comic and vividly heartbreaking novel The Untelling, the main character’s mother asks with inherent disapproval, “Is this what Dr. King died for?”

Atlanta is the novel’s setting, and the memories of Dr. Martin Luther King are everywhere—as street signs, as physical markers, and as a heavy presence of expectation for Aria, the narrator, whose real name is Ariadne, and whose mother has very specific designs for all three of her girls. “Her gifts to the three of us were lush, extravagant, roomy names. Names that fit us like oversized coats, trimmed in seed pearls, gold braid, and the hides of baby seals. My father had wanted us to have family names, with at least one of us girls named after his mother, Lula. My mother, who indulged my father in many things, could not give him this. Why, she wondered, would someone in this day and age give a child a name that was so Mississippi? ‘That is not what Dr. King died for.’”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

—Susan Straight

Susan Straight’s new novel, A Million Nightingales, will be published by Pantheon in January 2006.

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