Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Blanche Passes Go by Barbara Neely

Neely writes genre fiction that is quite unlike any other out there: crime without the cops, mystery without a clue, and the romance of a strong, opinionated woman. It is beautiful and flawed and very real. Neely has an agenda, yes she does, but it’s revelatory to hear her concerns. She talks it all out on the page, so we get the picture from where she’s standing. She is fun but thoughtful; playful, but looks straight in the eye of some edgy situations. I mean, maybe you’ve thought about what to do when your neighbor is being beaten by her husband inside her house, loud enough for all the world to hear. Day after day. Well, Blanche comes up with a solution that worked pretty well and it didn’t involve a weapon of mass destruction or murder. Blanche constantly surprises us.

This mystery novel, #4 of the Blanche White series, brings Blanche down to North Carolina from Boston. Her sister’s son and daughter who are in her care, Malik and Taifa, are children no longer and are off for summer work in Vermont and Maine. Blanche is going to help her best friend, Ardell, with her catering business during the bicentennial celebrations in Farleigh, her hometown. Blanche had left behind in her hometown both a former lover, now married, and her rapist, so the pleasure of her homecoming was mitigated somewhat by what she might uncover hidden in her psyche. Besides, her Mom was as armored against intimacy as always, and never seemed to listen, even though she was getting older and needed more assistance than ever to keep everything in working order.

Nothing about this novel was ordinary. Almost every page expressed some real truth or revelation. Neely must have decided at some point she might be polite in company but she was going to write what she thought people ought to know. Thank god for it. Thank god for her. You don’t have to adhere to her beliefs, but by golly, she’s going to tell you what she thinks. She might even give some of us the words to articulate our own defense for a course of action we wanted to take but for one reason or another, felt unable. She makes a lot of sense. Blanche is an example to us.

As a mystery, the novel works very well. The denouement is guaranteed to blow you out of the water. As we begin, we imagine this novel might just be another opportunity to spend time with Blanche and hear her wisecracks on everything from real food to what men like. Nothing wrong with that! But Neely is too sophisticated and wise to just give us what we think we want: she’s gonna surprise us with something we can learn from, delighting us at the same time she is instructing us.

Blanche makes mistakes--really big, life-and-death mistakes--in this novel, all the while sounding like she has things pretty much under control. But we all have done that, haven’t we? Just as we think we’ve learned a few lessons and can dish it out, life and people surprise us. Neely makes us think. She teaches us how to think.

As the train from Boston to North Carolina makes it way south, Blanche slips into patios, anticipating her homecoming. It feels perfectly natural, though we know Blanche of Boston looking after teens is less lenient with herself. We want to relax, too, and hear the real Blanche fooling with Ardell, or romancing her new love interest, Thelvin.

The following quote is classic Neely:
”When the children were small and using up every moment when she wasn’t working for money, she’d soothed herself with a one-day-they’ll be grown fantasy. Now that they were practically grown, instead of trying to convince them to be careful of strangers, pick up their toys, and eat their okra. She was urging them to use condoms, to avoid hard drugs, and to become their very best selves. Different topics, more stressful topics. Who started that bullshit about parenting getting easier as the children got older? What parenting lost in intensity it picked up in worriation.
Or this:
”[Blanche] made up her own spiritual practice, including reverence for her Ancestors and the planet, and seeking energy from trees and healing from the sea. Some things she’d learned from African, Afro-Caribbean, Native American, and Asian ways of having a spiritual life, but she always added her personal twist. Until she’d come up with her own rituals she’d been hungry for ways to demonstrate her belief that there was more to life than she could see—ways that didn’t require her being a member of the Christian or the Muslim or any other religion that had played a part in African slavery. She also had no time for any religions that said she needed a priest or priestess to act as a go-between or worshipped a god called He. She was her own priest and goddess.”

The Blanche White series has four books. Each of them is special in its own way. Originally published in the 1990s by Penguin Books, they are now published in eBook format by Brash Books and can be bought wherever books are sold. Neely’s voice is extraordinary and outside the usual genre categorizations. The Blanche books are a little mystery, a little crime, a little romance, a little social commentary, and altogether unique. As a special treat, we are given a recipe for Blanche's Muscat Sauce from Blanche's Gig from Hell at the end.

My earlier review of Blanche Cleans Up has links to video of Neely talking about her work.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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