Remembered review: A tale that will linger long in the memory
An unflinching and haunting story that addresses the legacy of the slave trade
A heavyweight boxing champion seems to be getting a ticket while driving on the streets of Philadelphia.
Remembered, a debut historical fiction novel by Yvonne Battle-Feldon, is long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year. Almost immediately upon encountering the story of Spring, an emancipated slave who is desperate to bring her dying son, Edward, home from hospital, it becomes clear very quickly why this is so.
In the Philadelphia of 1910, where this novel is set, the streets are burning. Citywide riots have erupted as tens of thousands of workers strike in solidarity with the streetcar workers of the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company. The battle for civil rights is raging and Spring despairs to find herself in the still segregated hospital, willing her son to survive, with just the ghost of her dead sister, Tempe for company.
Rumours are rife. Edward had driven a streetcar through a shop window and many people, including the police, were now speculating as to how accidental his actions were. Was he participating in a sinister agenda? Spring’s concerns are more with seizing what may be her final chance to tell Edward the truth about where he came from. Through newspaper clippings, a scrapbook, and the summoning of buried memories, Spring attempts to reach him with their story, aided by the apparition of her dead sister. If Spring can dispel the silence that has engulfed her life to date, she hopes that it will guide her son home.
Spanning multigenerations, we follow the narrative of Spring’s family from a plantation to her present-day Philadelphia and are exposed to the complexities of the many forms of enslavement that continued for African Americans long after emancipation. Although the historical reality of the novel is profound, challenging and powerful, the humanity of the characters drawn by Battle-Felton is what affects the reader most. Flawed, sometimes frustrating, often devastating, the people who inhabit the world of Remembered come alive as the reader is immersed in the kitchens, streets, smells and sounds of the city. In times of great acts of violence, there are still those motivated by love who look for any cracks that let the light in. The timeline of the novel spans only one day but in just 24 hours we are exposed to a quarter of a century of American racial politics and the legacy of the slave trade. Through one woman’s testimony, the story of a nation unfolds, and it may be different to the one history books have taught us.
Remembered has drawn comparisons with Toni Morrison’s Beloved: both are unflinching and haunting in how they address the legacy of the slave trade. Battle-Felton’s voice is entirely her own, however, and this book feels vital for our time. As Spring weaves together stories of the past, and exposes their ramifications in the present, the generational trauma becomes explicit. It is harrowing to bear witness to the racial atrocities that Spring’s family has suffered in a society where such instances were rife and accepted. However difficult it may be to stomach such horrors, it is important that we do confront that reality, not least of all because of the racism that is still prevalent across the globe and evidenced in the racially motivated police brutality that is so endemic in present day America and beyond. Spring’s narrative reads less like historical fiction than it should for a novel that is set more than a century ago.
History has taken much from Spring and all that she is left with is her story; in the face of tragedy, this is what she wields. As she explains to her son, “Most of what I’m about to tell you ain’t in no history book, no newspaper article, no encyclopedia. There’s a whole heap of stories that don’t ever get told.”
As such, in the end, this is also the story of motherhood where the universal question is asked; how far will mothers go to protect their children?
Battle-Feldon’s debut is not an easy read and nor should it be. Fortunate are those of us that only experience such brutality in the pages of a book. Afterwards we emerge more enlightened with our hearts and minds expanded. Remembered will stay with you long after reading. Thankful are we that untold stories such as Spring’s are finally being given a voice.