Washington Post Review

The Glory of Love

by Kuwana Haulsey,
author of the novels "The Red Moon" and "Angel of Harlem"

With its languid pacing and rhythmic voice, Eisa Nefertari Ulen's novel " Crystelle Mourning" at times feels like an elongated spoken-word poem. While that can be good and bad, Ulen manages to pull it off with her nuanced depictions of black life and her obvious love for her characters, as they strive to create new realities out of the heartbreaking events of the past. Each person we encounter here has his or her own shortcomings and ambiguities, none of which (to Ulen's credit) the author feels obliged to justify. What we're left with is a rich, if meandering, tapestry that evokes days gone by with affectionate yet clear eyes.

The book opens with a vicious, senseless murder. Jimmie, Crystelle Clear's high school sweetheart, is gunned down at a graduation party and dies in the girl's arms. This devastating act of violence marks the end of innocent young love. Crystelle is left alone, holding onto her pain as well as a dark secret that her mother forces her to keep.

In the years that follow, Crystelle graduates from college and relocates to Brooklyn. She takes a job in an ad agency, developing campaigns to sell hair relaxer. She's smart, excels at her job, makes good money and lives in a great area. Her boyfriend, Hamp, is a handsome, upwardly mobile man who longs to marry Crystelle and start a family. It seems as though she has everything she could possibly want.

Obviously that's not the case. Still unable to let go of her first love, Crystelle remains emotionally detached from her good fortune. More and more, she finds herself living in her dreams, the only place where her restless spirit can make contact with Jimmie. " We were part of making Frazier Street alive ," Jimmie tells her in a vision. After a while, she's barely able to wake up and come back to the present.

Dismayed by these visitations and secretly aware that she might be pregnant, Crystelle journeys back to Frazier Street in Philadelphia. There, where Jimmie died, she confronts the painful legacy of her past.

Over the course of a weekend, Crystelle reconnects with her people and visits her old haunts. She wraps herself in the love of her mother, grandfather and her "Aunt" Brenda, Jimmie's mother. Together, Brenda and Crystelle continue the hard work of healing. Brenda even makes a trip to see her son's killer in prison. Crystelle goes for moral support but can't bring herself to face the boy who shot Jimmie, a murderer she used to call a friend. The pain is still too raw and fresh, even after more than five years.

Reliving the moment of Jimmie's murder, Ulen writes, "Crystelle looked back at Jimmie. She felt her spirit dance with his in time. The pop and the snap hurled her spirit further. The pop in Jimmie's body and the snap hurled her spirit further. The pop in Jimmie's body and the snap in her own. She remembered. She felt her spirit go back to his the moments he began to pass. She felt him back to just before the passage, to almost after living. First she felt the anger, the confusion, and then she felt herself. She felt his spirit clutching hers now back on that street. Felt his sobs fall out into her soul. . . . His sobs were hers, deep and silent and whole-body shaking."

Weaving back and forth between her current relationships and her memories, Crystelle tries to find a place of balance and forgiveness. She must decide whether she can afford to continue carrying the weight of the past -- "walking heavy," as her grandfather calls it -- and if not, how to relinquish that weight and move forward.

Ulen lovingly conjures a world of double-dutch and hair braiding on the stoop, hot sweaty basement parties and home-cooked meals. She takes the reader back to a time when a child's greatest concern was trying to get home before the streetlights came on. Her tenderness and care produce the book's warm, nostalgic feel and keep the action and the characters from descending into cliche.

Ulen uses Crystelle and her plight as a call for healing in the African American community from generations of hurt and neglect. Release, forgiveness, embracing the present and letting love flow are the themes of this novel, and for that it is worth the read.

Thursday, September 7, 2006; Page C04

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