It’s our secrets that make us sick, and the Turner family has generations worth gnawing at them like gangrene in LaToya Watkins’ debut novel, Perish – wounds they must excavate if they want the hope of living their lives to the fullest.
Helen Jean, the Turner family matriarch known as “Grandmoan,” is in the hospital – her terminal illness finally at its end. When we first meet her, she is in her father’s outhouse after finding herself pregnant – again – by the man who gave her life. But the elixir her cousin made to end the pregnancy doesn’t work this time, and instead of passing the child, Helen Jean hears what she assumes to be God’s voice loud and clear say, “Bear it or perish yourself.” These words become more of a curse for Helen Jean to live under.
As Helen Jean’s children and grandchildren come to say goodbye, their stories weave together a worn tapestry of hardship and trauma. Watkins shows us there is more than one side to every story, and this one has five. Each of the stories unfolds a myriad of contradicting feelings the family experiences in Helen Jean’s last days, after a lifetime of suffering under her abuse, neglect, and other wrongs she allowed. Watkins spotlights the ways in which generational curses continue and how these behaviors are often facilitated even by those who are victims themselves. It’s hard to face our pain head-on, and Helen Jean never did. Instead, her condition allows her to slip into the bliss of forgetting, leaving her children and grandchildren to decide if they will do the same.
“Helen Jean knew one day she’d wake up and all of that would be gone,” Watkins writes. “She knew she wouldn’t remember who she was or how she became that person and that it would leave her in pieces, like chipped nail polish or cracker crumbs in shag carpet. She imagined that some of the pieces would fall and she would never find them in the carpet of the world. And to her, that would be heaven.”
While it may seem overwhelming to hear from four different characters (five points of view in all), Watkins masterfully characterizes each voice, allowing us to learn as much about each character through the eyes of the others as through the character’s own voice. It doesn’t take long to recognize each family member as they share their own stories, how Helen Jean shaped their lives, and the new path each begins to take.
It was not an easy read, but the story Watkins tells is one of redemption. Each character finally learns the reason why things have ended up the way they have. They also learn that while Helen Jean’s story is ending, theirs is not. By facing the close of her story, each of them finds a new beginning. Watkins’ message seems to be that these characters – like all of us – can’t move on when burdened with the past, carrying it around in suitcases locked tight. The only way to unburden it is to open the cases wide.
“I don’t know why Grandmoan who she is, but I ain’t got to understand her,” Helen Jean’s granddaughter Jan says. “Sometimes we don’t get to understand things. People. We just got to try to be better than the things that spit us out.”
In a poignantly harrowing way, Watkins gives voice to the silence that strangles, exploring the ways in which our past impacts our present and how the things we do in the present determines our ability to thrive in the future. Watkins shows us that even with the darkest of histories, each of us has the potential to unearth what has buried us. We can sprout anew. The pain won’t magically vanish; she shows us through a dramatic and gut-wrenching ending that pain doesn’t have to be the only thing we feel.
By LaToya Watkins
Tiny Reparations Books
Published August 23, 2022