The basics: As always, Cleage combines a mix of familiar West End faces with new characters. In this case, the Too Fine Five, a group of tall, skinny supermodels seek Blue Hamilton's blessing to do business in the West End neighborhood this week.
Note: this review contains spoilers of the plot and the ending. Proceed at your own risk.
My thoughts: When I sat down to read the last West End novel, I was filled with happiness and sadness. I've re-read and read all of Pearl Cleage's novels in 2012. I sought the comfort of the familiar: characters, social justice, and people working to change the world. I got that, but I also got something I absolutely didn't expect: vampires. I appreciated Regina's pondering on the subject when she first heard the vampire rumor: “I would hate that,” Regina said, leaning her head against his shoulder as they started up the front walk, arm in arm. “Hate what, baby?” “Vampires in West End.”
Cleage has certainly dealt with magical realism in this series, but it's still a jump from the acceptance of past lives to vampire supermodels. Yes, the Too Fine Five are supermodel vampires who do not age. They drink tomato juice to satisfy their blood cravings. Cleage doesn't dwell on vampire mythology or world building (these vampires have no problem with the sun, but it's not mentioned), and while their presence stretches credibility, Cleage managed to convince me the story of these vampires was worth telling:
"Blue was glad they didn’t have to waste any time discussing the possibility of things that could not be rationally explained showing up on your doorstep. Henry had been with Blue long enough to know that not everything could be explained by what you thought you already knew."After the vampires, the most surprising part of this novel was Blue Hamilton. Going against vampires, something with which he was unfamiliar, allowed Cleage to form him more fully as a character:
“I’ve been focused on the really bad guys, the ones who are the most dangerous,” Blue said. “The ones who are already so damaged that nothing I can say or do can change the way they cut a path through the world. Those are the ones I know how to handle, and if I’m ever called upon to answer for what I’ve done to get them out of West End, I have nothing to hide.”I won't get into too much detail about the history of the vampires and what brings them to West End, but it was fascinating enough to pull me back into the West End and love this novel. She let her characters speak for her and justify (and testify) why she chose to tell this unconventional tale:
“But what does that mean for our future?” Regina said. “If no woman will vouch for a man when a woman’s words are all that stand between him and annihilation, how can we go on together?”With this triumphant ending, I was pleased. Following the story's conclusion, however, was an epilogue. In the epilogue, one of my least favorite plot devices was used, and it killed the momentum of the story for me: Regina dreamed the whole thing. There weren't really vampires in West End. The dream strikes me as a cop out. For much of the novel, I would have welcomed it, but Cleage won me over. I wish she would have fully won herself over with the strength of this idea and not written a cop out ending.
“Maybe these vampires are giving us a chance to ask ourselves that question.”
Favorite passage: "She had been feeling alternating waves of sorrow, fear, and helplessness, none of which were particularly empowering emotions, and certainly ones that could do major damage if you let them hang around too long."
The verdict: The cop out ending of this ambitious novel weakened its power. Just Wanna Testify isn't Cleage's best novel, but it was a fascinating vehicle for pondering contemporary African-American relationships. Ultimately, it's a disappointing note to end the West End series on, and I hope Cleage writes a new installment soon.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 256 pages
Publication date: May 20, 2011
Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Just Wanna Testify from Amazon (Kindle version.)
Also by Pearl Cleage: What Looks Like Crazy On an Ordinary Day and I Wish I Had a Red Dress
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