Many artists have famously rendered memory, and identity for that matter, as a collection of fragmented pieces. So it’s no wonder that Dasha Kelly’s new novel Almost Crimson benefits greatly from its structure—a collagist, almost cubist accumulation of vignettes over the course of the life of her protagonist CeCe, creating a kind of stop-motion animation portrait of a coming of age story.
In each sudden, encapsulated episode, Kelly renders a formative, foundational childhood discovery or betrayal, bursting forth with the powerful emotional force of molten metal. Weaving a timeline that traverses time and space with marvelous fluidity, Kelly depicts the story of a young black girl forced to grow up too soon: a girl taking care of a mother debilitated by crushing depression, who is both nurtured and stymied by the social services and gestures of a society that has decided exactly where she should belong and who she should become.
In Almost Crimson, seen through flashbacks and flash forwards from CeCe’s youngest perceptions to mature adulthood, love and obligation become entangled in a trap that threatens to strangle CeCe’s life into a self-perpetuating cycle. Yet in her struggle with her demons—her mother, her mother’s family, the racist comments of her privileged peers at magnet schools, the intimations by mental health professionals that mental illness is hereditary—she is fighting the most powerful demon of all, herself.
Dasha Kelly is well known for her spoken word poetry, and in this prose collage of a novel, her lyricism imparts an intense, dreamlike effect—giving the prose a musical cadence:
As with many of the oldest stories we know, in Almost Crimson, family is both curse and salvation. And in her search for redemption, CeCe awakens a seed of hope that lies in each of us. This is an important story, one that has not been told enough, of the many forces that conspire to marginalize disenfranchised women and children of color.
In a country where it’s still surprisingly difficult to talk about race, Kelly has crafted a beautiful novel that is neither a morality tale nor a social criticism. Instead, it is the song of a strong and clear melodic voice, awakening empathy in readers from all walks of life, and bringing fresh perspective to a conversation that literary publishing should be having far more frequently than it does. Now is the time, more than ever, for literature to make us uncomfortable, and move us into action.
KIM LIAO's short stories and essays have been published or are forthcoming in Another Chicago Magazine, Fringe, Fourth River, Hippocampus, Newtown Literary, and Cha: An Asian Journal of Literature. Her book reviews have appeared in Redivider and on the Ploughshares Blog. She lives in Brooklyn with her pet umbrella tree plant.
Her mother sat in the armchair, her narrow shoulders not even touching the wings of the tall chair. She reminded CeCe of a hand-carved figurine, her brown elfin features dulled from anguish and age. Her mother was still an attractive woman, CeCe thought, though hollowed and distant. Cece looked at her mother, soaking in the news footage and anchor banter like nourishment. She looked tiny bathed in the world’s news.