Cane River is an odd mix of fiction and non-fiction, and I'm not sure it entirely works. It feels like trying to find the balance between the two constrains the narrative in ways that either one by itself would not. As non-fiction, it is limited by the availability of sources, and it truly seems like there is much that has to be speculative. As fiction, it is equally limited by the sources - the author is hemmed in by what she does know, and that structure seems binding.
Is there a fix for this? Would it have been more skilful in a more experienced author's hands? But then again, would an experienced author have gotten anywhere near this. For what this book does have is a sense of searching, of trying to make sense of the past, of family stories. What emerges is a book that is not bad, but doesn't transcend its awkward origins to become something great.
It's not to say that first-time authors can't write something spectacular. But in this case, I wish she'd written a few more books, gotten some more work on narrative structure and prose out of the way, before tackling such an ambitious project.
This is the story of Lalita Tademy's family, in particular, one female line. From scanty documentary evidence (some of which appears in the book, creating more of that uneasiness between fiction and nonfiction), she reconstructs the line of her mother, grandfather, great-grandmother, great-great grandmother, and great-great-great grandmother through slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction and the emergence of Jim Crow laws. The story is important, but it's perhaps not an accident that the narrative is strongest for the time period she knows least about.
The early parts of the books, the ones furthest away in time, are the ones that Tademy is most free to do with as she wills, and they are definitely the strongest. As the book moves further forward in time, there becomes the feeling that she is trying to fit in everything she does know, to make it all fit the narrative she's telling. Without those nonfiction constraints of documentary evidence and family stories, she weaves a difficult tale of women enslaved, of desire, of families being torn apart, of power abused and misunderstood.
Later, as we get to her great-grandmother and father, another narrative takes over, one that might better be its own book, given the strengths of the earlier part of the book rather than the latter, taken out of the family context and the desire to get it all on paper, and fictionalized more heavily to get at the narrative core. For that story, the story of her great-grandmother who loved and was loved by a white man and who defined convention for a while, but then found their relationship strained under the burdens placed on them by hate, by history, and by violence. This should have been more powerful, but instead, it felt like the book was running out of steam.
Tademy is not a bad writer, but this book is uneven, and the mix of fiction and nonfiction seems to limit rather than set free. I would be interested to read further works, and I hope she eventually gives herself the freedom that not being too beholden to your sources when writing fiction would provide.