“An incisive and necessary” (Roxane Gay) debut for fans of Get Out and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, about a father’s obsessive quest to protect his son—even if it means turning him white
“Stunning and audacious . . . at once a pitch-black comedy, a chilling horror story and an endlessly perceptive novel about the possible future of race in America.”—NPR
LONGLISTED FOR THE CENTER FOR FICTION FIRST NOVEL PRIZE, THE PEN/OPEN BOOK AWARD, AND THE PEN/FAULKNER AWARD • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR AND THE WASHINGTON POST
“You can be beautiful, even more beautiful than before.” This is the seductive promise of Dr. Nzinga’s clinic, where anyone can get their lips thinned, their skin bleached, and their nose narrowed. A complete demelanization will liberate you from the confines of being born in a black body—if you can afford it.
In this near-future Southern city plagued by fenced-in ghettos and police violence, more and more residents are turning to this experimental medical procedure. Like any father, our narrator just wants the best for his son, Nigel, a biracial boy whose black birthmark is getting bigger by the day. The darker Nigel becomes, the more frightened his father feels. But how far will he go to protect his son? And will he destroy his family in the process?
This electrifying, hallucinatory novel is at once a keen satire of surviving racism in America and a profoundly moving family story. At its center is a father who just wants his son to thrive in a broken world. Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s work evokes the clear vision of Ralph Ellison, the dizzying menace of Franz Kafka, and the crackling prose of Vladimir Nabokov. We Cast a Shadow fearlessly shines a light on the violence we inherit, and on the desperate things we do for the ones we love.
Ruffin's brilliant, semisatirical debut stars an unnamed narrator who's all but consumed by his blackness. Forced to become the "committed to diversity" face of his law firm and the pawn of an insidious ad campaign headed by powerful, flirtatious shareholder Octavia Whitmore, the narrator suffers through one indignity after another. He endures a routinely racist police stop and learns that Octavia "fantasized about wearing blackface" and then there's the historical revisionism at the school his mixed-race teenage son Nigel attends, where teachers insist that "every schoolboy knows the Civil War didn't start because of slavery." The narrator only wants Nigel to be spared the dread of being young and black in America. In fact, he's been forcing Nigel to apply skin-lightening cream over the objections of his wife, Penny, and is planning to submit Nigel to an experimental plastic surgery procedure that he hopes will visibly erase his heritage and break the long chain of prisons, prejudice, and limited career options that characterize the narrator's own forebears (his father is incarcerated, a fact that brings the narrator nothing but shame). And yet this is only the setup for a story that suddenly incorporates the violent interventions of a militarized cell of protesters, and hastens the narrator, Nigel, Penny, and Octavia toward a set of separate fates that are both harrowing and inevitable. Though Ruffin's novel is in the vein of satires like Paul Beatty's The Sellout and the film Get Out, it is more bracingly realistic in rendering the divisive policies of contemporary America, making for a singular and unforgettable work of political art.
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“Memories could be questioned, distorted, forgotten. But a manuscript could not. The physical act of remembering is a bulwark against insanity. Against the possibility that the insidious big white machine exists only in my head and in the heads of similarly delusional persons.”
This book...this book drove me more than slightly crazy. I read part, put it away; read more, got angry at it and swore I’d discard it. Finally, the third time I sat down I concentrated on the character of the father, whose name you never learn but is called “Mister Nigel’s father” by his son’s friend. He is the true embodiment of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: who casts no shadow, especially towards the finally. You see the racism and reverse racism throughout the narrative, from the contemporary “slave auction” of his work executives through the promise of Dr. Nizinga’s demelanization treatments that will “free” you from being black....IF you can afford it.
It becomes the narrator’s obsession: to remove the growing black birthmarks on Nigel’s biracial body. He loses everything to get there: his lifestyle, his family, and between stress and his escape with street drugs he almost loses his sanity. He puts himself on a form of trial; keeping a record to prove it happened...that it mattered: the negatives and the positives. In the end, he may not want to be “me and my shadow”, but he is, no matter what, a man of his time.
I actually would give this book a 4 1/2 over a 5. However, this isn’t possible. I’d keep an eye out for Maurice Carlos Ruffin no matter what. This book will haunt you. 4.5/5
[disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher and voluntarily read and reviewed it]