Whatever must be said to get you to heft this daunting debut novel by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, I’ll say, because The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is the kind of book that comes around only once a decade. Yes, at roughly 800 pages, it is, indeed, a mountain to climb, but the journey is engrossing, and the view from the summit will transform your understanding of America ... Jeffers has poured a lifetime of experience and research into this epic about the travails of a Black family. As any honest record of several centuries must, Jeffers’s story traverses a geography of unspeakable horror, but it eventually arrives at a place of hard-won peace ... One of the many marvels of The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is the protean quality of Jeffers’s voice. Sweeping back and forth across the years, her narration shifts nimbly to reflect the tenor of the times — from the shared legends of tribal people to the candid realism of the modern era ... You don’t read these phrases so much as hear them on the wind ... If the convoluted racial composition of these characters is a challenge to track, that’s the point: Despite the strict demarcations of color that reside in the White imagination, the society that evolves in these pages is peopled by a spectrum of hues ... Jeffers is particularly deft in the way she portrays Ailey coming of age in the 1980s and ’90s, trying to chart her own way amid heavy guidance from her accomplished family ... The ultimate demonstration of Jeffers’s skill is that she effects that same profound impression on her readers. With the depth of its intelligence and the breadth of its vision, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is simply magnificent.
[A] sweeping, masterly debut novel ... Jeffers has deftly crafted a tale of a family whose heritage includes free Blacks, enslaved peoples and Scottish and other white colonialists ... Jeffers is an award-winning poet, and she is never doing just one thing with her text ... Class and colorism are constant tensions in the novel, and Jeffers expertly renders a world of elite African Americans ... The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is quite simply the best book that I have read in a very, very long time. I will avoid the cliché of calling it 'a great American novel.' Maybe the truest thing I could say is that this is an epic tale of adventure that brings to mind characters you never forget ... The sign of a great novel is that the author creates a world and when she moves her hands away, the world is still in motion. The idea being that, in the very best novels, every important detail is so lovingly attended to that the novelist’s intention is as invisible and powerful as gravity. The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is such a world.
... one of those books that delights in detours, shining its spotlight on one protagonist for hundreds of pages, introducing another character in the margins, then foregrounding that character throughout the next section. But they all live along the same continuum, with the themes of autonomy, caste, color and education carrying over from section to section ... race is never a simple matter in Love Songs, not even among those who want it to be. Jeffers has a lot to say here, and at 816 pages she gives herself ample space to say it. The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is an investment, but a worthy one. It's the kind of epic that deserves its own place in the sun.
Jeffers weaves an epic ancestral story, showing that where any one person comes from is much more complicated than charts and graphs ... From slavery to freedom, discrimination to justice, tradition to unorthodoxy, this story covers large parts of not just of Ailey’s heritage but also America’s. It’s the kind of familial epic that many Americans, particularly African Americans, can relate to, as Jeffers limns this family’s story with the trauma, faults and passions that we all harbor. Her masterful treatment of the characters and their relationships, paired with the thorough and engaging way the narrative is laid out, makes for a book that is easy to invest and get lost in—a feat for such a long, intricate work. Best yet, the novel incorporates the words of W.E.B. Du Bois throughout its 800-plus pages; those words are the story’s spine, its beating heart, its very life force ... Comparisons to Toni Morrison are bound to be made and will be apt in most cases, as this novel feels as important as many of Morrison’s. The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois earns its place among such company, as Jeffers engages with and builds upon the legacy of African American literature as carefully and masterfully as she does the narrative of Ailey’s family.
... a sprawling epic ... These songs, or stories, are complex and often horrifying ... Song, is particularly affecting with its relatively small cast of characters, sense of place, and of a cruel history couched in lyrical prose ... a serious novel, a terrible but ultimately uplifting saga, its purpose perhaps best summed up in one of the epigraphs Jeffers chooses from W. E. B. Du Bois: 'You misjudge us because you do not know us.'
Poet Jeffers reinvigorates the multigenerational saga in her first novel, an audacious, mellifluous love song to an African American family. In alternate chapters, Jeffers traces the coming of age of her contemporary heroine, Ailey, juxtaposed against the tales of multiracial ancestors whose sufferings and blood infuse the rich Georgia soil. Jeffers’ lyrical cadences shimmer across the historical chapters, echoing biblical genealogies in connecting Ailey to her roots ... Incandescent and not to be missed.
A sprawling, ambitious debut novel that is as impassioned in promoting Black women’s autonomy as it is insistent on acknowledging our common humanity ... In her first novel, Jeffers, a celebrated poet, manages the difficult task of blending the sweeping with the intimate, and, as in most big books, she risks stress-testing some of her own narrative threads. Still, the sturdiest of those threads can throb with haunting poignancy, as in the account of Ailey’s promising-but-troubled sister, Lydia, which can stand alone as a masterful deconstruction of addiction’s origins and outcomes. If this isn’t the Great American Novel, it's a mighty attempt at achieving one.
A staggering and ambitious saga exploring African American history ... The multigenerational story bursts open when Ailey unearths some unknown family history during her graduate studies, as well as secrets of the Black female founder of her family’s alma mater. Themes of family, class, higher education, feminism, and colorism yield many rich layers. Readers will be floored.