Laila desperately wants to become a mother, but each of her previous pregnancies has ended in heartbreak. She turns to the Melancons, an old and powerful Harlem family known for their caul, a precious layer of skin that is the secret source of their healing power. When a deal for Laila to acquire a piece of caul falls through, she is heartbroken, but when the child is stillborn, she is overcome with grief and rage. What she doesn't know is that a baby will soon be delivered in her family—and delivered to the Melancons to raise as one of their own.
Jerkins’s incisive social commentary shines through ... Jerkins conjures empathy for even her most complicated characters ... Jerkins’s expansive prose helps us see all sides of the thorny decisions her characters must make, so we can decide for ourselves who they are ... Jerkins uses sensory language that emphasizes the joys and sorrows of motherhood ... Laced with generational pain and sprinkled with magic, Caul Baby is a sweeping family drama with no shortage of action. During a pandemic that has laid bare a nation’s inequities, Jerkins’s work feels more relevant than ever. She approaches the complexities of Black motherhood, gentrification, and capitalism with urgency and care. What does it look like when a family reckoning with so many outside forces also suffers from within? What is the path forward in these times of dread, when so many long-held traditions no longer serve us? Jerkins offers solutions all her own in this blazingly original debut.
Morgan Jerkins delights in finding the fantastical within the familiar. In her new novel, Caul Baby, everyday life takes on a surreal glow ... No element of Caul Baby better illustrates Jerkins’ ability to spin magic out of the mundane than the titular caul, the amniotic membrane that surrounds a baby in the womb ... Jerkins began writing Caul Baby in 2015, shortly after moving to Harlem from New Jersey. That she worked on the novel almost the entirety of her time there is evident in the writing. Landmarks like Amy Ruth’s restaurant and St. Philip’s Church are name-checked, and the vibrancy of the city crowds every page.
This wide-angle approach diffuses narrative weight, challenging the strength of any one character and therefore of the novel. I found myself wanting someone on the page to take me aside and share what hadn’t yet been fully expressed. Meanwhile the men in these women’s lives — godfathers, fathers, partners — are merely cursory figures, falling away quickly without accountability or complexity. This disappointment aside, the true strength of this book has a profound impact: in conveying the life-giving and life-sustaining power of Black women’s bodies, and the blood relationships between them ... Within these two interconnected families and these pages, symbolism and metaphor hang heavy, pulling at the reader to see the ways in which these Black women are both condemned by their community and sought out as sources of comfort by those who exploit them ... While much of the fantasy in “Caul Baby” can feel opportune and inconsistent, it is nonetheless purposeful. The novel surprises us with a tidy conclusion that I found myself disbelieving even as I craved it. The women Jerkins creates do not need men or any other outsiders to rescue them; they rescue themselves.