Complex, bittersweet first novel about black professional woman

November 10, 1991|By Sandra Davis | Sandra Davis,Knight-Ridder News Service

DAUGHTERS. Paule Marshall. Atheneum.

408 pages. $19.95. The clinic reminded Ursa of a beauty salon, one of those fancy hair-design studios in which a coif and a pedicure come at a premium. She examined it closely and became fixated with the art deco decor and the calla lilies on mauve and dusty pink wallpaper.

The room becomes easy to envision. What is not so clear is whether Ursa feels relieved, frustrated or ambivalent as she leaves the facility and begins her trek home the Friday of the abortion.

Yet it doesn't matter if one emotion dominates or they all collide in the woman's petite, boyish frame because Ursa has come alive on the pages of "Daughters," and her suffering is not portrayed in black and white in a world in which it's human to live in shades of gray.

Ursa, who constantly wrestles with ambivalence, is a worthy escort through "Daughters," the first novel of fiction writer and storyteller Paule Marshall. Ms. Marshall, who offers a refreshing break from gritty urban life filled with crime, embroiders a complex story of folklore, relationships, human defeat and triumphs in a bittersweet tale that cannot be swallowed in big gulps.

Most of the characters are so richly and passionately detailed that they could belong in independent short stories. Yet "Daughters" could not exist without them. They do not struggle with their blackness or poor self-esteem. They are proud people, accepting of challenge and long on intellect. Their battles are universally familiar.

"Daughters" is set in New York, where Ursa lives, and a Caribbean haven called Triunion -- her parents' home and a town where the memories include radiant beaches and sweet, juicy mangoes that taste better after being dipped in the salty ocean water. Ursa, a professional black woman, quickly shows an intolerance for following the crowd, even if it leads to quitting a secure, well-paying position as assistant director of research at a large company and living more on hope than cash as she awaits a go-ahead to free-lance a project on two black heroes in Triunion.

Ursa is at her best when she is with the ebullient Viney.

Viney, a single mother, is Ursa's longtime friend and the confidant we all wish we could have. The two have learned to overlook each other's weaknesses, but never their feelings.

Lowell Carruthers, the lover Ursa should have left years ago, shows great selfishness and little patience. Yet Marshall does not succumb to the temptation to make him a victim of male-bashing, as some African-American fiction writers have been accused of doing. Carruthers shows a sensitive side, most dramatically the night he pleads for Ursa's undying love and cries in her arms.

Yet the two people who hold Ursa's attention in New York fall to the wayside when she begins the dreaded trip to Triunion, which she has avoided for four years. This is the place of her youth, the place her mother left Connecticut for when she married Primus Mackenzie, Ursa's doting father.

Before Ursa returns to New York, life takes a dramatic turn, one from which neither Ursa nor Triunion's residents are able to shake loose. And one that confirms Paule Marshall's reputation for fine fiction.

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