Article Content Warnings: Mention of Child Neglect
Book Content Warnings: Alcoholism, Child Neglect
“The body is the first homeland. When it is destroyed, we are set to everlasting exile. Until, like some parasite, we can find a temporary home in someone else’s living sinews.”— Chantal James, None But The Righteous
None But The Righteous is a layered, enigmatic book that emphasizes feelings and atmosphere over plot and character development — to such a degree that readers may finish the book feeling that they don’t know what happened. Her debut novel fosters moments of reflection, though these moments must remain rooted in the real rather than the personal because of the vague characters that populate the book.
The book follows Ham, a teenager born and raised in New Orleans, as he compels himself into adulthood at seventeen by running away from his kind but distant foster mother, Miss Pearl, as she struggles to put food on the table. Ham was orphaned early in life, and spent his early childhood keeping himself and his baby sister alive under his birth mother’s neglect. Ham remained in New Orleans for a few months until the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. Fleeing, he meets a young woman named Deborah who invites him to wait out the storm on her family’s property in Alabama. He spends a week in the welcome of her family’s house. During this week he sleeps with Deborah, who has an attraction to him that he does not fully reciprocate. After the week is over Ham tracks down Mayfly, a woman whom he had known and fawned over as a child when she drifted through Atlanta one summer. She allows him to stay with her, but he finds that his place in her life is given begrudgingly and without warmth. Two months later, he returns to Deborah’s family’s house to discover that she is pregnant with his child — but her family home still does not feel like his home.
The events of the book are not laid out in the linear, straightforward fashion of a traditional novel, or as in the previous paragraph — the book opens with Ham on a bus from Atlanta to Alabama, returning to Deborah’s family, but as he returns he is reflecting on the time he’d just finished spending with Mayfly in Atlanta. A casual reader may read the entire book without understanding the order of events as they occurred in time, but this lack of understanding contributes to the book’s goals. Ham spends the entire book running away from places where he doesn’t fit, or where he merely feels like he doesn’t fit. He is compelled by a “threadbare loneliness” and is always seeking, unsuccessfully, some “convenient object” to fill it. The objects are sometimes women, who scaffold his life by providing homes and work, filling his time and lending him ephemeral purpose. Ham drifts through a life of hardship, from one unfulfilling and uncomfortable circumstance to the next; the patchwork style of storytelling that James utilizes is similarly directionless and meandering, and os helps her emphasize the chaotic nature of Ham’s life.
Another storytelling choice James made which contributes to the reader’s feelings of disorientation and confusion was to use a spirit which haunts Ham via a necklace given to him by his foster mother as a narrator for much of the book. In some moments, Ham’s narrative line disappears completely as the spirit describes its previous life as a 17th-century Peruvian friar. At other moments, the story remains focused on Ham but from the spirit’s perspective — the spirit controls Ham’s actions in Ham’s weak moments, and the spirit has its own motives that do not align with Ham’s. Readers may find it challenging, at times, to parse the book’s actual occurrences from the indistinct opining of the spirit. It is particularly challenging because it feels like the author actively avoids sharing details that would clarify the situation for the reader. Ambiguity can leave the audience feeling uncertain of the meaning, yet compelled to keep reading in order to understand. Unfortunately, this book is sometimes so light on information as to leave the reader without any understanding at all. The combination of experimental strategies James employs in her book may have benefited from a lighter touch, in order to ensure readers’ basic comprehension.
The spirit’s perspective and desires, infused into the book via its narration of events, draw a translucent curtain between the reader and the plot of the book. Some readers may find this frustrating, pointless, and seemingly random, but its mystifying effect forces the reader to share at least a degree of Ham’s feelings of frustration and pointlessness in a world that has failed to communicate clearly with him. Because of its layered and opaque nature, None But The Righteous is best read without seeking an exact understanding of a central plot, but rather to appreciate the way that James implements storytelling techniques to invoke characters’ emotional experiences in the reader’s own heart.
Beyond James’ unusual and beclouding methods of storytelling, None But The Righteous showcases her consistent propensity for beautiful prose, metaphors, and imagery. The book lacks plot but is laden with vivid descriptions of the world. James’ descriptions of beautiful natural imagery are often placed in contrast to less pleasant, man-made things. Her powerful use of metaphor simultaneously contributes to creating the setting and the emotional texture of scenes. In describing a moment from Ham’s lonely childhood, James writes that “the sun over his head [was] pounding a heat that felt like love.” It is rare that an author can so lithely merge the emotional importance of location with its physical description, and this is a distinguishing feature of this novel’s prose.
With its maze-like layers, James chose an ambitious project for a debut novel. It is successful on the whole in its emotional resonance and lovely prose style, but fails in communicating concrete information to the reader. This provisory success hopefully precedes a strong future body of work for author Chantal James.
CHANTAL JAMES lives in Washington, D.C., and has been published across genres–as a poet, fiction writer, essayist, and book reviewer–in such venues as Catapult, Paste, Harvard’s Transition, The Bitter Southerner, and more. James’s honors include a Fulbright Fellowship in creative writing to Morocco and a finalist position for the Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction Prize from the North Carolina Literary Review in 2019.
None But The Righteous can be purchased here