BOOK REVIEW / Darkness between the sheets

Harlem Renaissance author Dorothy West published her first novel in 1948. This is her second. The Wedding by Dorothy West Abacus, pounds 9.99

A small girl is missing. But no one in the crowd connects her with the child nearby, who is clearly lost. They know the missing infant comes from a coloured district, while this one is blonde and blue-eyed. Feeling foolish and embarrassed, someone finally asks the girl whether she is coloured. Shelby stares: " 'I don't know', she said after thinking it over, because she didn't." Shelby is born of a hundred years of inter- racial couplings, beginning with masters siring children on their slaves. Her own great-grandmother, Gram, is a nonagenarian Southern belle, living with coloured descendants who look white.

Dorothy West's The Wedding is set in 1953, in the Oval area of Martha's Vineyard. This is home to smart coloured society, and no family is smarter than the Coleses. It's their daughter, the now grown-up Shelby, who is about to marry.

Colour here is a social barometer, but the nuances of race are so subtle that the uninitiated "sometimes wasted an entire summer licking the wrong boot". Characters shade from honey through butternut to "black". Light skin tones are proof of good breeding, but secretly everyone craves something darker between the sheets.

The Wedding recalls Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding. The writers are absolute contemporaries - West was born one year before Welty in 1908. But in the preparations for Dabney's nuptials, Welty shows us the white South defeated but still beautiful while West lets us see what happened to its slaves once they were free. Like Dabney, Shelby is marrying an outsider - in her case a white jazz musician - causing minor shock waves to ripple through the black bourgeoisie. The embittered Gram has high hopes of this union, dreaming of a pure bloodline and burial in a whites-only cemetery. However, Shelby's mother feels her daughter is marrying beneath her; Shelby's adulterous father believes that because of him his daughter cannot trust any coloured man; sister Liz thinks the virginal Shelby fears the sex a dark man symbolises.

Flashbacks trace the Coles family history from its genesis in euphoria and despair. The ex-slaves work to better themselves; the impoverished whites struggle to survive. Gram's daughter knows that "marriage to a man who could feed her was her only escape ... The men with money were white trash, who had robbed the aristocrats of their sovereignty, and she would rather marry a coloured man who knew he was dirt beneath her feet".

Despite its big themes, this quiet novel never quite reaches epic proportions - though it has many of the characteristics of epic. It ends in tragedy and reconciliation, and also in something like wish-fulfilment: "Colour was a false distinction; love was not." There are many enjoyable insights into a world where washerwomen and cooks spawn professors and doctors. But West holds the reader at a distance, offering an invitation to a wedding we hear about rather than see.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected