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
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine