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
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The Independent Culture
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.