In her wonderful 2010 novel Take One Candle Light a Room, Susan Straight explored the conflicts of Fantine Antoine, a journalist grappling with mixed feelings about moving away from her tightly knit African-American community in Southern California. That community speaks for itself in Between Heaven and Here, a collective self-portrait of the world Fantine couldn’t leave behind. It’s a messier book than its predecessor, but the raggedness feels necessary. Telling these stories in multiple voices, Straight reminds us that individual lives are indelibly shaped by shared history.
The novel is set in motion by the death of Fantine’s childhood friend Glorette Picard in August 2000, five years before the events of Take One Candle Light a Room. The backtracking may seem peculiar to readers of the previous book, particularly since this is the last volume in a trilogy. (The first, A Million Nightingales, chronicled the odyssey of Fantine’s enslaved ancestor in Louisiana.) But Straight knows that linear chronology and neat conclusions don’t accurately reflect the nature of lived experience. Past and present swirl together in the minds of her characters, inextricably linked.
Glorette was a crack-addicted prostitute, but the man who finds her body dumped in a shopping cart behind a taqueria remembers when she was the most beautiful girl in high school. Afraid that he’ll be accused of her murder, Sidney takes Glorette’s body home to Sarrat, a cluster of houses in the orange groves outside Rio Seco owned by her father and Fantine’s father, Enrique, who vows to find and kill whoever did this to his friend’s daughter. Enrique has always acted as the king of their little enclave, exiling anyone who fails to live by his rules.
We learn the identity of the murderer, but it’s virtually beside the point as the narrative expands to encompass other denizens of Sarrat who are forced to deal with the society Enrique tries to lock outside his gates.
Straight tightens her focus in the heartbreaking final chapters, which take us inside Glorette’s mind on the night of her death. Small details show her trying to nurture her son, Victor, despite their disordered, wearying lives. The consequences for Victor are painfully apparent in his recollections of missing his last chance to take the SAT because one of her tricks shot up their apartment and the police took them all into custody.
But poverty, abuse and deprivation are not the whole picture. A high school teacher who once loved Glorette pushes Victor to go to college. The drug dealer who makes menacing requests to buy Victor’s ’64 Impala is run off by his shotgun-wielding grandfather. The campus cop who harasses him about managing an unlicensed parking lot is the same officer who once picked up a weeping third-grader who missed the bus and took him to school. Victor is enfolded in a battered community that looks out for its own. He reciprocates by stretching out his hand to a younger boy who has also lost his mother.
Straight paints these moments of gruff tenderness with the same unsentimental lucidity she trains on the constant temptations of violence and despair, capturing the full human complexity of a segment of society too often reduced to stereotypes. Between Heaven and Here is the work of a clear-sighted, generous-hearted writer.
Wendy Smith reviewed this book for The Washington Post.