Remembrance: Flaws overcome by vivid depictions of time and place

Remembrance by Rita Woods science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsRemembrance by Rita Woods Remembrance by Rita Woods

Remembrance (2020) is a solid historical fantasy by Rita Woods that doesn’t quite meet its potential but is still well worth a read thanks to several strong characterizations and some vividly immersive historical scenes.

Woods moves us back and forth between three time periods. In modern times, Gaelle is a young woman who moved to the U.S. after the earthquake in Haiti, which is also where she lost her grandmother. Gaelle works at a home for the aged, where she is the primary tender of a mysterious Jane Doe woman who seemingly has no family or friends and neither speaks nor moves. This changes one day, though, when Gaelle finds a strange old man in the room who tells her, upon being asked to leave, that the woman’s name is Winter.

Another storyline takes place in the mid-1800s, and follows a trio of house slaves in New Orleans: Margot (the main character of this plotline), Margot’s younger sister Veronique, and Margot’s grandmother. When their owner dies, though, the two sisters are sold off up north.

The last plot thread follows another house slave, Abigail, in Haiti during the Haitian slave rebellions of the late 1700s. Her owner flees to New Orleans, taking Abigail with her, but not her children. There Abigail meets a pair of spirit-talkers/magic-workers, Josiah and Simona.

Rita Woods

Rita Woods

All three women have a magical ability of some sort: Gaelle can create heat and transfer it through touch, Winter can “see into things” and rearrange them or pull them apart, and Abigail can fold space.

It’s that ability that later allows Abigail (Mother Abigail as she is now known) to create Remembrance, a refuge in Ohio for former slaves that she has severed from the world by raising a magical barrier known as The Edge. It is Remembrance that a young slave and new mother sets out to reach, freezing to death before she makes it, though her baby daughter is found by Abigail and named Winter. Many years later, Margot also finds her way there, though Mother Abigail by then is old and failing, leaving Remembrance vulnerable to a trio of brutal slavecatchers.

The best parts of Remembrance for me were the historical scenes set in Haiti and New Orleans, where Woods employs a full array of sensory detail to bring both places to vital life. Along with the vivid settings, Woods creates compelling tension thanks to the rebellions, the dangerous fever, spirit warnings, and more. The portrayal of slavery’s brutality and trauma, meanwhile, even by “good” people, is greatly effective throughout those settings as well as in Remembrance.

That said, while the scenes set in and around Remembrance threaten more violence and so also have some tension, for me the tension was diluted somewhat by scenes that felt as if they dragged on a little too long and/or were a bit repetitive thanks to too much bickering or introspection that circled around the same areas.  In addition, neither the slavecatchers nor the Remembrance residents feel like fully fleshed out characters; I grieved for the community rather than the individuals within it. The young boy attached to the slavecatchers does offer a few nice moments of complexity, even if his storyline is a tad predictable. There are also a few clunky plot moves, and the continual references to the mystery of Josiah eventually become more distraction than anything else (others may find those teases a plus). Finally, while I liked Gaelle, I admit I found the modern scenes a bit flat and wondered if they were necessary.

So Remembrance is a flawed novel, but an impressively ambitious one in its organization and the way it brings its multiple time periods to vivid life. Meanwhile, its spectrum of emotionality creates more than a few moving moments. In the end, the strong points solidly outweigh any weaker elements.

Published in January 2020. Remembrance…It’s a rumor, a whisper passed in the fields and veiled behind sheets of laundry. A hidden stop on the underground road to freedom, a safe haven protected by more than secrecy…if you can make it there. Ohio, present day. An elderly woman who is more than she seems warns against rising racism as a young nurse grapples with her life. Haiti, 1791, on the brink of revolution. When the slave Abigail is forced from her children to take her mistress to safety, she discovers New Orleans has its own powers. 1857 New Orleansa city of unrest: Following tragedy, house girl Margot is sold just before her promised freedom. Desperate, she escapes and chases a whisper…. Remembrance.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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One comment

  1. Marion /

    I think I will order this book today!

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