jo's Reviews > The Living Blood

The Living Blood by Tananarive Due
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's review
May 13, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: african-american, vampires, spec-fantasy-sf
Read from April 26 to May 05, 2010



The Living Blood struck me most forcefully as an exploration of parenting. in the right hands, speculative fiction takes the study of the (interior and exterior, inner and outer) limits of humanity to places where, perhaps, realist fiction cannot go. The Living Blood is not solely about parenting, but the rapport between children and parents, and the idea of childhood, are very much at the center of it.

the first book of the trilogy, My Soul to Keep, ends with the death of jessica and david's daughter kira in truly dramatic circumstances. i expected tananarive due to leave this stunning ending unexplored. i was wrong.

The Living Blood does plenty probing of kira's death and the terrible burden this death puts on the shoulder of the baby sister who was in her mother's womb when the tragedy occurred. if you'll remember, jessica allowed kira to die when she could have saved her, and she did so in a split-second decision, out of a sort of intuition that saving her would rob her of her place in heaven.

maybe The Living Blood could have done more with kira's destiny, her grandfather, the place in heaven he promised her throughout My Soul to Keep, and the reassurances he offered that she would be able to see and visit her parents (and see them happy!) as often as she wanted. in The Living Blood kira does visit her mom, but these visitations are ghostly and disturbing and probably not really happening. kira’s apparitions seem, in fact, to be a trick played on jessica by little fana’s supernatural powers.

TD, however, makes up amply for this omission by delving deeply into jessica’s grief and the ways in which her love for fana cannot but be tinged by it. i found this beautiful, a great feat of psychological lucidity and courage on the part of this author. parents are marked by their history in ways we often discount or deny. children are part of this history, too, and carriers of its seeds. familial history is passed down the generations, enriched each time by new layers of presentness. the existence of this historical chain, the continuance the makes each of us the rich product of an intersection of past and present, seems to me often lost to our idea of childhood. children are born with the guilt of cain and the screams of abel embedded in their small minds. in this way, they are a treasure-trove of familial, generational and cultural inheritance.

at the beginning of the novel we meet jessica again as a mother who loves her living daughter while being haunted by the loss of her dead one. correspondingly, fana is a much loved girl who has to contend with the presence of her sister in her mother's heart. in the course of the novel TD allows jessica to grow out of this crushing grief, but she never quite deprives her of the richness of its memory, and i, for one, am grateful for it.

fana deals with the large presence of her sister by striving with all she has (she is between three and four but she's already incredibly powerful) to soothe her mother’s grief, on the one hand, and have her all to herself, on the other. at some point, she decides that the best way to go about this is by blotting out jessica's memory of kira altogether. this is a compelling scene. jessica does not remember her grief and is therefore happier and relieved; at the same time, she feels, and knows, that she has lost something precious, and begs fana to give it back to her. i like the way TD understands the shaping power of memory and the value of transforming memories instead of erasing them (as if we could ever fill the void they leave). i also like the way in which she portrays the relationship between fana and jessica as a loving/painful/difficult negotiation of roles, and a shared process of loss and gain. in the way all children do but few children are represented as doing, fana experiences searing loss from the moment she is born, in spite of her mother’s excellent parenting.

this is mirrored on a purely human level in the parallel story of lucas and jared, who have lost, respectively, a wife and a mother, and are about to lose each other (jared is terminally sick with leukemia).

the other axis of TD’s deep look at parenting concerns what parents can and cannot do for their children, and the moral dilemmas centered around the curbing of both their own and their children’s fantasies of omnipotence.

in the relationship between jessica and fana, it is fana’s omnipotence that comes to the fore, and jessica’s moral struggle with accepting it, cherishing it, and protecting fana from it, simultaneously. in this way, this novel works as the fictional version of a manual on how to parent exceptional children. TD looks insightfully at the incredible burdens exceptional children carry – the grief that constantly threatens to assail them, the short-lived elations, the crushing responsibility – and presents in jessica a remarkably tuned-in parent. in the first half of the book Jessica spends a lot of time trying to understand fana. eventually the job of understanding her daughter leads her to take the radical and selfless step of leaving everything behind and looking for help in the only place where help can be found. at the same time, and quite heroically, she insists on fana’s humanity and childishness, and fights tooth and nail to protect it. in the bee scene that takes place during the escape from the colony, Jessica chooses to protect fana from excessive responsibility and loss of innocence over the certainty the fana could rescue them all from demise.

in the relationship between lucas and jared it is lucas, the father, who plays with fantasies of omnipotence, and jared who, with the very tangible language of vulnerability and disease, tries his best to remind him of the value of their shared humanity.

both jessica and lucas do eventually fail. this failure is mixed, because it appears in the novel as an apparent success: jared lives, lucas becomes an immortal, and jessica, david, and fana create the community that will ensure fana’s safe flourishing. jessica, though, has abandoned fana when fana needed her most and this has caused fana to provoke a hurricane and experience her tremendous destructive power. she may be "safe" in her new communal family, but she is heavily traumatized and basically catatonic. it is interesting to notice that jessica abandons fana for very good reasons, and it is thanks to this abandonment that jared survives and alex and lucas are saved. still, jessica compromises, and the consequences of this compromise are dire for fana.

likewise, lucas and jared are together, jared is flourishing, lucas is happily re-coupled with alex and is an immortal to boot. but immortality, TD has amply shown us, is at best a mixed blessing. in fact, if there is one thing My Soul to Keep and The Living Blood have shown us, the life of the immortal is ultimately a profoundly diminished life.

it is a sign of TD's depth as an author that she draws very little attention to the failures and successes of her character. in fact, she is a remarkably non-judgmental author. you have to draw your own conclusion pretty much as you would in life. and she complicates things, because that's how they are in real life: messy, and complex, and difficult. so both My Soul to Keep and The Living Blood are very difficult novels to read, not because they don't flow fast and furiously (they do), but because they are constantly balanced on the precarious, evanescent, and imbricate line between good and bad.
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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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Wilhelmina Jenkins Not bad, huh?

message 2: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo fantastic. review in the works. i'll read the third even if it's another vatican conspiracy theory story.

Wilhelmina Jenkins Great review; great book!

message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

Wow! This sounds just fantastic! Thanks for the in depth review.

message 5: by jo (last edited May 13, 2010 07:38AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo thank you both of you! ceridwen, if you haven't read this, i need to add that there is so much more to this book than what i wrote. in fact, one may very well read the whole book and not even think about parenting at all. this author can sure pack her novels.

Rashida Know what was crazy to me reading this book the second time around? I have a three year old foster daughter, and I was probably only in college or something the first time. This kid is amazing, but she's also carrying around some tremendous confusion and possibly hurt that she's learning to explore, and I just kept thanking my lucky stars that she doesn't have exceptional powers to contend with, because we'd all be toast, I'm sure. It also made those scenes of Fana's terror incredibly hard to digest. And other scenes of her insolence exasperating as I just imagined the disciplinary actions I would be taking. Could you imagine Fana being placed in time out?

message 7: by jo (last edited May 14, 2010 06:22AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo wow. i can't imagine reading this with *any* three year old in my life, but yikes, yes, definitely intense for someone who has a child with hurt in her life! good luck to both of you!

and: hahahaha @fana in time-out. did you notice how much CRYING fana does in this book? she's this tremendously overwhelmed little girl, who cries so so easily...

did you find jessica's parenting moving? i did.

Rashida I thought Jessica got the big things right, love, fear, sacrifice, putting Fana above herself, and that all struck a chord. But I thought there were practical everyday things she wasn't doing. The crying, uh. It's not enough to say, "don't cry, it'll be alright." There's got to be the alternative, there's got to be the coping skills, so, "it's okay to cry when you're scared (hurt, angry), but you need to talk to us and tell us what is scaring you (hurting you, angering you), so that we can HELP you and try our best to make it better." I think Fana felt so alone because despite the otherworldy conversations she and her mother, she really wasn't given the simple bedrock assurances that she was loved and protected, and problems could be fixed short of turning hearts inside out and exsanguination.

message 9: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo yes, you are right. jessica is dealing with too much of her own stuff to really get that fana needs someone to talk to other than the guy in the sky. and it's kind of crazy at the end, isn't it, when jessica and dawit go "visit" fana, who's so clearly badly dissociated, and just sort of hope that she'll get better on her own. hmmm.

thank you for making me see things that i had failed to see though i had somehow sensed them.

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