New York Times bestselling author Morgan Jerkins makes her fiction debut with this electrifying novel, for fans of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jacqueline Woodson, that brings to life one powerful and enigmatic family in a tale rife with secrets, betrayal, intrigue, and magic.
Laila desperately wants to become a mother, but each of her previous pregnancies has ended in heartbreak. This time has to be different, so she turns to the Melancons, an old and powerful Harlem family known for their caul, a precious layer of skin that is the secret source of their healing power.
When a deal for Laila to acquire a piece of caul falls through, she is heartbroken, but when the child is stillborn, she is overcome with grief and rage. What she doesn’t know is that a baby will soon be delivered in her family—by her niece, Amara, an ambitious college student—and delivered to the Melancons to raise as one of their own. Hallow is special: she’s born with a caul, and their matriarch, Maman, predicts the girl will restore the family’s prosperity.
Growing up, Hallow feels that something in her life is not right. Did Josephine, the woman she calls mother, really bring her into the world? Why does her cousin Helena get to go to school and roam the streets of New York freely while she’s confined to the family’s decrepit brownstone?
As the Melancons’ thirst to maintain their status grows, Amara, now a successful lawyer running for district attorney, looks for a way to avenge her longstanding grudge against the family. When mother and daughter cross paths, Hallow will be forced to decide where she truly belongs.
Engrossing, unique, and page-turning, Caul Baby illuminates the search for familial connection, the enduring power of tradition, and the dark corners of the human heart.
Morgan Jerkins is the author of the New York Times bestseller, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America and the forthcoming Wandering In Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots.
A graduate of Princeton University and the Bennington Writing Seminars, Jerkins is the current Senior Editor at ZORA of Medium and former Associate Editor at Catapult. She teaches at Columbia University's School of the Arts and most recently was the Picador Professor at Leipzig University in Germany.
3.5⭐️ So there's this family called the Melancons and they are known for selling chucks of caul which are supposed to have some powers to it. They refuse to give some to Layla, who has had many miscarriages. She gives birth to a stillborn baby, and this drives her mad. She blames the Melancons for the death of her baby, and on top of this, her husband leaves her. Her niece Amara gets pregnant and doesn’t want the child. She gives the child away but doesn’t know who exactly she is giving her away to. The child, Hallow, is special since she is born with the caul, and the Melancons are able to use her to continue making money. Amara, inspired by what happened to Layla, becomes a lawyer to fight issues that plague other women like Layla, including going after the Melacons. Hollow also starts to learn more about herself as she grows and starts to develop questions. Throughout the story, we keep going back and forth in the lives of the characters in the book, mostly Amara, Josephine, Maman, and Hallow.
This sounded really interesting, but it still felt really uninteresting as I read. Although, the relationships in this one, not necessarily romantic ones, were intriguing. I’m not really sure how to continue this review because I couldn’t get into it well enough to have anything to say. I guess I was waiting for everything to sum up nicely, but when I was done, it all just felt really empty. I understand that Jenkins was trying to communicate a lot with this book, but my mind wasn’t understanding most of it.
Caul Baby just came out this week and is a story loaded with secrets.
The Melancons are a well-known Black family in Harlem with a gift — a caul, an extra layer of skin protecting them from harm. To maintain their home and status in the community, they sell pieces of their caul for premium prices.
Laila reaches out to the Melancons after suffering from numerous miscarriages. When they refuse to help her during her latest pregnancy, Laila’s fury and devastation takes over. Her niece, Amara, secretly has a baby shortly after this and gives the baby up for adoption, not willing to sacrifice her college education or career ambition on the child’s behalf.
Caul Baby follows the 2 families over several years as one deals with the long lasting impact of loss, attempting to move forward, while the other deals with an oppressive head of household and mounting self-imposed pressure. If this description seems a little vague, it’s intentional — This is a story best discovered as you turn the pages.
While she has written other books, Caul Baby is Morgan Jerkins’s fiction debut and it’s a good one! Lots of themes in this story — Family relations, motherhood, infertility, gentrification, magic (healing properties), and moral dilemmas.
Thank you to Goodreads for an advance reader copy (won via giveaway).
I can see this being a favorite for a lot of people come 2021!
I love a book with a solid premise and Caul Baby explores a topic I have never read about. A caul birth is when the baby comes out at birth with the sac (caul) still intact. A caul birth is so rate that 1 in 80,000 persons are born that way… yes! It is a miracle, something special to behold. In CAUL BABY we meet the Melancons who known in Harlem as dealers of cauls which is a precious piece of skin that offers healing power to those who it is given to. The Melancons is lead by the matriarch Maman who sees to the business of caul using the skin of her daughters and granddaughter. With the demand of caul outweighing the means to produce the Melancons receive a miracle source.
Laila went through numerous miscarriages and heartbreaks trying to carry a baby into the world. This time she can feel that this one is going to make it but to cover to all her basis she reached out to the Melancons for a caul but they turned her down. Laila ends up losing the baby which sends her spiraling.
Hallow knows that she services a purpose to her family but sometimes she wonders if without her caul she would be of use. She is constantly being watched and shown around to others. She wonders about her family and their standing in the Harlem community, how she can make it right. Meanwhile a budding District Attorney main focus is taking down the family, it all spirals, and quickly!
This is such an addictive read, I loved that Morgan Jerkins takes us on this journey one that is laced with history, themes of betrayal, grief, racism, and family. I loved that the characters were mostly women, all with dealing with a tragedy, making the best use of the opportunities given to them. There is a bit of magical realism to it that I thoroughly enjoyed.
There were certain moments where I was a bit lost and I did not believe the character’s motivation but overall I felt this was well written and it will be story a lot of people will love come 2021.
I wanted to like this book so much - the idea behind the plot, the concept it grapples with of what those with power owe to those in need, the racial politics and history of selling Black bodies for white profit, all of that was unique and interesting. I just couldn't get past the writing - the characters seemed wooden, the dialogue stilted, the descriptions bland. It felt like it needed a few more heavy edits before being released into the world.
The year is 1998 and the Melancons are a family of black females who live in a Harlem brownstone and own a bodega.
The bodega isn't the Melancons' real source of income, however, because they're caul bearers. The Melancons have a covering fused to their skin, called a caul, that has healing and regenerative properties. The beneficial features of the caul give the book a touch of magical realism, as evidenced when the caul bearing Melancons are cut or burned and immediately heal.
The Melancons sell pieces of their caul for VERY high prices, usually to white people who can afford it. The Melancons require a lot of money because their brownstone, which is infested with dark spirits, is decaying and moldering and in constant need of expensive repairs. In addition, the Melancons are determined to be independent, and not reliant on the government or outsiders.
As the story opens, a well-off, married black woman named Laila, who has suffered innumerable miscarriages, finds herself pregnant again.
Laila is desperate to have a baby, and with the help of an intermediary named Landon, Laila arranges to purchase a piece of caul from the Melancons for $15,000.
Laila is sure the caul would ensure a successful pregnancy and she's crushed when the Melancons refuse to sell after all, apparently thinking the sale would bring them bad luck.
Laila's pregnancy fails and she has a complete breakdown, for which Laila's family blames the Melancons. Laila's niece Amara, a student at Columbia University, vows to go to law school, become a prosecutor, and take down the Melancons for 'selling their bodies.'
As it happens Amara herself gets pregnant after a drunken night with her college study partner, and - with college, law school and a career ahead of her - Amara is not ready to be a mother. Amara's godfather, who happens to be the Melancons' intermediary Landon, comes up with a solution.
Amara will keep her pregnancy secret and stay at Landon's home until she gives birth. Afterwards Landon will find a good home for the baby. Long story short, Landon gives Amara's baby girl, named Hallow - who turns out to be a caulbearer - to the Melancons. Amara isn't told who has her baby, and Hallow isn't told about her origins.
Landon isn't just a business partner with the Melancons. Though Landon is married, he's having a torrid affair with beautiful Josephine Melancon.
Landon still lives with his wife Valerie, who's aware that Landon is having a dalliance with Josephine. Valerie accepts the situation for financial support and to have a father for her children, but she feels unhappy and betrayed.
We follow the main characters in the story for the next twenty years, as Hallow is raised by the Melancons - who aren't a harmonious bunch;
Amara graduates from law school and becomes a prosecutor;
and Landon continues his association with the Melancons and his affair with Josephine.
The Melancons are extremely unpopular in Harlem, because they sell the caul to white people, but refuse to help needy (but poor) black people.
Given the black residents' animosity against the Melancons, Amara thinks she can rely on their support when she's ready to make her move against the caul-sellers.....and towards the end of the story, Amara is finally ready.
The story is compelling, and I enjoyed the book. I was disappointed with the final chapters, though, which feel forced and inauthentic to me.
That said, the story addresses important issues, such as health care in black communities; black motherhood; police harassment of black people; unfaithful men; gentrification of poor neighborhoods; profit over solidarity; and more.
Audiobook....read by Janiece Abbott-Pratt 10 hours and 53 minutes
This book is soooo good.... I went in blind...(worked like a charm)
From start to finish ....”Caul Baby” is an engaging fascinating story! I liked the story, the audiobook narrator, the characters, the family roots and history, the themes of love, loss, sacrifice, motherhood, and the value of family, the emotional integrity, and learning more in-depth about ‘caul’ (amniotic membrane enclosing a fetus)...and the way it’s used to tell a powerful tale.
I was so impressed with the storytelling....I looked up more information about the author Morgan Jenkins. (this was my first introduction to her). I ended up purchasing another book by Jenkins: “This Will Be My Undoing”. I’m a new Morgan Jenkins fan.....
....With so many new books out this year ...many powerful ones about Black history, and Black Women,.....if this book doesn’t stand out as one of the years best....I’d be very surprised. And....as one other reviewer already said so eloquently, (beating me to the punch)....”WE NEED THESE KINDS OF HAPPY ENDINGS”....
As my older daughter use to ask me at night before bed - after having read a book together... She’d ask ....”Tell me a story when you were a little girl, that was sad, with a happy ending”. This novel has the ‘sad-with-with-a-happy-ending’ aspect going on!
With Mother’s Day a week away — “Caul Baby” sure would make a lovely gift to one’s mother. For those of us whose mother’s are no longer with us.... ....may Mother’s Day bring us warm memories — appreciating the impact our mother’s had on our lives - the love and sacrifices they made for us.
Thank you, @harperperennial and @librofm, for the gifted book and ALC.
About the book: “New York Times bestselling author Morgan Jerkins makes her fiction debut with this electrifying novel, for fans of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jacqueline Woodson, that brings to life one powerful and enigmatic family in a tale rife with secrets, betrayal, intrigue, and magic.”
Caul Baby is Laila’s journey to becoming a mother. She’s had several miscarriages in the past. This time she seeks out the Melancons, a family in Harlem with healing powers. At the same time, Laila’s niece, Amara, delivers a baby, Hallow, who is sent to the Melancons to raise. She’s kept at home and protected, and as she grows up she does not understand why she is treated differently than her cousins.
What a page-turning, original story. There’s so much to think about here. It’s a loving tribute to mothers and daughters and has many other important themes, too, with a touch of magical healing and ethical dilemmas to process through.
Audio quick notes: I did a combination of reading and listening, which was especially powerful for this story because the narrator, Joniece Abbott-Pratt, added so much authentic emotion to the story, I had to keep turning the pages.
this was okay, i found myself really bored reading this book, i know i say that a lot but this seriously could’ve been cut down by like.. a lot. i think i was expecting a bit more family drama. i think i was expecting more gasp worthy moments. i feel like this book doesn’t explain things very well, though we follow Hollow growing up we don’t really get much about her growing up and how she felt. Even her aunt Iris and her cousin Helena. Iris is a medium and i feel like this book doesn’t focus on that or even Helena and how she resents Hollow which sucks because this book feels so long but focuses on absolutely nothing. this book doesn’t even really explain what caul is or how it works OR looks tbh. it also has such long descriptions about absolutely nothing.
A caul is the amniotic membrane that encloses a gestating fetus. In an extremely rare number of births, the caul still encloses the newly born baby. In many cultures and folklore, a baby born with a caul is considered a form of good luck and an omen of the child having a “second sight.” Morgan Jerkins uses this phenomenon to construct a story of magic realism with allegorical overtones that is set in Harlem beginning in 1998. Long considered a Mecca of Black culture, Harlem in 1998 is entering a period of gentrification that is rapidly altering the tone and makeup of the community.
The Melancon family emigrated from the Cane River in Louisiana and has lived in an imposing but decaying brownstone on 145 th Street for eighty years. Ruled by its overbearing matriarch,Marceline, the family is notable because they have a lineage of caul births. Their cauls merge with their skin and provide enhanced recuperative powers, regeneration from wounds, and enhanced fertility.The family has capitalized on this accident of birth by cutting off parts of their caul and selling the pieces to the highest bidder.This enterprise has made the Melancons both wealthy and unpopular in the Harlem community.Some people think that the legend of the caul is a street hustle based on unfounded myths of root magic. Others believe in its powers but can not afford the sale price.The Melancons’ clients are almost exclusively rich and white, perceived as interlopers who visit the area and extract a valuable resource, leaving no tangible benefit for the community at large.
At the outset of the story, the Melancon’s lineage is not producing new caul births as prolifically as they have in the past.Their wealth is diminishing and their brownstone is rapidly decaying. They are desperately seeking new clients and hoping for another family birth that will continue their caul lineage and revive their economic fortunes. Laila, a middle class black woman,has suffered several miscarriages but now is pregnant once again.She seeks out the Melancons in hopes of enhancing her chances of carrying her baby to term. The parties come to a preliminary agreement but never finalize the arrangement.Laila gives birth to a stillborn baby and dramatically confronts the Melancons. This scenario lays the groundwork for a twenty year saga of secrets, tensions, maternal love and betrayals.
This book is a very ambitious undertaking that touches on many pertinent issues. Central to the narrative is the notion that economically advantaged groups enter into a rapacious relationship with a more disadvantaged community, depriving them of their resources with no attendant empowerment.The role of outsiders using Black women and their bodies for their own benefit folds neatly into this concept.The narrative is filled with rich symbolism throughout. The caul is a symbol of both good fortune and oppression. The brownstone is a monument to grandeur while its disrepair is a reminder of an antiquated economic premise that is no longer workable.The reader will be engrossed by the issues and images presented in this novel.
Despite these strengths, there are some factors that limit the effectiveness of the novel. The plot sometimes plods a bit too much and the secondary characters need a little more development and integration into the story line. The issues and themes presented in this book raise this work well beyond an ordinary level. The story line is able to support these themes but could benefit from a slightly different shading. Nevertheless, the novel on a whole succeeds in captivating the reader and presenting a picture of a community and society in transition.Morgan Jerkins is a talented young writer who has a chance to become an important voice as she continues to explore her vision.3.5 stars rounded up to 4.
And I am so glad I picked this book to be book 100! It's so awesome and it's got a lot of elements I just love!
Black women, black women's magic, women's fiction, mother-daughter relationship, marriage and marital issues, fertility issues, grief, family, loss, secrets, betrayal, race and relations, gentrification, black motherhood and mortality, generational trauma, police brutality, and so many other important themes/topics were discussed and explored in this book.
The audiobook was narrated by Joniece Abbott-Pratt, my favorite audiobook narrator, and as usual, she was just perfect! 👌🏾💕
This book covered a lot of issues, and most of them were hard hitting. There were two families of black women at the heart of this story. The Melancons - Josephine, Iris, Helene, and Maman; and Leila, her sister Daphne, and Daphne's daughter Amara. They become interconnected over generations in more ways than they realize, thanks to middleman Langdon.
The blurb covers most of the story, and while you already have a general idea of what's going to happen, the beauty of the story and what kept me going was the richness of the prose, the importance of the themes, and the depth of the characters. It was all so well done!
The story starts off with a lot of loss for Laila, and we're soon introduced to the Melancons and what drives them. We also get to meet Laila's family, and Langdon. The trauma and devastating effects of many miscarriages and an eventual stillborn on Laila's marriage is also explored.
As the story progresses from 1998 to about 2018, we learn a lot about the daughter Amara gave up, and her life as a Melancon. We get to see the inner workings of the dysfunctional Melancon family as well.
This was such an amazing read and I enjoyed it so much, and definitely highly recommend!
Many thanks to Harper Audio and Librofm for my ALC of this book. This in no way influenced my review, which was written voluntarily.
Fascinating premise with lackluster execution. Needs heavy editing. There’s far too much mundane dialogue and not enough depth. I wanted more of the “caul” magic and lore, more of the racial implications and motivations. Instead, every facet is utterly flat.
Jerkins’ intriguing plot revolves around the magical powers of a caul, the amniotic sac membrane that some babies are born with still intact around their bodies. Jerkins infuses magical realism in the caul and redefines it as a regenerating layer of skin with healing powers.
The Melancons have monetized the caul’s healing powers by first fusing the precious membrane to their babies at birth, and then later cutting off pieces and selling them to mainly wealthy, white customers. The family’s failure to help their Black neighbors causes spirits to invade their Harlem brownstone. These lost souls create “clawlike cracks in the walls” and unpleasant odors.
What happens to the caul children that become part of the Melancon family? Jerkins follows the story of Hallow Melancon. She was an unwanted baby that was given to the Melancons. They fuse the caul to her and she becomes a money-making enterprise for them, a role she becomes more uncomfortable with as she grows older. More narrative threads are introduced—the gentrification of the neighborhood, the aspirations of Hallow’s biological mother that caused her to abandon her, and simmering resentments within the community.
4.5 leaning 5 So excellent. It has so many moving parts and all of them good. Its horror, magical realism, ahistorical fiction, black feminism, social commentary and in my favorite book setting NYC. I loved it. So was Elijah, Amari's baby daddy a part of the caul family from way back?
While the book has an interesting premise, the writing is really lackluster. Maybe I’m being a little judgemental since I tend to enjoy literary fiction opposed to plain old storytelling. I feel like this book is written more so as a screenplay than a book I should be reading. It’s not a short read, so while I didn’t love the writing the promise of a developing story is what made me hang on. 78% though the book and I felt like.. this isn’t really getting anywhere. The storyline was just way too predictable, characters were not very developed and played on unimaginative tropes, the dialogue was minimal and the text just repeated very obvious ideas. Read for yourself to find out I guess. While I can see why a publisher would pick up an idea like what we’ve been introduced to in Caul Baby, there was a fail in the delivery. It is very apparent that this is Jenkins’ first go at fiction. It should have remained the short story that it started as.
I loved Morgan Jerkins' book This Will Be My Undoing, and I am continually frustrated that more people don't seem interested in reading it, especially this past summer when so many people were posting their anti-racism reading lists all over social media. I was a little surprised when her latest book turned out to be fiction. Not just fiction -- magical realism, which is a genre I have very little patience but a grudging respect for. I was a little heartened when she referenced Toni Morrison in the first few pages, but I went into this book with a lot of skepticism.
I had never heard of a caul except in the most passing of ways. (Reading Song of Solomon for example.) I didn't really know what one was, and the book didn't really explain except to say that the main characters sold off pieces of it. When I finally gave up on getting the context from the book, I looked it up, and I think what Morgan Jerkins is imagining for her story is that the birth sac grows with the person (until they are 21), and little pieces are cut off throughout their lives for the purposes of healing sick or injured people. I still keep picturing people with huge skin tags hanging off their bodies, since there are a lot of references to the characters "playing with a piece of their caul" etc throughout the book. Gross.
So obviously this book made me a little queasy, but it ultimately helped me build a horror and discomfort with the Melancon women, who are selling off pieces of their bodies to those willing to pony up thousands of dollars for it. In their Harlem neighborhood of the late 90s, early 2000s, this is primarily white people who can afford to do this, meaning the women are both excluded from their black neighbors for their seeming refusal to help their community, and generally exploited by their white patrons who only see them as a means of body harvesting. The world of the Maman, Josephine, Iris, and Helena are upended when they refuse to give a piece of their caul to a black woman in their neighborhood when she needs it to carry her child to term. The book never explains why exactly, just that Iris doesn't think it's a good idea, and that's that. However, this decision will mark their family and the community for years to come.
This was an ok book, especially since it built up a well crafted atmosphere of low level deep anger toward the systems that work to put black women in a perpetual catch-22. However, the book doesn't explain much in the character's backstory that would make the book a full epic drama. There is almost no information given about Iris, the medium of the family who has a complicated history with her caul, and whose daughter Helena was supposed to carry on the family tradition of caul-bearing. There's a whiz-bang summary of Amara's life before she runs for district attorney, but not nearly enough information to make some of her later choices make sense. There are a lot of people standing around to fill in roles as generic neighbors, but almost nothing is told of them, so there isn't much of a sense of place. There is very, very little information given about how Hallow grew up. In a way this book is told far too quickly, but in another way it seems to drag on forever. There were paragraphs that went on in detail about a character's mind in a precise moment in time that I ended up skimming over once I realized these moments added nothing to the overall story. This book was a bit of a disappointment for me, only because I loved This Will Be My Undoing so very much. However, this book does a great job of asking the reader to look at the unfairness of the burdens placed on black women, and metaphorically points out the sacrifices black women are forced to give to the world. This is not my favorite book of the year, but I will be interested to see the discussions it inspires.
Took me longer than I thought it would to finish this one and I didn't quite zing with it either. I did like the premise and what the author set out to explore (the prospect of magical realism was very intriguing). It's just that the characters were unremarkable and the writing too stilted and oftentimes bland for my tastes. Not to say that the book is a fail, I believe that many will still enjoy it.
So this book took a minute for me to get addicted to it, but once I hit that sweet spot, baby, I couldn't get enough of this book. I switched from reading to listening, and the narrator brought this book to life for me. Shout out to Joniece Abbott-Pratt for narrating the hell out of this book!
Morgan Jerkins takes us on a journey, ok?! She is a griot! In all the meanings of the word 'griot,' she is it. The way she explores the various topics in this book, was amazing! She has school in this book and teaches you all sorts of lessons that you didn't even know you NEEDED, ok?! I am so hyped by this book, this review is not going to be like all the others, I can already see, but I'm going to try to make sense of my thoughts about what I read in this masterpiece.
First of all, this book is about BLACKNESS. HISTORY. ANCESTORS. LOVE. HONESTY. HOPE. TRUTH. LOSS. CULTURE. EXPECTATIONS. RESPECT. WOMANHOOD. FAMILY. BONDS.
This book is a journey, and not a sprint... this book transcends all that you thought and makes you take a look into your internal biases, your external biases, how you were raised, how you are raising your kids, your life, your relationships, your self-worth... I can go on and on, there is just so much beyond what you read here in this story. Though she tells a great story, this book is so multilayered that you could talk about the issues in this book for decades. This book deals with grief, loss, betrayal, drama, history, family, Black motherhood, feminism, and a host of other topics. There is also a historical lesson on the significance of caul births, the magical properties that are believed to be associated with caul births, and how this family is trying to keep its history and bloodline intact for the future.
Laila Reserve is a woman you first meet in the story, and she takes you through tragedy and loss. You get to witness her pain and her desperation as she's trying to save her most recent pregnancy from loss. However, when she reaches out to the Melancon Family for some added protection, they turn her away, and she loses her baby, which sends her on a downward spiral deep into depression.
Laila's niece, Amara, has an unwanted pregnancy, and she decides to keep her pregnancy a secret and gives her baby up for adoption as she feels she is not ready to be a mother.
Josephine Melancon, has also experienced grief and pregnancy loss and is surprised when a baby is brought to her for her to raise. Although she's in the family business of selling caul to high end clients to, we see how this conflicts with her morals as she comes to understand that there is a price to pay to keep her family together.
Maman, the matriarch of the Melancon family, is tough, and she's not here to play. She's here to win and put her family in a better financial situation to last generations. However, there comes a point where even she can't protect everyone and has to make a decision on how she's going to either continue or let go.
Hallow, the precious 'Caul Baby,' is the future. We get to see her grow up and come to an understanding of how her life serves it's purpose in her family. However, she too is not immune to what's going on in her family's life and house, and she has to make hard choices in order to live life in a way that is going to make her happy.
Morgan Jerkins takes you on a history lesson of caul, and what that means in terms of the properties in which some people believe in its properties.
The veil in African American culture is a mystical dimension of a spiritual belief system that traveled with slaves on the Middle Passage. An infant “born with a veil” of fetal membrane enveloping the head was interpreted as supernaturally gifted with a second sight, an ability to see into the future. Likewise, the seventh child of a seventh child would also be gifted with spiritual powers. The veil, also called a caul, like roots, charms, and conjurers, is a vivid aspect of African American spiritual, literary, and folklore tradition.
There is also another duality about the caul, and how Blacks and Whites are different, and how white people have an inability to view Black people as worthy and treat Black people as something they appropriate or take from them, but don't want to be like or associated with, other than getting something they want from them that they deem valuable.
Jerkins also explores exploitation of how Black people can exploit or take advantage of each other for gain. In the case of Maman, she only views people based on how useful they can be to the household or to her financially, and if they are not useful, they should be discarded or abandoned.
Topics that I felt stood out to me: - Black motherhood - Loss (child loss, marital loss, parental relationship loss between mothers & daughters) - Feminism - Adoption (stigma of adopting in Black families) - Infertility (lack of conversation about infertility historically in Black families) - Marriage/relationships - Gentrification (the dangerous presence of white people in Black communities) - Karen's/Todd's (calling the police on Black people) - Teen pregnancy - Black culture/high expectations - Black Bourgeoisie (looking down on regular Black people +negative thoughts of Black elite) - Root magic/Blood magic/spiritual - Being born special or "touched" in the Black community - Child abuse - Betrayal - Drama, gossip & pettiness in Black communities - Disrespect - Mental health
Jerkins also has a brilliant sense of tension that she has in this book that keeps you captivated the entire time. She weaves this story together, and illuminates the cracks in the wall, the monsters hiding behind the doors, the beacons of light in the community, the safe havens that can be found, the love that is always there but can be misguided or misdirected, the miscommunication and untrustworthiness that can happen because of racial animosity, the generational trauma that plagues the Black community because of slavery and segregation and demoralization and criminalization of our people for hundreds of years, the post traumatic stress that envelops Black people from birth, the constant hands-out/touching/petting/appropriating of whiteness, the danger, trauma, and horror of gentrification in historically Black communities, and the resilience of Black women who are often left to fend for themselves when loss occurs.
Overall this book will leave you mesmerized with heavy thought. Morgan Jerkins created a masterpiece. Her book reminds me of Tina McElroy Ansa's book "Baby of the Family" which also discussed a caul birth, but Jerkins goes DEEP! This book will be on my mind for a significantly long time. 5 stars.
Thank you to Libro.FM (@libro.fm), Morgan Jerkins, NetGalley, and Harper Books for this book in exchange for a fair and honest opinion.
Morgan Jerkins is likely best known for her works of non-fiction: This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female and Feminist in (White) America (a collection of essays) and Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots, her exploration of her family's history before fleeing the South. Caul Baby is her first venture into fiction and it's an interesting one.
Babies born in a caul are said to be special, almost magical. Their birth is good luck for not only them, but for their parents as well. In Jerkins' Caul Baby, that's not always the case. Readers are introduced to the Melancons, a family who has amassed wealth by using pieces of their cauls, but what happens when they're no longer able to sell off those pieces? The family's survival depends on cauls, secrets, lies and deception. And yet if they were more open with their community, they could have a greater impact for the good of all.
Caul Baby is mystical in a way that reminds me of Victor LaValle's The Changeling. Both explore the love parents have for their children and the lengths they'll go to to protect them, especially in a space where nothing is as it seems. This is definitely one of those books you'll want to read and re-read to make sure you didn't miss anything the first time around.
This is one of the best novels I've read in years. It manages to be simultaneously about New York, gentrification, the exploitation of Black women, and generational trauma. If that sounds like a difficult trick to pull off, well, you're correct.
"Caul Baby" is a high-wire act from first page to last, and there's not a single misstep.
A stellar debut. Three generations of Black women in Harlem, the magical properties of a baby's caul, a decidedly haunted house, gentrification, love affairs, the carceral state, healthcare for Black women and Black moms in particular... there's a lot in here, but Jerkins never overloads, never lets a plot spin out of control. The focus is tight while the prose is expansive, and the nimble movement through time keeps us zipping along without our even noticing.
Count this as one of the major debuts of the year, one of the books we'll all be talking about when awards and lists and what-not get to going.
Ok I guess I'm going to have the unpopular opinion on this one but the writing style ruined the book for me. The premise is very original and the magical realism somewhat works but ultimately this did not work. The writing is overly illustrative and the huge cast of characters fell flat from beginning to end. Often times the language veered into cliches, such as "“A mother will do whatever she has to, to ensure her child’s happiness...even if it has to hurt.” There are so many explanations provided that just aren't needed or the tone turns pedagogic (such as Denise's long monologue about gentrification or the perils of Black motherhood or the heavy handed railing against capitalism). I kept asking myself, who is the audience Jerkins had in mind? Because it felt like it was mostly for white people given how often she explained things that a Black reader would have already known. I wanted more show, fewer explanations and for this book to be unapologetically Black. Also, ironically it wasn't the magical realism that strained credulity but rather the parts that tried to be more realistic, such as the police raiding a center for Black doulas. The lack of character development is especially apparent in Amara who somehow goes from an unexpected pregnancy to being a ADA, dating a horrible white boy and being afraid of the Black community. This could have been a compelling storyline to explore but, the one time an explanation would have been welcomed, we're given no backstory or information to help us better understand her character arc. Her story was utterly ridiculous.
I'm also all about stories that focus on women but both the male and female characters were dull. The men were just cast aside far more quickly (Laila's husband??), somehow managing to be even flatter than the Melancons and Amara's family. The Melancon women seemed enigmatic, especially Iris, but they remained boring, subject to the whims of Manman who also remained a Creole caricature. Josephine is a driftless, whiny fortysomething, I wanted this story to be told from multiple perspectives that included Iris, instead it confusingly alternates between Josephine, Manman, Langston and a few others. There's also a very heavy emphasis on the importance of community while remembering that "all skinfolk ain't kinfolk". A wise lesson but one that I wanted to see written about in a less obvious and moralizing way. Additionally the ending was a rushed mess. I suppose things are somewhat neatly resolved but the whole thing reads as unrealistic even for speculative fiction. Characters disappear, everyone gets a somewhat happy ending and all is forgotten and forgiven. I did really like the nod to Morrison's BELOVED with the creepy haunted house. Jerkins writes tension and eerie occurrences horrifyingly well. And in other reviews I've seen it mentioned that she nods to a few other beloved Black books/authors as well so that's a lesser known reference I can get behind.
CAUL BABY is a creative, occasionally moving, far-reaching story about Black motherhood, capitalism, Harlem and belonging. It's interesting to me to read interviews with the author because she stresses that she sees herself as a fiction writer but most of us know her from her non fiction. I do love Jerkins' non fiction writing (still need to read her second book) and her skill is on hand when it comes to her portrayal of of Black women and the complicated feelings surrounding motherhood. How desperately some want it and how completely uninteresting the idea of motherhood is to others. Jerkins handles fertility and miscarriages delicately and with great care, Laila's grief is palpable. There's also lots of information about doulas and the importance of having a Black doula if you're a Black woman. It's not smoothly inserted in the story but it's there and I appreciated the knowledge. She also vividly depicts Harlem, making it a character in its own right with mentions of street names, restaurants and the changing demographics. Those were the strengths of the book as opposed to her attempts to juggle multiple characters. I'd read another novel of hers because I think she's supremely talented but I'm glad I got this book from the library as opposed to immediately buying as I have for her other books.
Why do I feel like a 3-star rating is mediocre?? I don't think Caul Baby is mediocre, it's a good read. It's not like anything I've ever read so I can't compare it to another book. It's probably just me, but there was something missing...a lot was predictable, but I was not expecting the connection that was revealed at the end.
To start at the beginning, Laila is cautiously anticipating the birth of her baby. Her previous pregnancies have resulted in miscarriages, but this time she's farther along and can truly feel this baby's strength. Laila's not superstitious, but she's convinced there's no harm in extra insurance after seeing the healing power of a caul after meeting Josephine Melancon at the bodega. With close family friend Landon acting as an intermediary, what could go wrong? EVERYTHING. The Melancons refuse to sell caul to Laila and she is ghosted by Landon leaving her to go into preterm labor and lose her baby. At the same time, Laila's niece Amara is also pregnant and a prelaw student at Columbia University. She's not thrilled to be pregnant, but doesn't wish to terminate her pregnancy. Amara's offered a solution by Landon-let him arrange an adoption and she can live in his home, avoiding having to explain anything to her mother and aunt and continuing with her life without having to navigate motherhood. Her baby, Hallow is born with a caul. A coincidence...not really.
So many themes are presented in Caul Baby. What I found intriguing was the personification of the Melancon brownstone. It's in horrible shape and can't be restored, no matter how much is put into fixing it. It's falling down slowly, cracking at the foundation. It's also an apt description of the Melancon family. Once upon wealthy and powerful because of the sale of their cauls, now they are scrambling to restore wealth. Headed by strong willed Maman, daughters Iris and Josephine are yearning for freedom from her grip. Another aspect that I found compelling is the commentary. What was Jerkins' intent on Laila miscarrying and Amara delivering a healthy baby with a caul? What do Black women represent? Laila is married and middle class, Amara is a college student, by no means wealthy at the beginning. Laila and Ralph divorce soon after they lose the baby and Laila fights to maintain a healthy state of mind. Amara is attorney and rising star in the DA's office but she's out for revenge against the Melancons. Josephine is wealthy and beautiful, but unable to have a baby. She and Landon adopt Hallow and raise her as their daughter, but she's still unhappy. Iris is a mother, but her sanity is questionable. Maman is aggressive and independent and her husband left her for another woman (implied that he did not want to fit into the box Maman placed him in). The community itself is fighting to maintain its identity before it's erased by gentrification. what about the meaning of motherhood? The one place that's bombed is the birthing center, owned by the doula that delivered Hallow. In retaliation, the Melancon brownstone is burned to the ground. It's a young Black girl who's baby is found dead in a trash can that starts Hallow and Amara on a path to finding each other. It's no stretch to say Hallow is the last hope for the Melancons and a sorely needed member of the Danvilles.
Quotable “Just because someone heals doesn’t mean that they don’t feel pain. We all carry something” (118).
It's a lot going on in Caul Baby. It's an engrossing read, one that was mostly enjoyable. For me, it was easy to get lost in the details. I think this is a book that turns the idea of what's accepted as right on its head. After all, just because it's tradition doesn't make it right or just.
Have you ever read gone ahead to read a book just because of the genre without you further knowing anything else about the book?
This was me when I read Caul Baby, and I'm impressed I did.
The primary reason I went for this audiobook on @librofm was due to the fact it was categorized under contemporary literature and the Motherhood genre. But along the line, while listening to the audiobook, I had to check the synopsis and goggle for what the title meant because I was curious.
I must say I've never read something of this before, ever since have been reading. It was interesting and at the same time, weird.
Caul Baby is a read which explores magical realism, fairy tale, contemporary issues of Black identity, from history, to pregnancy, motherhood, family, marital issues, gentrification, police brutality, trauma, education, opportunity, racism, betrayal, and political compromise.
I won't talk about the storyline because the synopsis is well detailed with what the storyline is about.
Caul Baby started with a low rhythm, and after a couple of pages, it got interesting. Thanks to the topics been discussed and, the complexity of the characters and their drama (you won't see it coming).
Despite I enjoyed reading this, I had a problem with the way it all ended. It settled well too easy for me. PS: (if you've read this, you might know what I mean with Amara and Hallow).
In conclusion, Caul Baby is a read I highly recommend.
Happy I'm able to put up something about this book because I felt I couldn't write a review about what the book is about.
Thanks to Libro.FM and Harper audio for the complimentary copy.
I wanted to LOVE this book. The premise about an enigmatic family with a caul that is coveted for its healing properties is intriguing. I was here for the secrets, lies, betrayal, the longing and desperate ambition. I expected an epic and engrossing multi-generational saga. It was a promising start. While I did enjoy the story, I found it it overly long, wordy, and clunky. As characters in the book have to reckon with the damage their ambition causes, the reader has to struggle through an ambitious story. The author tries to tackle too many different issues - Black women's fertility, gentrification, criminal justice system. And the author was committed to reader knowing the phrase "all skin folk ain't kin folk." The one thread I wish she explored more deeply was about Iris and the spirits and retribution.
This is a fine read, it could benefit from better editing to simplify the focus of the story and tighten up the language.
DNF. I will keep the 'did not finish' book nearby for another attempt at reading this difficult novel. Difficult for me because I just couldn't get into it. It's not the author --- it's me. I'll try again later. Sorry, but it's a no-go for now.
An exploration of motherhood, monopolizing of black bodies, Morgan Jenkins expands on these themes and others with an air of magical realism. Following the Melancons family, a group of women who possess a special ability called 'Caul' a sort of healing power where they cut the outer layer of their skin and sell it, used to cure, protect or heal those who acquire it . They distance themselves from the black community and use the Caul to serve the white wealthy elite, this decision causes a chain effect that destroys some lives and raises some questions on Racial bias in pain assessment, the gentrification of local neighborhoods, generational trauma and so much more.
I enjoyed some parts of this story, I can see the depth of the narrative choices, raw depiction of family dynamics, and all that but it didn't blow me away. I could see the magic but I didn't experience it.