Ours by Phillip B Williams review – a fragile utopia for those escaping slavery | Fiction

Ours by Phillip B Williams review – a fragile utopia for those escaping slavery | Fiction

The small town of Ours is a haven for freed slaves. It’s tucked away in the woods a few miles north of St Louis, but it isn’t marked on the map and unwelcome visitors can’t reach it. That’s because the township of Ours is at least halfway enchanted, founded in the 1830s by Saint, an enigmatic “conjure woman”, and ringed by charmed stones that shield its rooftops from view. Every hostile traveller finds themselves turned about, circling back through the forest to the same clump of trees.

Readers are at least provided with a clearer path through Ours, the voluminous debut novel from the Chicago-born poet Phillip B Williams, although even here the route is never straightforward. There are diversions and digressions. The narrative doubles back. In the woods, off the trail, Saint’s flawed utopia remains safely hidden. On the page, it’s an exploded set, with every character exposed and explained, and every beat of its history held up to the light. Ours is a bold, ambitious, often beguiling piece of work – an epic folk tale of Black American emancipation. But the tale’s prolonged scenic ramble demands stamina and resolve.

Presiding over the action like a capricious demigod is Saint herself, who stormed the plantations and overturned the slave wagons and has now established a town that is “just for our people”. As the woods fill up, Williams ambles from one address to the next, introducing us to twin sisters (one angelic, one wild), a fugitive Bible salesman and a rival conjurer, Frances, who was “born as water” and lives comfortably between genders. Saint wants Ours to be a safe haven, a fresh start, and orders the new arrivals to dance naked by the creek in order to sweat the filth of slavery from their pores. For all that, however, she’s never entirely embraced as a saviour. She is too lofty and distant, and demands too much of her flock. “You’re just as bad as the masters,” she is told by one resident. According to another, she’s “the monster of monsters”.

Like Sebastian, the wandering witch-doctor who becomes Saint’s confidant, Williams’s novel is more interested in flavours than in meaning. The drama relies on humid atmospherics and sudden imaginative leaps of faith. The town is enchanted and therefore moves and breathes in sympathy with its inhabitants. Secret messages are communicated via the squeak of bedsprings and door hinges. Omens are read in the arrangement of worms on the ground. Magic realism, that disreputable trickster, garnishes Ours with a convenient dream logic.

This is a book to get lost in – sometimes pleasurably, sometimes not. The tale takes its time and the detours are engrossing, exploring the consequences and complexities of a life of freedom. Williams writes in a rich, unhurried roll, while his prose is so flamboyant that it’s tempting to ignore its occasional woolly imprecisions. “The room made an aching sound,” he tells us, and one idly wonders why and how this might happen. Later, when Saint and the twins glance up to see a visitor drawing near, he writes: “Their three unbroken stares clung to him like wolves in the apex of hunger, something in them having eaten the fawns they once were.” The first half of the sentence constructs a baroque analogy; the second overcomplicates and undoes it. It is at moments such as these that one longs for the intervention of a ruthless editor to prune back the book’s foliage.

Saint might envisage Ours as a standalone refuge, a declaration of independence, but the author knows better. He shows how the settlement is connected to the neighbouring towns and how its existence shadows and reflects the wider timeline of Black history. Possibly he shows this too explicitly. As the civil war bites, for instance, the immediate action is interrupted by an extended time-travel sequence in which a character bounds into the future to learn about racial profiling, Aids and Aretha Franklin. This protagonist at least returns to the 1860s intact. For the readers, I fear that some may break up on re-entry.

Saint’s woodland utopia can’t stay hidden for ever. It is too fragile and fraught. It’s beset on all sides and is eventually subsumed by the suburbs of St Louis. But its descendants live on. Maybe its spirit does, too. Williams tells us that what was once the magical town of Ours has now been overlaid by Lambert international airport – all the better to manage its frequent flights of fancy.

Ours by Phillip B Williams is published by Granta (£18.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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