Book Review: The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus
Told in two distinct and irresistible voices, Junauda Petrus’s bold and lyrical debut is the story of two black girls from very different backgrounds finding love and happiness in a world that seems determined to deny them both.
Trinidad. Sixteen-year-old Audre is despondent, having just found out she’s going to be sent to live in America with her father because her strictly religious mother caught her with her secret girlfriend, the pastor’s daughter. Audre’s grandmother Queenie (a former dancer who drives a white convertible Cadillac and who has a few secrets of her own) tries to reassure her granddaughter that she won’t lose her roots, not even in some place called Minneapolis. “America have dey spirits too, believe me,” she tells Audre.
Minneapolis. Sixteen-year-old Mabel is lying on her bed, staring at the ceiling and trying to figure out why she feels the way she feels—about her ex Terrell, about her girl Jada and that moment they had in the woods, and about the vague feeling of illness that’s plagued her all summer. Mabel’s reverie is cut short when her father announces that his best friend and his just-arrived-from-Trinidad daughter are coming for dinner.
Mabel quickly falls hard for Audre and is determined to take care of her as she tries to navigate an American high school. But their romance takes a turn when test results reveal exactly why Mabel has been feeling low-key sick all summer and suddenly it’s Audre who is caring for Mabel as she faces a deeply uncertain future.
Junauda Petrus’s debut brilliantly captures the distinctly lush and lyrical voices of Mabel and Audre as they conjure a love that is stronger than hatred, prison, and death and as vast as the blackness between the stars.
That summary up there is thorough. I just read it again, when I pasted it in, to see if it’s too thorough—after all, it really hits every major plot point. But while it gives you the broad strokes of the plot, it doesn’t do much to capture how powerful the story is, how beautiful the writing is, or how achingly lovely and profound the connection is between Agnes and Mabel. To be entirely honest, the book started a little slow for me, but once Agnes and Mabel are put in the same space, the story really took off and I became completely immersed in their world, their families, their big thoughts and feelings, and their love.
There is so much to love about this story. Yes, Agnes is sent away when her mother catches her with her girlfriend. She’s shamed and told she’s “nasty” by her mother. But she finds love, support, and acceptance from everyone else in her life. Mabel finds kissing her boyfriend kind of boring, but even just being near her friend Jada makes her all tingly. She’s working out what all this means, but it’s not angst-filled or painful or met with any hate. In Minneapolis, they are surrounded by supportive family and friends, many of whom are queer. And for Agnes, she has Queenie, her grandma, back home in Trinidad, who has always been her closest and most loving person. Queenie fully accepts Agnes for who she is—she always has—and fills with her love, always reminding her of her self-worth and that she’s perfect as she is.
While the story alternates between Mabel and Agnes, we also get some unexpected perspectives. There are chapters about Queenie’s younger life as well as chapters from a memoir Mabel is reading. Written by Afua Mahmoud while incarcerated, The Stars and the Blackness Between Them (his memoir) provides surprising points of connection for Mabel, who feels less alone as she reads his thoughts on life while dealing with her new diagnosis of a terminal illness. All of these voices and experiences speak of hope, connection, loneliness, love, isolation, and freedom. After they become pen pals, Afua tells Mabel that, despite his circumstances, his life is still his own, and so is hers.
Through the lenses of freedom and love, the characters ruminate on the past, the present, and an eternal future found through cosmic connections. They learn to be uncontained, to love without fear or boundaries, to give themselves the space to figure out who they are. The voices from this stunning debut will stay with readers long after the unpredictable ending. Full of love, healing, strength, and spirituality, this is a story that hasn’t been told before—not like this. Be ready to lose a day once you start reading; Mabel and Agnes will draw you into their worlds and not release their grip on you even after the last page. A lovely story that is sad and hopeful all at once.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 09/17/2019
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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