Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

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Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: Acutely observed picture of an affluent black teenager growing up during his summer vacation in an American seaport. I enjoyed the writing but hey, isn't there more to life than that?
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: May 2011
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099531883

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Colson Whitehead wanted to write something personal for his fourth book, so he chose an autobiographical novel, based on his experiences as a vacationing youngster. Sag Harbor really does exist - at the far end of Long Island and next to the up-market Hamptons. It has a history of whaling and an association with John Steinbeck. Within easy reach of New York, in 1985 it was an affluent black enclave within a large, white middle-class holiday area.

The book was first published in the US in 2009, serendipitously coinciding with an Obama-fuelled interest in hitherto unexamined disregarded matters black. Whitehead's writing teeters along the edge between fiction and non-fiction. As literature or ethnography, it's a wonderful record of black consciousness in a microcosmic world. While middle-class black America may not seem as immediately relevant to us here in Britain, a coming of age theme has a universality that's sure to appeal.

We follow Benji as he grows into being Ben; he's maybe fifteen or sixteen. The summer vacation encompasses a job in an ice cream parlour, hanging out with his gang of like-minded adolescent friends, underage drinking and a new interest in girls. Not much else happens externally. Internally, of course, Benji is going through a frantic and insecure puberty as he grows into his adult shape. So much has changed. His older sister has left home for college, with no intention of returning; his younger brother, Reggie, is fed up with playing second fiddle and finds new confidants; Benji now sees his parents as they really are, rather than the perfect adults of his childhood. The stability of his childhood world disappears as his perceptions morph into a more sophisticated, teenage understanding of reality. This feeling of temporary instability crystallizes in a clandestine visit to his grandparents' holiday home. The familiar sights and sounds of his old bedroom provide a reassuring glimpse of the past, so that he's ready to face his peers again.

Whitehead highlights black self-perceptions as a theme within the first few pages, describing a white couple wandering along the beach, with an interpretation that they are discomfited to arrive in an all-black area, described: ...Something was off, everyone was brown. But surely these are just Benji's prejudices. By the mid-1980s, and particularly in the liberal North, colour was already a non-issue: black Americans were integrating into a society which judged them on their achievements rather than their skin. Unsurprisingly though, sensitivities of older blacks were still raw; it was, after all only twenty years since Martin Luther King's I have a dream speech. Within this context of societal change, Benji and his friends are as insecure and embarrassed as any other adolescents. As a result, in typical teenage style, the most racist people in the book are black youths. They are pre-occupied with colour, constantly calling each other nigger as a term of slang abuse/endearment. Repetition devalues the initial shock value to modern ears, and in a stream of mutual abuse by the boys, nigger is by no means the worst insult. The result is as wearing as being around any bored and cranky teen on a rainy afternoon in summer.

Nevertheless, Benji and his friends are decent kids. They are horror struck by an interloper out for destruction at the Labor Day party. Although left for curiously long periods of time by their parents, the close-knit, long-standing community around the two boys keep an eye on them, and the boys are forced to be pretty respectful to their elders in return. When the parents are due to visit, the boys rush round cleaning up. Kicking over the traces in Sag Harbor turns out to be a very moderate business.

For me the great strength of Whitehad's writing is in his painstaking ability to bring the picture to life. I thought Sag Harbor might make an interesting film as I constantly imagined scenes playing out before a camera in my head. Also, of course, the insecurities of the coming of age period lend themselves to comedy. I do feel though, that there isn't enough conflict in this book for the characters to get their teeth into, or a decent climax to pitch a film round. It would be interesting to know why the author chose fiction rather than autobiography. Nevertheless, it's an enjoyable read and I'd like to thank the publishers for sending Sag Harbor.

If you enjoyed this book with its sense of not quite fitting in, then I'd recommend Pilgrim State by Jacqueline Walker, where her family arrive in Britain from the Caribbean. Two teen novels which The Bookbag loved were Black Rabbit Summer, a crime thriller by Kevin Brooks and Ruby Red by Linzi Glass, set in apartheid South Africa.

Buy Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead at Amazon.com.


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