The Reformatory by Tananarive Due

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The Reformatory by Tananarive Due

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Stephen Leach
Reviewed by Stephen Leach
Summary: A powerful tale of abuse, racism, and violence during the Jim Crow era. There's a lot to stomach, but this is a masterfully crafted brutal historical horror.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 576 Date: October 2023
Publisher: Titan Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1803366531

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Gracetown, Florida. June 1950. After a scuffle with a white boy, twelve year-old Robbie Stephens Jr is sentenced to six months at the Gracetown School for Boys, otherwise known as the Reformatory. It's a place with a brutal and dark reputation. But the segregated reformatory is a chamber of horrors, haunted by the boys that have died there. In order to survive the school governor and his Funhouse, Robert must enlist the help of the school's ghosts – only they have their own motivations...

Well, there's a premise I could not resist.

This is a long book, but well-paced. The plot alternates between Robert's experience in the Reformatory and his sister, Gloria, as she attempts to get him out and reunite her fractured family. Robert's chapters detail his experience with the haints at the Reformatory, shades of boys killed there who physically embody the terrible things done to them. The way in which the crimes perpetrated on these unfortunates is a gruesomely literal way of evoking them, and there are some disturbing images here. But there's very little in the way of fantastical horror. Rather, this is mundane and very realistic horror – visceral and brutal but uncomfortably real.

Due spent a decade working on this novel, and it shows. The setting feels incredibly realistic and fleshed-out, and it hums with authenticity in little details. It spares the reader very little (obviously, there are a lot of racial slurs, and a heavy amount of abuse and graphic violence) but it's also hauntingly fluid and poetic. One of the great strengths of the way the novel portrays events is that it doesn't feel the need to clumsily browbeat you with the fact that this is unjust, as some might: the story speaks for itself, and the bitter, unceasing injustice that both Robert and Gloria come up against is more infuriating than saddening. I felt galvanised by it rather than depressed.

As mentioned, this is a large book but it never drags things out or overloads with too much detail: the plot simply rackets along, the awful question of whether Robert's sentence will be extended hanging over the action the whole time. Visceral and brutal this may be, it's a phenomenal piece of writing and the story's climax does not disappoint – there's a perfectly-judged twist that floored me.

Historical fiction isn't usually my thing, but this book was so singular I'm glad I took a chance on it. It details the atrocities that took place during the Jim Crow era so uncomfortably, but it's something that should be examined. I was disturbed to learn that the school Due based much of the novel's events on only closed in 2011 – the events of the past are often far closer than we think.

Another novel taking a look at history with a focus on race relations I enjoyed recently was White Riot by Joe Thomas – it looks at British society in the 80s. Well worth your time.

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