3 out of 4 stars
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Kalayla by Jeannie Nicholas is a story about family that is told from the perspectives of three women. Maureen and Kalayla moved into an apartment owned by Lena after the death of Jamal, their husband and father, respectively. Maureen's family has disowned her for marrying a Black man. They have never met Kalayla, who is her mixed-race daughter. Maureen is afraid to ask Jamal’s family for help because she is worried his mother will take Kalayla away. Lena is an Italian widow who has shut out the world after the estrangement of one son, the death of two others and the strained relationship with the one left behind. The women's relationships start as acquaintances turning into friendships and then a loose family unit. By helping each other, they heal old wounds and begin to live again.
My favorite parts of the story always included secondary characters. Rico, Lucinda, Carlotta, Mattwo and Kieran helped develop the story and provided insight into the main characters. It seemed that without these characters, all three of our protagonists would stagnate. Lena goes to Carlotta, Rico and Mattwo for help regularly. Kalayla develops as a character through her friendship with Kieran and working for Rico and Carlotta. Maureen becomes a stronger person and a better mother because all these people work together to help her.
The writing style appealed to me. There were almost no spelling or grammatical errors. The writing was balanced between internal reflection, exposition and dialogue. One of the most enjoyable parts of the book is when the author devotes three chapters to Maureen’s birthday party. One chapter for each perspective. These chapters highlight how different people perceive the same event differently.
Some things might deter people from enjoying this book. This book tiptoes around a lot of difficult topics. There were several forms of racism, sexual assault, physical assault, spousal abuse, a sex club and a fair amount of swearing or pseudo-swearing from Kalayla. The frustrating part of these situations is they were often brought up and then never addressed again. One instance was when Jamal and Clarences are threatened with knives and a gun by a group of teenage white boys. It obviously impacts their relationship and their personalities. The author only mentions this story once but uses it consistently to justify Clarence's behaviour. Another instance includes an attempted rape of a character. After almost being raped, two women comfort the attacker. There are no repercussions for the attempted assault. Both of these instances really frustrated me.
I also disliked how being a mixed-race child was explored in this book. At the beginning of the book, Kalayla is isolated, angry and described as likely to get into trouble. This is also the part in the book where she spends more time with the Leeroyce family. After she throws a birthday party for her mother, she slowly becomes more responsible, open to friendships and productive. This coincides with her embracing the Irish side of her heritage and family. This may have been unintentional, but I could not help but notice it. It also did not help that while her Grandma is described as a strong Black woman, the author picks the Italian Lena and Lotta to help Kalaya stay out of trouble.
This novel is well-written style-wise, but I did not find the story enjoyable. The tiptoeing around topics in the novel really impacted my enjoyment of the book. This is why I am rating Kalayla 3 out of 4 stars. While I would not reread Kalayla, I believe other people might enjoy it. I would recommend this to young adults and adults who read stories told from multiple perspectives and are not expecting the topics discussed to be fully resolved.
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