Toni Ann Johnson opens her interlinked collection, Light Skin Gone to Waste—which won the 2021 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction—with the story “Up That Hill,” which takes us to a seemingly idyllic suburban landscape, although the characters never really get to feel at home. The year is 1962, and Philip Arrington, a psychologist, and his wife, Velma, have moved from the Bronx to Monroe, a town in upstate New York and, to them, a hostile place: middle class and predominantly white. The neighbors are antagonistic, disguising their disdain for racial integration with fears that their homes will depreciate. But the Arringtons have come a long way from a precarious past and are determined to establish roots: in the second story, “Claiming Tobias,” which takes place six years later, we learn that Philip has started a practice, while Velma has opened an antique shop; they have a daughter named Maddie, and she is five years old.
The rest of the 10 stories here largely showcase how Philip’s and Velma’s contrasting desires—opulence, prominence, and nonnormative coupledom versus domesticity, faithfulness, and humility—upend and fracture the family. Maddie is left abandoned, traumatized, and misunderstood, not only by her parents (as we see harrowingly in “Lucky”) but also in the larger context of her town and school. Her extended family is still in the Bronx, and over the years, she begins to embody the familiar saying: too Black for the white kids and too white for the Black kids. She is, in other words, a perpetual outsider.
Johnson’s writing is propulsive and confident, moving through time and space with humor and lightness; she casts in sharp relief the anxiety of navigating ambitions that can alienate and ultimately be destructive to one’s sense of self. Her scenes are vivid, and she is attuned to the idiosyncrasies of voice, capturing the multiplicity of Black vernacular with sonic musicality in both dialogue and indirect speech.
In places, the characters tend to be a bit on the nose, which can leave little room for emotional complexity, narrative complication, and, most crucially, interiority. Because the pace of the language rarely slows, we often glide past narrative beats that we might otherwise consider in more depth. In the story “Better,” Philip essentially forces Velma and Maddie to meet his mistress, Abby Goldberg, and her daughter, Flora, at the pool of a private club a few towns away. Quickly, Maddie allies herself with Abby against her mother because she wants to swim, even though this will ruin her freshly pressed hair. The encounter is uneasy, freighted with pressure, and made uncomfortable by the way all the characters must pretend to be at ease. But there’s no sense of how Maddie feels or what she thinks—is she naïve? calculating? intending to be hurtful? Similarly, we don’t get a response from Velma other than her “plac[ing] a hand on the back of Maddie’s neck and pinch[ing] the shit out of it.”
On a conceptual level, this seems apt for a narrative concerned with the tenuous veneer of a kind of upper socioeconomic class. Yet as the book progresses, we begin to feel uncertain about Maddie’s arc. What does she carry with her as she grows up? How does her opinion of her parents change? This is less problematic when it comes to Philip, but it sometimes feels as if Velma’s relationship with her daughter is stalled. In the title story, after Velma drops Maddie off at a friend’s house, Johnson writes that Maddie “was relieved to be away from the grouch for a while.” If that’s not an uncommon reaction for a daughter to have to her mother, the narrative isn’t interested in mapping the finer contours of their bond.
Similarly, “The Way We Fell Out of Touch” is dazzling for how, as a kind of oral history, it depicts maternal sacrifice, duty, betrayal, mortality, and heartache in regard to Velma and her maid, Gertie. There is, however, no strong indication of how this informs Velma’s sense of motherhood and the harm she enacts on her daughter, which leaves Maddie feeling hollow and readers wanting for more.
For all that, Light Skin Gone to Waste remains an ambitious project, especially as a linked collection. The heterogeneity of form and modes of narration offers nimbleness, flexibility, and the ability to engage a wide cast of characters while still being sensitive to how they navigate the world. Patiently and compassionately, Johnson depicts burgeoning adolescent sexuality with all its attendant angst, heartbreak, and emotional turbulence on an axis of desirability and colorism. There are frame narratives, direct addresses, and unexpected verbal moods, all of which make this collection thrilling, memorable, compelling, and necessary, marked by an accretive narrative power.•