When Aria was a child, her family was ripped apart by a car accident that killed her father and baby sister. The rest of her adolescence was spent with an older sister who just wanted to get away and a disapproving mother who became progressively crazier as time passed. Now, as an adult, Aria lives in a drug-infested neighborhood in Atlanta, working in an outreach program for teen literacy. She wants nothing more than to marry and have a family. Everything seems to be headed that direction. She’s pregnant and her boyfriend has proposed. But then a revelation changes everything.
This book was so beautiful. I didn’t know much about it going in, and I wasn’t sure how much I’d like reading a book that has morning sickness and a neighborhood full of crackheads. Drugs and vomiting…two of my phobias all wrapped up together in the same book. I’m glad I persevered, though. Jones handles both subjects with more tact that I’m used to, and as I got past my fears, I was drawn into Aria’s world.
Having myself grown up in a world where drugs, violence, robbery, teen pregnancy, and school dropouts were the norm, I could really relate to Aria and the people around her. I understood the girls she was teaching, even though their experiences were not my own. It was so genuine, and that sort of voice is, in my experience, very difficult to capture. Often when I read books that deal with this sort of neighborhood, I find them unbelievable, forced, or inaccurate. That really grates on me. The Untelling was nothing like that. It was perfect down to the last detail.
There are many different themes that ride through this book, but the one that touched me the most was the importance of honesty. Lies – no matter how big or small – do nothing but make a situation worse. When the first lie tumbled out of Aria’s lips, I wanted to scream “NO NO NO” at her. I knew, I could see, I could feel, exactly where this was going to go. In children’s books, a series of progressive lies ends with the liar learning why he/she shouldn’t have lied. In the end, everyone forgives him/her. But in the real world, a series of lies ends in pain, the breakup of relationships, and the end of trust. In the real world, lies create a mess that can’t be easily cleaned up.
On a completely different note, The Untelling brought home just how close to my life legalized segregation was. Like most people, I know about segregated schools, theatres, buses, etc. But I was born in 1979 and I never had to live through legal segregation. I spent the first half of my childhood in urban Columbia, SC, where 90% of my classmates were black. I spent the second half of my childhood in west-side San Antonio, were 90% of my classmates were Hispanic. Growing up, I couldn’t even imagine being in a majority-white area, and indeed when I moved to Wisconsin as an adult, I was very uncomfortable with the all-white surroundings. I never felt like I fit in. That makes it hard for me, when I hear about racial discrimination, to take it all in. I think of legal segregation as something dreadful that happened a long, long time ago. It seems too long ago to see it as something more than an abstract horror in our country’s past.
Hearing Aria talk about her parents’ first date in 1962, where they had to sit at the back of the bus and on the balcony at the movie theatre, really brought segregation alive to me in a way no other book, movie, history lesson, etc ever did. 1962. Only 17 years before I was born. I’ve never been good with history. I think of things happening at wildly incorrect times and dates mean very little to me unless they are put in context with things I understand. Hearing about this date from 1962 made me realize just how close segregation came to touching my life, and how much it touched the lives of people only a few years older than me. I’m grateful to understand this better.
One final note about The Untelling. I loved the way Jones handled the subject of gay relationships. There are several gay couples in the book, but the one most prominent is Aria’s boss, Lawrence, and his partner Eric. While Aria accepts them and their love for each other, other characters are not so forgiving and treat them with a contempt that is disgusting, but realistic. What I loved particularly was the fact that the GLBT elements were not a big issue in the book, but they still existed in Aria’s world. Because in truth, there are people who are gay all around us, becoming more and more visible every day. Different people react differently to this, and The Untelling shows all those reactions without judging anyone. Just like the rest of the book, it’s real, it’s accurate, it’s life.