Published by Farrar Straus and Giroux on February 3rd 2015
Buy from IndieBound
At just eight years old, Kenya Curtis feels cast out by her West Philadelphia classmates. Though most of the students around her are black, she’s one of the only kids who celebrates Kwanzaa and can’t say the Pledge of Allegiance. Kenya’s feelings of isolation only grow as her parents, Johnbrown and Sheila, drift apart and she enters adolescence in the new environment of a suburban private school.
More than anything, the strength of Asali Solomon’s Disgruntled lies in its balance. Pulled too far toward any of its themes, the novel could have felt too young adult, too political or too philosophical. Instead, Solomon finds a sturdy base in a relatable coming-of-age story and counters it with Johnbrown and Sheila’s evolving beliefs, both of which Kenya comes to question through the course of the novel.
Though she’s often critical, Kenya views the lifestyles she sees around her—including her own—with a balanced and questioning eye based on what she’s been taught. We see this as her parents raise her to distrust Christianity, particularly “the Christianity of tacky white people”, while Sheila makes it clear that “being fanatically religious was a reasonable choice for black people who didn’t know any better.” When Kenya meets a wealthy, suburban white Christian, she is understandably baffled and works to untangle her preconceptions.
“Only when he finished The Key would Johnbrown go back to school and get what he called a square job. (‘Do you know what cats used to call jobs in the fifties?’ he asked Kenya ‘What?’ ‘Slaves.’ ‘You calling me a slave, Johnbrown?’ said Sheila. Cats have jobs? thought Kenya.)”
Solomon’s skill shines in her ability to make the novel’s layered themes and ideas palatable without ever sacrificing depth. Questions of race, class and religion weave their way into Disgruntled‘s pages and surface as Kenya is routinely reminded of their place in her life, often appearing as a mix of humor and pointed observation. Smart and wonderfully narrated, Disgruntled is full of the frank commentary I’d love to see more of in fiction.