By Ayana Mathis
Alfred A. Knopf, 2023
Hardcover: $29.00
Genre: Fiction
Reviewed by Edward Journey

The Unsettled book cover

In The Unsettled, the new novel by Ayana Mathis, both Ava and her mother, Dutchess, are described as “drifters.” The drifting days of Dutchess, a former singer / songwriter who once traveled the club circuit, are long over; she is settled in the disappearing community of Bonaparte, Alabama – “NEGRO INCORPORATED TOWN, ESTABLISHED 1868,” and is trying to save the community and its remaining land from developers as the population dwindles. Ava, however, is still drifting. As the novel begins, Ava’s hesitantly structured life as the obedient wife of a pious but cruel man has frayed after her son’s father, Cass, abruptly reappears and, true to form, moves on. Ava’s husband, in a jealous rage, locks her and her pre-teen son out of his house.

Ava and her son, Toussaint, sit in the waiting room of an intake center for the homeless in Philadelphia in the novel’s opening pages. The waiting room is “like the DMV” and the room they are assigned at a family shelter is much worse. Those bleak descriptions set the tone for much of the story that unfolds, moving from the desperation of Ava, with Toussaint in tow in Philadelphia, to the eternally angry and restless Dutchess of Bonaparte.

Mathis’s first novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, deals with family dynamics and estrangement, sprawling over decades and places and the individual members of a large family. In The Unsettled, the family dynamics and estrangement are contained to a mother, daughter, and grandson and their individual orbits in the mid-1980s. Squalor and violence is a constant in the lives of these characters, as is the dream and struggle for something better ahead.

Mathis’s exposition is unrushed. Over the course of things, details about Ava, Dutchess, and Toussaint emerge but other characters remain relatively sketchy and in the shadows. Even Cass, the catalyst for so much that happens, remains a mystery in many ways.  Some hints are dropped along the way – Cass was a Black Panther, perhaps he was in Vietnam – but the main impression of Cass is of a golden man, glowing with charisma, a master manipulator with chaotic goals. He founds the Ark, a communal movement in Philadelphia that is clearly based on MOVE, an actual religious movement that roiled Philadelphia leaders in the 1980s.

Ava, true to her “drifter” nature, is aimless and emotionally stunted, her energy depleted by the circumstances of her life. Her mother describes her as “a vine looking for something to grow itself around.” She has visions, but they are vaguely referenced and their source is unclear. Ava’s son, Toussaint, however, is full of energy, with a growing resentment of the rootlessness that has been forced on him. He is a victim of broken promises and situations he never chose. He clearly has the strength of mind and character to overcome them.

Dutchess is described as “grouchy and chastising,” but the Bonaparte segments of the novel – told in Dutchess’ voice – are the liveliest in the book. Dutchess is blunt and colorful, sometimes profane, and a realist. Her pride in what is left of Bonaparte and her determination to save the town and the legacy of her murdered husband, Caro, give her drive. She is keenly aware that the land she is trying to hold on to belonged first to the Natives, was stolen by white people before the formerly enslaved families acquired it, and is now being stolen by white developers. Her most acid comments are reserved for the white people who are trying to take over Bonaparte’s land. “White folks,” she says, “are capable of kindness, which means they choose to be murderers and thieves.” Dutchess and Toussaint provide rare but welcome moments of levity amid the grime and despair.

While the Ark in Philadelphia recalls MOVE, Bonaparte – in its isolation and history – seems inspired by the Gee’s Bend community. It is a mythic, haunted place in Dutchess’s memories and in the stories Ava tells her son, who has never been there but longs for the stability it might represent.

There are mystical forces at work in The Unsettled, and Mathis keeps her narrative close to the vest; revelations may come when they’re needed in this study of the contrasts and costs of accumulated pain. Mathis’s narrative plunges ever more deeply into challenges that span centuries – not just a couple of years in the mid-eighties. She taps into a primal sensibility of duality and endurance among those who are overlooked or, harder still, left behind.

Edward Journey, a retired educator and theatre professional living in Birmingham, regularly shares his essays in the online journal “Professional Southerner” (