We Cast a Shadowby Published 29 Jan 2019
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A bold, provocative debut for fans of
and Paul Beatty's
, about a father who will do anything to protect his son--even if it means turning him white.
How far would you go to protect your child?
Our narrator faces an impossible decision. Like any father, he just wants the best for his son Nigel, a biracial boy whose black birthmark is growing larger by the day. In this near-future society plagued by resurgent racism, segregation, and expanding private prisons, our narrator knows Nigel might not survive. Having watched the world take away his own father, he is determined to stop history from repeating itself.
There is one potential solution: a new experimental medical procedure that promises to save lives by turning people white. But in order to afford Nigel's whiteness operation, our narrator must make partner as one of the few Black associates at his law firm, jumping through a series of increasingly surreal hoops--from diversity committees to plantation tours to equality activist groups--in an urgent quest to protect his son.
This electrifying, suspenseful novel is at once a razor-sharp satire of surviving racism in America and a profoundly moving family story. Writing in the tradition of Ralph Ellison and Franz Kafka, Maurice Carlos Ruffin fearlessly shines a light on the violence we inherit, and on the desperate things we do for the ones we love.
We Cast a Shadow Reviews
We Cast a Shadow is a dystopian satire — if there is such a genre. Intellectually, I thought it was brilliant. But I must admit that I didn’t love reading it. It was a question of genre and style rather than content. Set at some point in the future in the US, life for African Americans has become an exaggeration of what it is today. Levels of surveillance and incarceration are very high. There are fenced ghettos. Etc... The narrator identifies himself as one of the 10% lucky enough to avoid the fate of most African American men. He is lawyer in a large firm. But he is obsessed with the precariousness of his situation and especially with his 13 year old son’s vulnerability. As far as he’s concerned, the solution is a “treatment” increasing in popularity that will make his son white. The idea underlying this novel is clever, the topic is timely and there are many inspired details. But I’m not a great fit for the genre. While I appreciate what Ruffin has achieved, I felt a bit under-engaged as I read this one. Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for an opportunity to read an advance copy.
I don't know if it's fair to compare anything at all to Invisible Man but I can't think of another novel that includes the same mix of high satire and terrifying truth as does this debut from Maurice Carlos Ruffin.
Ellison is clearly on Ruffin's mind here. Ruffin's opening sentences pay homage to the first lines of Invisible Man--only, Ruffin's opening is far more cynical and without hope about the health of black identity within a white-majority culture.
Here is Ellison:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms...I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
My name doesn't matter. All you need to know is that I'm a phantom, a figment...
Ellison's unnamed protagonist knows he is a man and not a ghost--he is asserting his personhood even though white people consistently try to erase him. Ruffin's unnamed protagonist, in contrast, insists he is a ghost--he has accepted and embraced his lack of personhood and has bought into these racist ideas of the white culture he lives in.
What follows is satire so close to the truth that it hurts to laugh. The satirical jabs here cause pain even when they are extraordinarily funny. And at first they are funny, the way only the most true satire can be. But then at some point the novel stops being funny. Maybe it's right around the time when the unnamed narrator daubs his son with skin bleach that burns like battery acid while telling his son that it's for his own good. You discover that you've been led through a landscape that you only mistook for satire, and what you're reading now is an unrelenting indictment of the caustic affects of racism on a black man's selfhood and dignity.
Some works tackle the subject of racism in a way that allows white people to feel really good about themselves in the end. Others don't leave space for white readers to reasonably separate themselves from the racism depicted in their pages, or to come away with "I'm one of the good guys" feelings, because in real life there are no white-people exceptions to systemic racism. This novel is the second kind of achievement. It may sell fewer books because of it, but it's a braver book because of it.
We Cast a Shadow is not as tightly perfect as Invisible Man but for me it had more human heartbreak in it.
Release date January 29th!
We Cast a Shadow is a debut novel by Maurice Carlos Ruffin that takes place in the near future. Still plagued by racial discrimination blacks now have the option to achieve ultimate assimilation.
The story follows an unnamed African American male narrator who seems to have risen above his natal station in life. Working as a lawyer in a prestigious law firm he is willing to do anything to placate his superiors, even masquerade as typical stereotypes to advance his career. His motivation is to raise funds for his son's demelaninization process. A painful process likened to chemotherapy, demelaninization not only strips the bearer of their color but is supposed to reconfigure their genes so that their offspring also come out looking white. Alongside this procedure clients also undergo rhinoplasty and lip thinning to appear more Caucasian. In his mind this is the only way to save his son. His experience has told him that even though he is moderately successful, married to a white woman and lives outside the confines of the ghetto that he is not safe. His color holds him hostage to the prejudicial whims of society. After all, like every other Black man in America, he still has a police officer assigned to “check up” on him regularly “for his own good”.
We Cast a Shadow is a biting satire that goes where others fear to tread – self-hatred in the Black community. With the primary focus aimed at this unnamed narrator Ruffin underscores the idea that our protagonist doesn’t even see himself. When he says ”My name doesn't matter. All you need to know is that I am a phantom, a figment, a man who was mistaken.", he really has forgotten who he is and where he comes from. He has disconnected from his past. He is struggling but blind to the impact that his behavior is having on those closest to him. Although dealing with some weighty topics, Ruffin uses humor here and skillfully tackles them all.
We Cast a Shadow is a very solid debut. I will definitely be revisiting Maurice Carlos Ruffin in the future.
Special thanks to NetGalley, Random House OneWorld publishing group and Maurice Carlos Ruffin for access to this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
As I began to write this review, I asked myself: how do I write this review in such a way that I don’t offend white people?
And then the irony of that question hit me like a punch in the gut.
In We Cast a Shadow, our main character and most black Americans have spent their lives not only trying not to offend white people, but trying to amuse them, cater to them, and, yes, be them. You see in our near future tale, those with money enough can have a series of procedures to become white. Why do they want to be white? Because in our author’s world, racism and segregation are very much back as part of the American Landscape. And to be honest, simply watching the Barbeque Beckys and torch-bearing White Nationalists of today, the author’s world isn’t quite so implausible.
For a black person to succeed in this America, they need to act the minstrel, be perfectly inoffensive, and make absolutely sure that whites don’t see them as a threat.
Our main character is desperate for his bi-racial son to be white and only white. And he’ll act the fool and be the perfect Uncle Tom in order to make this happen.
Even as his world starts falling apart, that pale skin is the only thing he strives for.
The book is enormously painful. Oddly, though, it’s not the white people laughing at, controlling, or demeaning the non-whites that is the most painful.
It’s our main character and his absolute lack of pride or respect.
The author does an amazing job of getting the reader to truly understand why our character is the way he is. His behavior isn’t any more palatable, but we get it, and in getting it we feel a bit complicit.
The book is uncomfortable – and from the first page to the last it doesn’t get less so.
Not a happy book, but a relevant one – and I’m glad I read it.
*ARC Provided via NetGalley
3.75 thought-provoking stars for this racially charged work of satirical fiction!
Set in a satirical future south, We Cast a Shadow tells the racially fueled dystopian story of a black man desperate to pay for his biracial son's demelanization process. In this future world race is still an issue of injustice. The only way to truly level the playing field is for black Americans to undergo an expensive procedure which turns them white - on the cellular level.
Does that sound far fetched to you? The entire book takes everything past and current related to race and turns it on its head, elevating it to a whole new level. Ruffin's writing was at times devastatingly painful and uncomfortable to read but it was also undeniably thought provoking and clever.
The main characters are a father and his bi-racial son Nigel. Though a successful lawyer, the narrator (who chose to remain nameless) is plagued with the fear that he doesn't measure up because of his skin color. He desperately wants more for his son and believes the only way to achieve that would be to turn him white.
"I don't have to tell you that this is an unjust planet. A dark-skinned child can expect a life of diminished light. This is truth anywhere in the world and throughout most of history."
I have very complicated feelings about some of the plot twists in this book. The relationship between the narrator and his son was tumultuous and fraught with heartbreak due to his zealot desire to turn him white. As a parent you can understand his desire to protect his son. Yet, where does protection end and harm begin?
It was devastating to read how much racism had affected the narrator's life, destroying his self-worth and his soul. Taking that journey with him, as the story progresses was difficult and just plain sad. I couldn't help but root for Nigel through it all. I fiercely wanted things to be different for this boy.
This is a very strong debut from Maurice Carlos Ruffin. The middle lagged a bit for me but I was invested in the story and never doubted seeing it through. I'll definitely be watching out for this author in the future.
Thank you to Maurice Carlos Ruffin, Random House Publishing and NetGalley for an advance reader copy of this book to review.