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Book review of Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow


Poet and former attorney Tara M. Stringfellow makes her fiction debut with Memphis, drawing inspiration from her own family history to craft a wonder of a novel. Stringfellow’s grandfather was the first Black homicide detective in Memphis, Tennessee, and her grandmother was the first Black nurse at Mount Zion Baptist Hospital. Through her poignant and heartfelt prose, Stringfellow honors the spirit of her city as she brings three generations of a Black matriarchal family—and their resilience, determination and endless capacity for love and joy—into the spotlight.

The novel begins in 1995, when Miriam North, her children in tow, flees her husband’s violent outbursts and returns to her ancestral home in Memphis, a change that offers the possibility of spiritually reuniting with Miriam’s maternal roots. The North women have lived in the historically Black neighborhood of Douglass for generations, and despite the devastating scars left by segregation, anti-Black terrorism and domestic violence, these women are unconquerable. 

Miriam’s stubborn and loyal sister, August, runs a hair salon attached to the North house, and Miriam’s oldest daughter, Joan, is an exceptionally talented artist with a close bond with her younger sister, Mya. Over the course of the novel, the voices of Miriam, August and Joan intertwine, later incorporating the additional voice of Miriam and August’s mother, Hazel, an activist and adept quilter. Together their stories span nearly 70 years in a nonlinear narrative that reveals the impact and eternality of ancestry. 

Stringfellow’s intricately developed details are unrivaled, and the simplest moments make the North family instinctively relatable. It’s not the parties, calamities or deaths that hold a reader’s attention in Memphis, but rather a walk to buy butter pecan ice cream on a Friday afternoon, or a quiet afternoon spent with Joan and her sketchbook. With honesty and genuine affection, Stringfellow captures each of her characters’ unique personalities while preserving their uncanny familial resemblances. Furthermore, Memphis establishes a new standard for the role of a setting in a novel; Memphis is celebrated not only as a place but also as a people, a culture and, most importantly, a community. 

Stringfellow has created an irresistible family in the Norths, who are sure to be beloved by readers for the ways in which they persevere.

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