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The Unsettled by Ayana Mathis
Literary fiction

The Unsettled

by Ayana Mathis

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Quick take

After hitting turbulent times, a mother fights for a better future for her son in this lyrical, gutting family drama.

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  • Illustrated icon, Icon_HeavyRead

    Heavy read

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_SocialIssues

    Social issues

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_SlowRead

    Slow build

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    Serious

Synopsis

From the moment Ava Carson and her ten-year-old son, Toussaint, arrive at the Glenn Avenue family shelter in Philadelphia 1985, Ava is already plotting a way out. She is repulsed by the shelter’s squalid conditions: their cockroach-infested room, the barely edible food, and the shifty night security guard. She is determined to rescue her son from the perils and indignities of that place, and to save herself from the complicated past that led them there.

Ava has been estranged from her own mother, Dutchess, since she left her Alabama home as a young woman barely out of her teens. Despite their estrangement and the thousand miles between them, mother and daughter are deeply entwined, but Ava can’t forgive her sharp-tongued, larger than life mother whose intractability and bouts of debilitating despair brought young Ava to the outer reaches of neglect and hunger.

Ava wants to love her son differently, better. But when Toussaint’s father, Cass, reappears, she is swept off course by his charisma, and the intoxicating power of his radical vision to destroy systems of racial injustice and bring about a bold new way of communal living.

Meanwhile, in Alabama, Dutchess struggles to keep Bonaparte, once a beacon of Black freedom and self-determination, in the hands of its last five Black residents—families whose lives have been rooted in this stretch of land for generations—and away from rapidly encroaching white developers. She fights against the erasure of Bonaparte’s venerable history and the loss of the land itself, which she has so arduously preserved as Ava’s inheritance.

As Ava becomes more enmeshed with Cass, Toussaint senses the danger simmering all around him—his well-intentioned but erratic mother; the intense, volatile figure of his father who drives his fledgling Philadelphia community toward ever increasing violence and instability. He begins to dream of Dutchess and Bonaparte, his home and birthright, if only he can find his way there.

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Content warning

This book contains scenes that depict domestic abuse.

Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of The Unsettled.
The Unsettled

Prologue

Toussaint Wright stepped onto Ephraim Avenue with a backpack slung over his shoulder and a bleeding cut on his cheek. He was thirteen years old. Two years before, a fire had consumed 248 Ephraim Avenue, where Toussaint used to live. The fire destroyed most everything he loved. Nothing remained but a few girders inside the charred hull of the house and a scorched old oak tree out front.

Toussaint had passed through many homes since then—group homes and foster homes, the rectory of a pastor he knew—but he always busted out of them. Now he stood a long time on Ephraim, watching browned leaves falling from the oak. The gutter pipe on 248 came loose and bent with a metallic shriek that sent a flock of sparrows flying off into the night. Toussaint had not eaten in two days. He had run most of the way, stopping to catch his breath behind parked cars or in alleys. His heart was beating too fast; his blood ran like water. He touched his hand to the cut on his cheek and felt something small and hard protruding. Glass.

Earlier, in another part of the city, some boys who hung around the same corner Toussaint had been hanging around had asked him a couple of questions: Why you always alone and why you don’t never talk? You ain’t got no mama? Or a grandmama or something? The answers to these questions were unbearable. Sometimes grief came on him like a sweeping numbness, up from his toes and along his neck so he couldn’t swallow. Other times, it was a column of rage rising along his spine. In answer to the boys’ questions, he picked up a brick. He picked up a brick and threw it through the glass window of an abandoned storefront on the corner. He ran.

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Why I love it

It’s no secret that we on the BOTM editorial team read quite a bit. One consequence of this overexposure is that it takes a lot to shake us, to grip us—to truly strike us as surprising or fresh or otherworldly. The Unsettled is definitively special from its first pages, with prose so alive it made me shiver. We are introduced to young Toussaint Wright through these indelible, haunting words: “Sometimes grief came on him like a sweeping numbness, up from his toes and along his neck so he couldn’t swallow.”

The Unsettled is the story of Toussaint’s mother Ava, who in 1985 arrives at a shelter in Philadelphia. She and Touissant attempt to lay low, ignore the roaches, and imagine a brighter future, but before long the past comes knocking in the form of Touissant’s estranged father, Cass. His bullheaded charisma remains as irresistible as it is destructive; Cass’s vision of Black freedom is inspiring, but his tyrannical ways pose a growing threat to Ava’s already-precarious life. In a parallel timeline down in Alabama, Ava’s mother Dutchess struggles to save her small, historically all-Black town of Bonaparte from encroaching white supremacists, whose violence has been endorsed by the very government that once served to protect this haven.

With all of its moving pieces, The Unsettled is still far greater than the sum of its parts. This novel touches on race, family, activism, and inheritance against a backdrop of real-life events in American history that bring it an even more immediate urgency. Ayana Mathis’s living, breathing prose spins a gorgeous, heartbreaking journey that I will not soon forget.

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Member ratings (1,337)

  • Mervene J.

    Memphis, TN

    One of the best stories I have ever read that was based on the marginalized coast towns occupied by black people. Not only was the story captivating the writing was a pleasure to read. I want more

  • Catherine H.

    New York, NY

    Really fabulous and compelling story telling. I enjoyed it and really enjoyed the full circle nature of the story. Feel as though I got to know the complex characters and feel for them/enjoyed them

  • Kei K.

    Ann Arbor, MI

    Still reading, but I’m certain this book is great. It literally gets better by the sentence, and each chapter builds the story details into devastating aliveness. Superb. Excellent. Exquisite.

  • Kimberly W.

    Pittsfield, MA

    Deeply complicated characters, a propulsive plot, and an ending that left me breathless for its haunting quality. I love multi-generational narratives based on true stories (Move and Africatown).

  • Jared B.

    Hernando, MS

    I could not put this book down. Brilliant storytelling that explores some very challenging themes in a way that is very compelling. This one deserves to be shared and discussed at length.

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