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The Unsettled by Ayana Mathis
Literary fiction

The Unsettled

by Ayana Mathis

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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    Heavy read

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    Social issues

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    Slow build

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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.

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 (678)

  • Kimberly W.

    Los Angeles, CA

    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.

    Glendale, AZ

    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.

  • Lacy C.

    Washington, DC

    I'm in awe of Mathis' writing and how she breathed reality into flawed characters who I still cared about. An evocative portrait of 1980s Philadelphia and people on the edges.

  • Kala H.

    La Vergne, TN

    I hope there is a sequel to this book…one where family is reunited, Bonaparte is whole, and Tou is everything everyone expected and more!

  • Donna D.

    Pottsville, PA

    With characters so real and raw, this is a painful story which had me both angry and heartbroken. A powerful tale.