A Black girl and her magic are on the verge of extinction in Natashia Deón’s The Perishing. Lou, the protagonist who comes to consciousness naked and afraid in a Los Angeles alley, is at risk as soon as she recognizes her existence. Fortunately, her “awakening” starts her journey toward discovering her truth—she’s been here before. The life that began for her in 1930 in Los Angeles is one where Lou’s ultimate reclamation of her “self” unlocks the histories of past lives, which then make it possible to fully experience future ones (we see her as Sarah in the 22nd century on trial for killing a man for, presumably, another instance of reclaiming herself). The existential distance traveled during Lou’s evolution into Sarah is vast, but Deón closes the gap by presenting her main character as if she is a folktale character caught in someone else’s story—her finger defiantly pressed into the chest of the reader, determined to fashion her own ending.
Lou’s main story is set into motion by the death of her foster father, Mr. Lawrence. With him gone, she’s too much to handle for his wife, Mrs. Miriam. She kicks Lou out of the only home she’s ever known, or remembered, though not without remorse. Lou successfully lands a job writing obituaries at the “death desk” of the Los Angeles Times and finds a place to stay with the help of her best friend Esther. Lou’s calling appears to be writing and making Black lives matter by capturing and expressing their beauty within their final stories. The myriad ways this resonates in the text as well as in the world is no mistake. Death and trauma of the body, and the concept of a body possessing a history of trauma, is explored by how Lou and some of her friends move through 1930s life. It is also a harrowing reference to the real-life deaths of Black women who are relegated to hashtag legacies.
At a certain point, Lou discovers she has incredible healing powers. It is a talent that she hides for most of the book, despite its necessity for surviving the traumas throughout her lifetimes. It is also a power that comes with an unbearable loneliness as she (through Sarah’s persona) recollects watching all the people around her fade away. Lou eventually begins to learn the importance of her power and its threat to her existence when strange things start to happen, making her secret harder to keep.
Lou spends much of her free time in a boxing gym, watching trainers determine real fighters from fame chasers. When the familiar sound of breaking bone echoes through the gym and emergency workers are called, in strolls a fireman, Jefferson, the man of her literal dreams, whom she has been compulsively drawing in notebooks for years. There is another incident where Lou sends a medium packing when the tea leaves disappear, indicating that she has no past. All the more reason why securing her future becomes a priority.
Lou’s resemblance to a folk character must not be overlooked. The endurance of a folktale throughout generations mirrors Lou’s consecutive lives. She doesn’t have a choice of how she appears in her lives, whether a man or a woman, but she is always Black, forced to experience and remember the socially tenuous place of Black people from lifetime to lifetime. The moral lesson that exists implicitly in her folksy existence is evident in how she carves a space for herself as a Black person that makes the people around her understand that she belongs there—her incidental presence is a purposeful existence. Readers are introduced to this concept in the book’s dedication, which strikes through “For you” and emphatically states, “I did it for me.”The Perishing is full of language that is accomplishing multiple feats at once. One of which is being able to capture the visceral and emotional backdrop of a moment that translates throughout the book. When Lou is in the car ride home after spending the day with Jefferson, the tension between her connection with him and their impossible circumstances—he is married with a child and she is not yet twenty years old—is palpable:
The character’s silence stands out here because she is generally sure of her words. But as Lou learns more about how to exist in her body, and the many bodies of the lives that follow, she establishes a voice that, like Deón’s, is too powerful to ever be forgotten.
by Natashia Deón
Published November 9, 2021