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On Love, Trauma, and Music in “Notes on Her Color”

On Love, Trauma, and Music in “Notes on Her Color”

  • Our review of Jennifer Neal's debut novel, "Notes on Her Color"

Notes on Her Color is not only a debut novel by Jennifer Neal, but also a musical composition. Each word is a note carefully considered before being etched onto the page with the hope of bringing art to life and feelings to the surface. Gabrielle is a young woman living in hell. Her father is a psychological monster, and her mother is a woman she’s watched be broken every day of her life, long past the point of no return.

The bond Gabrielle has with her mother is supernatural. They share a trait passed down for generations: these women can change the color of their skin. The ability is driven by emotion but can be controlled with training and concentration. In the beginning, it was something that brought the mother-daughter duo together. Being able to “pass” into various hues using a kind of grounding element like a tiny pouch of a colorful spice (i.e., paprika or sage) under the pillow or tucked in the inside pocket of a jacket, it was when Gabrielle began learning how to pass as white that her world changed.

Neal explores one particular aspect of the human condition from the very beginning—power. Gabrielle’s father is jealous of the world to which he must succumb as a Black man. Because he has limited power outside his home, he wields it tyrannically within it. He does not possess the color-changing power, but his threatening presence makes an impact in that he has demanded everything in the house be white, including his wife and daughter whenever he is home. The only things brown are his skin and his whiskey. When he pushes med school upon Gabrielle, he decides piano lessons are the extracurricular activity that will make her stand out. Gabrielle sees it as a way to reconnect with her mother, a former choir singer, in an attempt to exert a power of her own and circumvent the wedge her father intentionally hammers between them. But when she meets her new piano teacher, she realizes she’s met the next force that will send her life spiraling.

Dominique is a dark-skinned Jamaican who loves her own mother, women, and music to no end. As Gabrielle’s talent blossoms and their relationship grows, a danger of implosion rises when a mental health episode nearly ends Gabrielle’s mother’s life. While her father uses the opportunity to further impress his warped values upon his family, Gabrielle is determined to learn the music and use it to revive her mother from her hospital bed. She returns home a shell of herself and ostensibly no longer able to pass color. This further divides the two as Gabrielle watches her mother struggle with a new version of herself.

Neal manages to dig into this novel in a manner that mirrors that of her protagonist. The author, like Gabrielle, seems to be sitting at a polished, cherrywood piano ready to play an original piece. The piece begins slowly, with depth and purpose, and eventually builds in tempo. The plinking of individual keys gives way to more complicated chord combinations that send the audience through a series of emotions. Neal’s confidence solidifies as the piece continues—from the descriptive language to the ideas of trauma versus healing. As Neal’s writing becomes more assured, Gabrielle becomes more comfortable in her skin. Neal deftly navigates tougher topics like identity, racism, and psychological abuse, helping Gabrielle deal with them better, as well.

By the time Gabrielle is in a full-on relationship with Dominique, Neal’s writing has hit its stride. Banter between them and Dominique’s mother is electric. The energy when Gabrielle is with Dominique is palpable and is a direct contrast to when she is with her own parents. When her father is staring them down, daring them to try him and forcing one of them to emotionally betray the other, there is a gut-wrenching anxiety that slows the novel down—a purposeful and effective technique to turn up the tension.

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Unfortunately, the conflict that built up between Gabrielle and her mother after her return home from the hospital seems to fade without much resolution. But perhaps that isn’t the conflict that was most interesting to Neal. In one of her lessons, Dominique tells Gabrielle to “evoke the beating heart of the piece. You can just play a few sheets of paper, or you can actually transcend with the music.” This translates to Neal’s goal and accomplishment with the text. An ability to change color for a Black woman could mean a number of things once mastered. But Neal isn’t going for gimmick in this Black, queer story. Gabrielle having an ability to change a major aspect of her identity through her outward appearance is something that she must set aside to instead become more comfortable in that skin and not let it be the primary way she moves through the world. Music gives her a new strength—a new power that helps her control the one most compelling to everyone else. Dominique, through her genuine love, helps Gabrielle see herself as something more: transcendent. And for that, Neal deserves an ovation.

Notes on Her Color
By Jennifer Neal
Published May 23, 2023

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