Recently released April 6, 2021, Caul Baby by Morgan Jerkins is a riveting story about a wealthy Harlem family of caulbearers who prioritize their own success over their community’s well-being, and how that comes at a cost.
(If, like me, you are a reader who hates knowing too much before going into a book, I discourage you from reading Caul Baby‘s official book summary. Personally, I dislike overly detailed plot descriptions, and the inner flap of this book gives away some events that don’t even happen until the last fourth of this book.)
This story begins in the late 1990’s in Harlem, around the year 1998. After several miscarriages, Laila has once again become pregnant, but she and her husband are nervous that this pregnancy will end the way the others have. Yet, as the months pass and Laila’s belly continues to grow, they dare to get their hopes up…
The Melancons are a wealthy Harlem family of women rumored to be caulbearers (women who were born with an extra layer of skin said to contain mystical healing properties), and although part of Laila doubts that their caul actually has the power to heal, with her baby’s life at risk, she is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure its healthy delivery. Thus, Laila arranges a way to meet the Melancons and beg them to help her, to sell her a small piece of their caul so she may wear it for prosperous health. However, the Melancons have a business to run, and they do not sell to the poor. Rather, their clientele almost exclusively belongs to the wealthy white demographic.
As Laila’s struggle plays out, time moves forwards and the Melancon family grapples to adjust to the changing landscape of Harlem and the fate of their caulbearing legacy. Through a third person perspective, this novel follows two families and a city at odds over decades as the latter half shifts to 2018 and the Melancons must confront the true impact they’ve had on their neighborhood.
Caul Baby is quite a fascinating story that I really enjoyed reading about. I’d never known much anything about what a “caul” was prior to this, and I loved the way Morgan Jerkins imagined its capabilities within the real world. The magical healing powers of the caul and the supernatural force which grips the Melancons’ brownstone create a mystical element to the novel, yet the realistic setting grounds the story, which works well for this piece.
In addition to the clever story, I also enjoyed the large cast of predominantly Black female characters. Nearly every character we get to know throughout the novel is either a Black woman or child, so it was awesome reading all their different voices and watching their relationships and identities evolve.
Throughout Caul Baby, Jerkins interwove many complex themes. The gentrification of Harlem is a major element of this story, as Black businesses are shut down, housing costs skyrocket, chain stores like Starbucks pop up, increased police presence arrive in Black neighborhoods and more white people congregate in trendier areas of Harlem. Jerkins herself is from Harlem, and her love of the city–at the same time her observations of its changing landscape–are apparent in this text.
Additionally, the tale of the Melancons is an intriguing allegory: The Melancon women cut parts of their caul away and sell them to wealthy white customers who then wear their cauls on their neck or in lockets, so that their health is impervious to ailments and injuries. These women literally mutilate their bodies for profit and for white people’s granted invulnerability. And not only are they cutting their own caul, but in the instance of matriarch Maman showing granddaughter Hallow “how it’s done,” she cuts and burns her so she can condition Hallow to endure the pain–because after all, it may hurt Hallow, but because her caul will heal her within moments, her pain is dismissed by others.
Not only do the Melancons profit from the exploitation of their flesh, but they refuse to help their own neighbors, especially the Black women in the community who so desperately need health assistance but can’t afford the Melancons’ steep prices. They allow fellow Black women to suffer, and for this, they become scorned by Harlem… while the very structure of their brownstone inexplicably deteriorates.
Caul Baby meditates on Black motherhood and generational suffering, the ways our bodies hold the memory of trauma; it showcases to the reader the pitfalls of turning our back on our community, and it prompts us to question the morality of our family’s traditions and values. As well: is it Black women’s duty to help other Black women, and how can we make a difference in a society fundamentally structured to perpetuate marginalized lifestyles? And can secrets remain in the dark or must they inevitably come forward?
For me, this novel has a lot of strengths: brilliant story, great characters, and nuanced themes. Perhaps Caul Baby‘s weakest element–in my opinion–is the writing. That being said, the writing is not bad by any means; however, I did find it lacking. The descriptions were adequate, the story easy to follow, but there were just little things that turned me off. For example, in one scene, Landon offers Maman take a seat and she makes a point of saying “I’ll stand,” however a page later, she struggles to “get up,” which confused me because I thought she was already standing. I read the page over and over searching for what I may have missed, but to me, it just seemed like an editing error. Towards the end of the book, it also began to feel like the author was running out of steam, and some of the writing felt a little less inspired, certain scenes feeling undeveloped or dialogue rambling. At times, the characters even felt inconsistent with themselves. That being said, I did appreciate the ending of the book, which was maybe a bit rushed but ultimately satisfying. Having read 300 pages of mounting tensions, the final confrontation was inevitable and climactic.
Overall, I really enjoyed this novel and the story will be incredibly memorable for me. While I didn’t quite like the writing as much as I wanted to, I would still recommend this to other readers who may connect with Jerkins’ writing style more than I did. Caul Baby‘s story is intelligent and nuanced, and I really liked how it all came together in the end. It will enchant and intrigue you from the start.
If you’re interested in this book but would like to know what triggers to prepare for, here is a list of all the trigger warnings I noted. (Reading these warnings may “spoil” part of the plot for you, so heads up!)
Trigger warnings: abortion, miscarriage, stillbirth, blood, alcohol abuse, abandonment, infidelity, parental neglect, child abuse, mutilation, burning, family violence, angry mobs, home destruction, police brutality
For more book reviews by Slanted Spines, check out this page.