Think on Ink: “The Color of Secrets”
Caelin Miltko | Wednesday, April 22, 2015
I’ve been relatively lucky with this column. Before this, I had yet to read anything I really didn’t enjoy. While I wouldn’t say that every book I’ve ever read was my favorite, I was usually able to find something I liked about the book. And when I finished, I was always glad I’d taken the time to read it.
Unfortunately, this was not the case with “The Color of Secrets” by Lindsay Jayne Ashford. I rarely read books that I want to put down halfway through, but this was one of the exceptions. To put it mildly, I was not a fan.
I thought the plot sounded mildly compelling. If I hadn’t, obviously I wouldn’t have bought it. The abstract said that the book was about a couple in Wolverhampton, England, during World War II. She is married, but her husband has been missing, presumed dead for two years while in the British army — he is an African American GI. During their time together, she gets pregnant. Presumably, then, I thought the plot would follow the trials and tribulations of their relationship.
That’s sort of what I got. But not really. There were a number of problems with this book, but the biggest one was the way Ashford would randomly drop characters for 200 pages or so, no matter how big a role they’d played earlier in the story. Perhaps the weirdest fact about this novel is that the two “main” characters, Eva and Bill, almost literally disappear from the novel after their child is born.
Eva is mentioned occasionally, but not nearly as often as her presumed dead husband, who magically reappears about 40 percent through the novel. They both reappear at the very end, but by then, it’s really too late to make much sense of what has happened.
The issue of race is central to the novel’s plot, as can probably be guessed by the title. But this plays out in a number of strange ways. Perhaps the most confusing was the family’s return to Wolverhampton from Wales when Louisa (Bill and Eva’s child) is about nine-years-old. Her first day there she goes to a shop and is instantly recognized as a black person. She is kicked out of the store, and is forced to realize that she is of a different race from the man she has presumed was her father.
This would be fine. However, upon going to school, Louisa’s skin color is made out to be light enough that she passes as a tan white person for the rest of her time in Wolverhampton. As a reader, I didn’t quite know how she could do both.
Stylistically, the hard-to-follow plot was made more confusing by Ashford’s tendency to jump from viewpoint to viewpoint at will. Occasionally, this shift would be marked by the beginning of a new chapter. More often, the point-of-view simply changed, and the reader was stuck playing catch-up with the story.
When I was attempting to explain all of this to my roommate, she laughed and said that it sounded like a bad fanfiction. Upon reflection, I kind of agreed. However, there is one very important difference between this and your average fanfiction. This novel wants to be an insightful look into race relations from the 1940s to the 1960s in England, while your average fanfiction is really meant to be primarily self-indulgent. Still, due to stylistic flaws and unbelievable plot points, “The Color of Secrets” can’t quite pull off what it set out to do.