Debut novel marked by its poignancy, promise

“Baby, the first thing I need to know from you is do you believe I killed my father?” So begins Upstate, the poignant debut novel from New York’s Kalisha Buckhanon.

The classically haunting tale of star-crossed lovers Antonio and Natasha, Upstate reads like a wooden roller coaster. In the end, buoyed by hope and a sense of fulfillment, the reader has had enough fun to make up for the bumps and bruises caused by the novel’s innumerable plot twists.

More than a love story, though, Upstate is a chronicle of the travails faced by promising young African Americans trying to defeat poverty and prejudice in order to fulfill their dreams.

Taking the quantity approach to poignancy, Buckhanon heaps the adversity onto Antonio and Natasha.

Discarding a shovel in favor of a backhoe, she buries the hapless couple in physical, mental, emotional and even cultural travails. By the time the novel’s climax is reached, Buckhanon’s lovers have struggled through enough to warm even the coldest of hearts.

Upstate begins and ends in Harlem, where young lovers Antonio and Natasha – only 16 and 17, respectively, at the book’s beginning – attend high school.

When Antonio is arrested – and later, convicted and jailed – for the murder of his abusive father, the two begin a lengthy, voluminous correspondence, through which their story gradually unfolds.

“It’s amazing,” writes Natasha to Antonio. “What you can tell somebody in a letter that you can’t tell them face to face.”

As they make their way through both sides of the legal system – University of Pennsylvania law school and the New York State Penitentiary System – Antonio and Natasha struggle to achieve revelation and redemption.

When the details of Antonio’s crime finally become clear, the novel takes the last of its big surprise turns for an ending bound to surprise the unsuspecting reader.

Throughout Upstate, Buckhanon’s style is all over the place, as both she and her characters attempt to find their voices.

At times, both come together and for a line or two demonstrate the great promise lying beneath Buckhanon’s stylistic struggles.

“I stare out of this tiny window,” she writes, as Antonio. “And all I can think is, God, I never knew the sky was that blue.”

Kalisha Buckhanon is surely no Richard Wright, but her chronicle of a young, black couple’s struggle against a society that appears to be aligned against them does manage to touch the heart.

In the end, though, Upstate is just another love story; race and society are secondary. As Natasha puts it: “It was always love. Life just got in the way.”

Peter Chomko may be reached at peter.chomko@temple.edu.

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