Reviewed: Notes on Her Colour, Jennifer Neal, Vintage
Gabrielle can change the colour of her skin. It’s a skill she inherited from her mother who got it from her mother before her. ‘Passed down from blood to blood,’ she states. ‘Along with diseases, artistic hysteria, and a predilection for loving the wrong men.’
Set in Florida and around the year Gabrielle, a young Black Indigenous woman, spends at home between high school and university, Jennifer Neal’s Notes on Her Colour is a lyrical examination of all we inherit from our families, and how those inheritances shape our lives. Beneath this main conceit is a rich and powerful interrogation of race, identity and belonging as Gabrielle works out who she is beneath the ever-changing colour of her skin.
Organised into six sections following the movements of Mahler’s Symphony No.3, the novel charts Gabrielle’s coming of age as she decides what she wants for her future even as her family is falling apart. The house that Gabrielle lives in is cold and hostile—not just the interpersonal dynamics within, but materially. Early in the novel, she muses: ‘There were no dark things allowed in our home—except for whiskey, and him […] He adorned the house in white oak and pine and white wax myrtle, a veritable glut of white alters on which she crucified her colour on a daily basis.’
The ‘he’ here is Gabrielle’s father Robert, whose devotion towards his family is conditional, only showing his love when both Gabrielle and her mother, Tallulah, transform the colour of their skin to white. They share a particular intimacy which shields them from Robert’s temper, with Neal using metaphor to express this throughout (‘I curled into her body, a chipped piece of marble reunited with her statue.’). Tallulah attempts to protect Gabrielle not just from her father’s wrath but that of all men—especially as Gabrielle begins to fall for a white boy in town to disastrous consequences.
Jealous of their shared gift, Robert attempts to heighten his own proximity to whiteness in any way he can, joining the Republican party and separating himself from anything remotely associated with Black culture. In response to this, Gabrielle reflects: ‘Since my father couldn’t change the colour of his skin, he changed the colour of his words, the colour of his movements, and he changed the colour of his laughter, so it took on a lighter more diluted hue.’
This internalised hatred for anything black, dark or brown is emblematic of how racism worms its way into culturally marginalised communities, teaching people of colour to distance themselves from their culture. While Notes on Her Colour can be described as belonging to the magical realism genre, the way Gabrielle and Tallulah can easily change their skin colour—or ‘pass’, as the characters call it—acts as a highly sophisticated metaphor for the way we present our race, culture and even social class through our appearances. Part way into the novel, hoping to provide a salve to the toxicity of her parents’ relationship—what she describes as ‘a monophonic melody of violence’—Gabrielle begins to play piano, an instrument significant to both her parents in different ways. For Robert, it represents something from his childhood, where he was barred from playing by a mother who wouldn’t allow him to ‘bother himself with white music’, whereas for Tallulah, it was a hobby she gave up upon marriage to focus on being the perfect wife. For Gabrielle, however, piano becomes her path to freedom.
It is through music that Gabrielle meets Dominique, a piano teacher who represents everything that Gabrielle is scared to be—a loud and proud queer black woman. Gabrielle describes Dominique’s house as ‘crammed with artifacts, books, and collectables that poked you from every direction if you shifted too much’ and smelling of cloves and cinnamon, all of which is completely alien to her.
When Gabrielle’s mother begins to withdraw emotionally as a result of her husband’s continuous taunting and demands for obedience, their closeness vanishes with her sanity. This culminates in Tallulah having to be hospitalised after a mental health crisis, and Gabrielle finds herself left with just her father at home. She seeks solace with Dominique and her family, emphasising the importance of community—or as Dominique’s mother Niyala calls it, ‘radical Black friendship’.
As the novel’s emotional intensity ramps up towards the end of the book to culminate in tragedy, Neal’s linguistic luxuriousness recedes somewhat. Although this could be a reflection of the changing themes and tones of Mahler’s piece, from the strong march of the first movement to the slow and tranquil sixth, it’s an ambitious choice, which leaves the latter half of the novel rather disjointed.
Despite this, Notes on her Colour is a heartfelt and vivid debut and a unique study on race and family, powerful in how it rejects an ironic tone so often seen in contemporary fiction.