What we expect out of a book is not often what we get. When a book surpasses our expectations, we are excited and giddy at the thought of a book that not only didn’t let us down, but impressed us. When a book doesn’t meet our expectations, there is a lot of complex emotions, but always a lingering question: is it the book’s fault, or mine?
I feel bad turning the review of this book into an existential question about book reviewing, but I can’t help it. The Invisible Line is a book that I was so excited to read, but unfortunately, I just didn’t enjoy reading. But I also can’t say that it was entirely the fault of The Invisible Line.
Let’s talk about what The Invisible Line is: well-researched, a fascinating, worthy topic, and fairly readable. Essentially, Sharfstein traces the lives of three families that “pass” from black to white through the generations. Their descendants often aren’t even aware that they have black ancestors in their family line. Sometimes the process occurs over a generation, sometimes several. What I really gained from the experience of reading this book was the realization that what we think of as something so fixed, racial relations in the US before and after the Revolutionary war, was actually a lot more fluid. This book really did make me think and made me interested to read more, but I wish it had been more readable.
Those who like this book are probably shaking their heads at me, because Sharfsteins book reads more like a novel sometimes than a piece of history, but that was exactly my issue. In the same way that I wonder when I am reading historical fiction how much is true and how much is made up, I couldn’t get past some of the additions Sharfstein added to the narrative. Take this passage for example:
Gideon Gibson rode alone through the perpetual twilight of the woods on a Sunday. In the thick forests of the South Carolina backcountry, light hit the ground scattered and split, filtered through leaves and pine needles as through a cathedral’s stained glass. Sunbeams swirled with dust and gnats in the torpid August air. When Gibson reached his destination, one man was waiting for him, as agreed. In the open they would have taken shots at each other. But here they could meet quietly and alone, as equals and gentlemen. (13)
While I can appreciate the beauty of that passage, how, exactly, does Sharfstein know what the light looked like? He mentions in the Introduction that he relied on letters and historical accounts for much of his atmospheric information, but I just wasn’t convinced by it. I’m all for writing creatively and writing non-fiction in a way that is keeps people reading, but it was distracting for me. I would always wonder: where did that information come from? Sharfstein does address in his notes where he originally read about the physical details, but it seems odd coming from a very fiction-like omniscient narrator. That is not to say that I prefer completely cold, academic writing, but this way of infusing life into a book about history just isn’t for me.
The structure of the book did not work for me either. I kept getting confused by which family we were talking about and, try as I might, I could not keep the details straight. It made for frustrated reading when I was constantly going back and forth to try and figure out what had happened previously in the family’s history. I understand the inclusion of all three families, because their histories and their experiences with passing were so very different, but this book would have been much more manageable for me if it had focused on one of the families.
But these are, for the most part, personal hang-ups. I am not saying that I think Sharfstein’s book is bad, on the contrary, I think it is an interesting and valid addition to the books published on race. As an introduction to the topic, I’m not sure it was a good place to start, but it certainly got me interested in reading more about race relations in the US. His writing style is not for me, but there are plenty of people who do love this kind of writing.
I’m really interested to see what the rest of the reviewers on this tour think of The Invisible Line as I’m pretty confident that I will be in the minority here. It is a good book and if you are interested in this topic and already know something about it, I highly suggest you pick this up.
Special thanks to TLC Book Tours for sending me a copy of this book to review.
Previous stops on the tour: My American Melting Pot
Because I am confident that there are other people who would like this book a lot more than I did, I’d like to pass my copy on to another reader, so they can review it on their blog. If you are interested in reading and reviewing The Invisible Line, please leave a comment and I will randomly select a winner in one week.