This book takes patience. Time sometimes stretches, sometimes collapses in on itself: “Really, she was not an old woman,” Almeyda thinks of her grandmother. “She was only 30 years older than me, 37 then, but she called herself an old woman, and my age made me agree with her.” Jones renders time relative, objectively meaningless. And isn’t it? Aren’t we all just caught up in repeated cycles, pretending that passage affords us evolution when all it does is distance us further from the things we’re forestalling: honesty, self-inventory, accountability and healing? So much of Jones’s 17th century is indistinguishable from our 21st.
The astonishing peak of the novel is an experimental chapter called “The Narratives of Barcala Aprigio,” in which Almeyda presents a set of parables written by Aprigio, the multiracial husband of a woman Almeyda stays with temporarily after she’s sold away from the plantation. His collection of stories includes one called “Lice Scratching,” which seems to be told from the vantage of a woman Jones has sketched only briefly earlier in the novel. “That time I was in the wine cellar,” the woman says. “I got my answer. No invisible girl. I said nothing. Bananas, bananas, bananas. If he’d caught some Negro disease. When he came to me I said, Go to the devil. I could have knocked the woman, that other woman I heard how she murdered the mulatto girl and what did that do? But me? I still have her come and scratch the lice from my hair.” Jones’s writing is most potent when it blends the ethereal and the corporeal, as if it comes from some celestial place.
Her oracular integrity comes into question, however, when she introduces characters who are lesbian or gender nonconforming. They are depicted as strange, of dubious sense and morality, violent, to be approached with caution, and with the kind of curiosity that dehumanizes, intentionally or not. When Almeyda and Anninho encounter an Indigenous Tapuyan woman named Maite (“Woman?” Almeyda thinks. “There was a bow and arrow slung across her shoulders, and her hair was cut short like a man’s”), Almeyda asks her husband: “Why does that woman look and behave like a man?” Anninho replies that she’s taken a vow of chastity, and hunts, goes to war, lives alone with a woman who serves her. “Such women don’t have men,” he says, “but they must look like men, cut their hair like a man and do the things that men do.” Almeyda can’t even speak the question she wants to ask (“Do they … ?”), and Anninho doesn’t know the answer.
Here queerness is depicted as merely strange, but elsewhere in the novel those who don’t conform to heteronormative standards are depicted as predatory. Learning from Luiza how to see across time and space, Almeyda has a vision in which a woman named Zairagia is accused of pretending to be an exorcist “for her own lusts,” as an excuse to rape women who are allegedly possessed. It’s confounding that within the world of the novel, there’s no sense that queerness can ever be an intrinsic state of being, part of both nature and divine imagination, or that it’s possible for queer love and desire to be consensual.
What can explain these scenes? They are filtered through Almeyda’s eyes, and we learn early on that on the plantation, Almeyda has been raised Catholic, presumably to believe homosexuality is a sin. She never fully embraces the ancestral spiritual knowledge, imparted first by her grandmother and then by Luiza, that would provide her a more inclusive understanding of the human soul. These limitations on our narrator’s part become an unexpected kind of revelation.
In that sense, “Palmares” is a mystery in the most ancient use of the term: It is an artifact that can be discerned only through epiphany. Or as the kids put it these days: “If you know, you know.” Mercy, this story shimmers. Shakes. Wails. Moves to rhythms long forgotten. Chants in incantations highly forbidden. It is a story woven with extraordinary complexity, depth and skill; in many ways: holy.
The story ends not exactly in medias res, but on a beat that begs continuation. This feeling of masterpiece-in-and-as-process is deliberate, and genius. “Palmares” is the first of five new works by Gayl Jones to come in the next two years. After suffering the author’s absence for far too long, we — the witnesses longing for texts like hers, the borderline sacred — can rejoice at her return.