Something Like Beautiful
One Single Mother’s Story
by asha bandele
Reviewed by Danielle A. Jackson
asha bandele’s latest work, the memoir Something Like Beautiful: One Single Mother’s Story, reads as a dénouement or coda to her first work of prose published ten years earlier, The Prisoner’s Wife. In both, bandele tells what feels like a raw, jagged story by wrapping a vast river of emotion tightly around her words. The reader becomes involved, attached. It is the feeling brimming beneath the prose that drives bandele’s writing.
The Prisoner’s Wife tells her seemingly improbable love story (bandele, an up-and-coming literary star, falls for and marries Rashid, a man serving a prison sentence of 20 years-to-life for murder). Something Like Beautiful is the counterpoint bearing witness to the dissolution of that union and its physical and emotional aftermath.
At its core, though, Something Like Beautiful is, like Rebecca Walker’s One Big Happy Family, an anthology exploring how non-conventional families work. In fact, an excerpt from Something Like Beautiful, “Woman Up,” is the second entry in Walker’s anthology. (The piece was also featured in another form in the New York Times’ “Modern Love” section in 2006.) During one of their conjugal visits, Rashid and bandele become pregnant. She has the baby despite her initial reservations about raising a child while her husband is still imprisoned.
bandele fully believes that her husband will soon be paroled, that they will be elevated from the drudgery of metal detectors, prison guards, and collect telephone calls. As far-fetched as it seems, in both the Prisoner’s Wife and Something Like Beautiful, bandele describes her relationship with Rashid as transformative. She confronts the sexual abuse that plagued her childhood for the first time as a result of one of their conversations, which nudges her along on her first steps toward healing and negotiating life as a survivor. bandele’s and her husband’s love is necessary and, likely, the kind for which all of humanity longs. In other words, how could she not have the child?
Eventually, bandele is overwhelmed by the strain that having an absent partner places upon her life. She is mesmerized by the miracle of her daughter and is besotted with motherhood. No matter that he is as supportive as possible with phone calls and a real level of interest; bandele’s husband is not able to be around to share in the joy or cushion the difficulties. When Rashid is denied parole and ordered to leave the country at the end of his sentence, the author realizes that her dreams for an intact family eventually, are shattered, and she effectively ends their romantic relationship.
But, it is hard. bandele chooses to end her marriage in order to gather herself, in a way, so that she can focus on protecting her daughter from the racism, misogyny, and danger that will likely color her life. But, a mudslide of depression falls upon her after the relationship’s end that makes it difficult to parent effectively. Plagued with self-doubt, the harsh reality of being the sole breadwinner for her daughter, and a strong sense of guilt for not having kept her marriage intact, bandele ostensibly keeps it together (like most black single mothers), but drinks too much and falls into a terribly abusive rebound relationship.
Thankfully, she finds therapy, and the brilliant curiosity of her vivacious daughter also convinces her to face the light and beauty of her own life.
As is always the case with her work, memoir, fiction, and poetry, the author is movingly honest in Something Like Beautiful. She fearlessly exposes her triumphs, trials, and regrets with equal rawness. bandele’s prose has teeth. It is particularly poignant when she addresses her daughter directly in letters:
But some of what exists out there that you have not seen and some of what exists out there that you have already seen that is all tied up with you being a girl, or you being black, or you being a black girl in this place at this time, is not what you deserved and not what you needed and if I cannot protect you, if I cannot shield you, then do I deserve you?
The reader can understand the author’s intention, or her motivation behind telling her story. The love for her daughter that propels bandele to break through is obvious throughout Something Like Beautiful. Sometimes, though, the actual details of the story are hidden under the murky haze of sentiment. The reader becomes an expert on what bandele’s experience feels like, but is often left wondering about the facts.
Possibly, the book is so engaging with the heart because bandele often generalizes her story. One must read bandele, and most great memoirists, almost responsively, unafraid to bring one’s own emotional reality along to the experience. Additionally, bandele connects her struggle through depression to create a happy home for her daughter to the plight of women and single mothers in general. Whether the hardcore facts are necessary becomes questionable. bandele’s story is more than hers; it is universal because everyone knows what it feels like to struggle toward a new beginning.