Is the past ever really in the past, or does it just get melded irremovably into our DNA for future generations to reckon with? That’s the question at the center of The Revisioners, an arresting new novel by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton.
Two years after her National Book Award-nominated debut, A Kind of Freedom, Sexton pens a transgenerational story about the relationships between marginalized and empowered women, black motherhood and survival in the American South.
In one thread, Josephine is born into slavery in the 1850s. Her mother is a so-called Revisioner, a spiritual leader to the other slaves, purported to have gifts of healing. Decades later, after escaping bondage, Josephine is living proudly as the matriarch of her family and owner of a thriving farm. Then, an unassuming white woman, Charlotte, moves onto the land next door. The two develop an unlikely bond that threatens to put Josephine’s family in danger when Charlotte cozies up to the Ku Klux Klan.
In 2017 in New Orleans, Josephine’s descendant, Ava, is the mixed-race single mom to a son, 12-year-old King. Having fallen on hard times, she moves into the mansion of her white grandmother, Martha. Though one would expect things to be different between black and white from 1925 to 2017, they’re eerily reminiscent—compounded by Martha’s dementia, Ava is forced to relive many of the same struggles Josephine faced almost 100 years earlier. (Add to Martha’s backward-thinking proclivities a very old house that seems awfully likely to be haunted, and the plot occasionally veers into Get Out territory.)
Oscillating between generations, Wilkerson Sexton examines white privilege before the Civil War, after Reconstruction and in present day. Notably, in both characters’ cases, how even well-meaning white women’s actions can have unintentionally disastrous effects on the black folks around them. She also celebrates the perseverance of both women—fueled largely by their desire to provide for their families at all costs.
Part historical novel, part magical realism and part slow-burn thriller, The Revisioners would be right at home with the writing of Jesmyn Ward, Ta-Nehisi Coates (especially his recent foray into fiction, The Water Dancer) and Colson Whitehead. With her astute chronicles of contemporary black womanhood, Wilkerson Sexton has officially cemented her status as a master storyteller.