The Color of Water is one of the 3 books written by James McBride that I rushed off to buy immediately after finishing the very excellent Deacon King Kong, two years ago. I found the author’s writing to be lyrical and poignant (without being flowery), with his storytelling skills being exceptional and compelling. My expectations were sky-high despite the fact that The Color of Water is a memoir and not a work of fiction. The Color of Water is a memoir of James McBride’s search for his roots through a search for his mother’s lineage. His mother, originally Rachel Shilsky was born a Jew to parents who migrated to America in the 20s. Her Jewish heritage is particularly important because it is the reason why her family disowned her when she married a black man.
Rachel had been unwilling to delve into her Jewish roots in conversations with her children. The refusal was not just borne out of a disdain for the past (a sexually abusive father who was also racist and emotionally abusive to his wife, not forgetting relatives who disowned her the moment she dated and married across racial lines) but also because she was unwilling to burden her children with the complexity of their heritage. As if, ignoring it will make it go away. After much pressure, she yields and what unfolds is a complex and moving narrative. A story of love, hatred loss, belonging and family. All of these are told lyrically and beautifully through two voices; James McBride and his mother. Each voice speaks in alternating chapters as Rachel, James McBride’s mother traces her past and James finds himself in her story. I doubt I will read a better memoir any time soon. James McBride is an exceptional storyteller and The Color Of Water is a moving and poignant tale of family and racial identity.