Southland

Nina Revoyr

Stretching across the 1940s, 1960s, and 1990s, Southland encompasses an impressive breadth of cultural history without overreaching. After the death of Jackie Ishida’s grandfather in 1994, her aunt finds a box of old papers that cracks open a door to long-hidden family secrets and tasks Jackie with sorting them out. Almost immediately, her quest brings her to Jimmy Lanier who reveals that during the Watts riots in 1965, four black boys were murdered in her grandfather’s store — an event her grandparents never revealed to their adolescent children.

One of the boys was Jimmy’s older cousin Curtis, who he adored unreservedly, and the suppression of the crime was particularly tough for him to accept. Together Jackie and Jimmy work to uncover the buried past, and the narrative dips back to provide more context for the fragments they reveal. We see her grandfather’s experiences during WWII, when his family was evacuated to the interment camps along with other Japanese-American citizens and later when he enlisted to fight in the war. In the 1960s we see him, back in Los Angeles, living and running his store in the Crenshaw district — an area at the time that was populated by both Japanese- and African-American families. We see parts of Curtis’s experiences as a young black man during a tumultuous time.

While the book is plotted admirably, Nina Revoyr’s writing is at times distractingly awkward. For a book comprised largely of dialogue, hers is stilted in its attempts to be casually realistic. Several times I was thrown off by side details during a conversation, where I missed the thread of what a character was doing during the conversation and couldn’t figure out why Revoyr was including unnecessary actions. Two of the big moments near the end where major gaps are filled in and the plot twists were unfortunately the weakest parts of the story to me in terms of the writing. Not to mention that both of them most readers could infer from the heavy-handed foreshadowing. But overall Southland fuses such significant and seemingly disparate cultural experiences that for me it survives these deficiencies.

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