Locked Gray/Linked Blue
By Kem Joy Ukwu
Brain Mill Press, 2018
$15.95, 262 Pages
Review by Alina Grigorovitch

Locked Gray/Linked Blue (Brain Mill Press, 2018) is a collection of short stories about individuals at a crossroads and an examination of what led them there, delving back into their family histories and cultural inheritance. The collection divided into two parts: “Locked Gray” being the first half, “Linked Blue” the title of the second. Characters are linked by cultural markers: they are Nigerian Americans, immigrants, Christians, lawyers and academics, New York City urbanites, dealing with domestic violence, familial obligations, and with the rub between their personal aspirations and individuality, and their traditions and collectivist roots.

The opening story, “Demetrius,” introduces Colleen (Nigerian name: Obioma), a young woman whose only family is her half-sister’s, whose life gives us a crash course in community values: the importance of the motherland, the focus on academics and career success, demands unconditional family loyalty. “Demetrius” paints the setting for the other stories, and that setting can be explicit or merely implied. But beneath the cultural and community concerns, the real heart of these stories is always something much more simple and human: a discovery of love, a flight of imagination, a friendship’s tribulations, a life fantasy.

Once fleshing out her characters in “Demetrius,” Ukwu cuts it off mid breath and jumps to the next story, dives deep and cuts it off again for a third, and so on until the end, leaving a chain of brief, intense glimpses that sustains anticipation and makes the reader wonder how they relate. The author doesn’t try to solve moral dilemmas so much as shed new light on them, always with an eye for sympathy and never with judgement.

“Proposed,” my favorite story and the most rewarding read, is exceptional at revealing Olive, an aging black woman with a son and grandchildren she never sees, piling medical bills and dwindling job prospects, and a philandering fitness trainer boyfriend. It’s an uncomfortable reel that doesn’t spare on the most indigestible details, showing Olive combing out her cornrows before interviewing for a job that goes to a younger Master’s graduate, or detailing the concessions she makes for her somewhat-boyfriend in hopes of holding on to youth. Ukwu’s language is unadorned and masterfully deliberate, holding a reader’s attention while slowly peeling away one layer after the next to paint the most subtle portrait she can.

“Olive turns around to leave her house. She opens the door and sees white. She wouldn’t mind this if Isaiah’s new black car was resting on Gertrude’s long, winding driveway, adding a dark, shiny contrast to the snow, as if it was a sleek sleigh, waiting to carry her away.

She treads slowly down the walkway and makes her way to the bus stop.”

The simplicity of its presentation is what makes it so beautiful. The narrative does progress toward a more developed understanding, but it does so in step with its narrator; like Olive, we don’t expect to suddenly stand before these crossroads, but there it is.

Only in the final story, “Her Mother, Nneka,” do we come closest to closure when we revisit Obioma, this time from the perspective of her successful lawyer half-sister, Chioma, who explores her own moral dilemma in distancing herself from her half-sister because of her inability to come to terms with their father’s transgressions with Obioma’s mother.

In this way, each narrator mirrors another, examining the same problems from different sides. Ifama meets her father, who beat her mother, and decides she must cut ties with him even though it means cutting ties with her innocent baby half-sister. In other stories, we see echos of this conflict: Half of a promising engaged couple can’t shake off the shadow of their parents’ broken marriages in “True, Perfect.” Parents who have wronged their children and first families form promising second marriages like Ifama’s father, in “Lost, Never Had” and Chinyelu in “Maid Adrift.” Mothers teach their daughters about strength through their own trials of domestic abuse in “Paying”. Children cut ties with abusive parents like Eldrin in “Flight in Transit.” Elderly parents are neglected by their children like Olive in “Proposed.” It is a book of survivors, people moving through life in the absence of heroes.

But sometimes, heroes arrive.The collection’s make-it-or-break-it moment comes in the penultimate, “The Glowing Conqueror.” It’s a supernatural tale whose protagonist, Genevieve, occasionally glows blue, a feature that, beyond her identity and upbringing, is her true source of power, individualism, and isolation. Only the few people who can see her glow or who glow blue themselves are those drawn into her innermost circle, even though they are not related by blood.

This supernatural element makes Ukwu’s very polished writing a little more surprising and a lot more vulnerable, but it does a lot more — because the stories are connected by their common cultural setting and traumas, the explicit blue glow forces a new re-reading of each preceding story. The “locked gray,” the stultified experiences and circumstances of Olive, Obioma, or any of the protagonists is recolored and linked, with the life-and-self-asserting blue. But it is not easy to pinpoint at first, and it still does not bring finality to their shared undercurrent of their lives being not-quite-right, the feeling of an existence that in some way was botched. There is a lot to think about here.

If resolution and closure is what you need in your readings, Locked Gray/Linked Blue is not that simple. It will present questions rather than answer them, as its characters continue to open doors the deeper they go. The dive is forever, both into ancestral stories, and the inheritance of future progeny who will blend into American culture.