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Volume 26, Number 7 — July 2019

Book Review: Sufficient Grace by Darnell Arnoult

<strong>Gloria Oster teaches English at King College and is a member of the Editorial Committee for <em>A! Magazine for the Arts.</em></strong>
Gloria Oster teaches English at King College and is a member of the Editorial Committee for A! Magazine for the Arts.

A Recipe for a Well-Lived Life

By Gloria Oster | February 04, 2007

A wife who hears voices becomes an artist, a husband who owns a tire shop evolves into an award-winning gourmet cook, an African-American matriarch constructs birdhouses for the flea market and demonstrates the power of love and acceptance — these unlikely characters intersect in Darnell Arnoult's Sufficient Grace to affirm that from weakness comes strength, from endings new beginnings arise.

The novel unfolds from multiple points of view, allowing the reader to become cozily familiar with most of the characters except the one for whom the novel is titled — Gracie Hollaman. At the opening of the novel, Gracie hears voices telling her to paint life-sized figures of Jesus on the walls of her home, cut up all her credit cards to leave in a pile on the kitchen table, toss her wedding ring on the bed, and finally to drive away from her comfortable home and husband. Gracie's motivation seems indiscernible, explained only by her extraordinary state of mind.

After Toot and Mattie discover Gracie lying on the grave of Arty, the process of Gracie's unorthodox transformation from weakness to strength begins. The healing acceptance of these African-American women permits Gracie to develop an identity other than wife and mother. The identity that comes to the fore is an artist who paints Biblical scenes on everything from walls to fenders and hoods of cars. Toot gives Gracie a new name, Rachel, since Gracie chooses not to speak throughout most of the novel. Knowingly, Toot chooses a name that symbolically reflects much of Gracie's past and future. Rachel of the Old Testament is considered a matriarch of Israel; she is the wife of Jacob, Israel's founder. While on the journey to Israel, Rachel dies in childbirth and is buried away from her family. Gracie's journey has taken her away from the familiar roles of wife and mother and, in a sense, Gracie dies — only to be recast in a new life in a new place, a matriarch in her own right.

Gracie's strangely wrought new identity and her recent display of artistic talent beg the question that Emily Dickinson answers so well in this short poem:

Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye,
Much sense, the starkest madness.
'Tis the majority
In this, as all, prevail:
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur, you're straightaway dangerous
And handled with a chain.

Gracie's "madness" impels her toward an expression of herself in her paintings. Both Gracie's and Dickinson's "divinest sense" separate them from the "sense" of the majority. The parallel between the American poet and the fictional character presents an opportunity to remember how quickly society sometimes condemns those whose visions and choices do not resemble the mainstream.

Gracie's husband, Ed, an owner of a tire store, is transformed, albeit reluctantly, by Gracie's leaving. As Gracie's caregivers, Toot and Mattie help each other overcome the death of Arty. All are well-developed characters awakening into their differently-defined lives with perseverance and creativity. Ed's gourmet cooking, Toot's birdhouses, and Mattie's baking provide outlets of expression for their souls, a testament to the need in human lives for a means of tapping into our "divinest" selves.

In addition to these characters and events, many other rich characters and plausible surprises await the reader. The title Sufficient Grace alludes to the lesson that the apostle Paul learns in II Corinthians, verse 9: "My [God's] grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." The "grace" these characters choose to embrace is both literal and figurative. Figuratively, these characters come to terms with life's hardships and blessings by listening to each other in order to hear the voice of God. Even the voices inside the head of Gracie are validated through some twists and turns of plot.

Ultimately, forgiveness, acceptance, love — and a dash of individual creativity allowed to ripen — prove to be the key ingredients in this novel's recipe for a well-lived life.

A! ExtraTopics: Literature