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The Fisher King
by Paule Marshall

Reviewed by Staci Bolden

Finding Sonny Payne

Can you maybe come back again tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and the day after day after day after that forever?

Paule Marshall's novel The Fisher King deals with several issues: generational differences, love, and jazz music being some of them. The novel is set in 1984 with reminiscences back to the height of the jazz era, the 1940s and 50s. The Fisher King tells the story of two families whose unwillingness to understand and accept their children negatively impacts their lives and the lives of their future generations. Because of this, the story ultimately leads to one theme: how and where does one find a sense of belonging?

Sonny-Rett Payne was a black jazz pianist in Brooklyn in the 1940s. His mother did not agree with his “Sodom and Gomorrah” (13) brand of music. Sonny got the “strap” when he was young and got kicked out of the house when he was a young adult. Cherisse Jones lived across the street and was controlled by a mother who made her take acting, singing, and dancing lessons: “My baby could have been a star! Another Lena Horne…or Dorothy Dandridge” (36). Hattie Carmichael was an orphan “from the city” who bounced around between foster homes. The friendship between the three of them ultimately led to their fleeing Brooklyn for Paris, so that Sonny could enjoy success as a jazz pianist without the family disapproval and racism of New York. The three vowed never to return to the United States. In 1984, Sonny-Rett and Cherisse's Parisian grandson, Sonny Payne, is brought to Brooklyn to attend a memorial concert for his grandfather. The visit stirs up decades-old resentment and anger between the families, and ultimately asks the question of whether or not young Sonny Payne will get the peace and security that his grandparents never had.

The question of belonging and being a part of something is continually addressed in the novel. The adults around Sonny Payne are oblivious to his anxiety and sadness, because none of them had ever had a sense of family and belonging. They went looking for that security in all of the wrong places, and because of that, none of them were able to properly provide for Sonny emotionally. Paule Marshall does an excellent job of revealing, little by little, the reasons that many of Sonny's family members never felt as if they belonged. Sonny's grandparents were both shunned by their families. Hattie Carmichael, who became young Sonny's caretaker after his grandparents died, had been an orphan herself, and never had a place to call home. Those unfortunate circumstances bred resentful and selfish adults, and young Sonny was in need of some care and inclusion. When Benjamin, Sonny's young cousin from New York, told him that he wanted to see Sonny every day “forever”, Sonny began to cry. He did not understand that his sorrow was felt because that was the first time he felt like he really belonged. At that point in the novel, it became clear that Sonny needed a place where he felt welcome and loved, or he was going to turn out bitter and resentful like the adults.

One interesting thing about the characters that Marshall has created is that none of them are bad people, but their selfishness has created unhappiness for Sonny. For example, Hattie loves Sonny and has, in some ways, done her best for him. As the novel progresses, it is slowly revealed that there are many things that Hattie could have done differently. As you read this story, character flaws are continually revealed: just when you think someone is doing the right thing, that thought is challenged and you change your mind.

The Fisher King draws you in and does not let go until you are finished reading it. Days later, you will be thinking about the story and the complexity of its characters. Paule Marshall brilliantly shows that a sense of belonging and security are difficult to come by. The Fisher King comes to the conclusion that young children are not able to cultivate their own sense of belonging; it comes from the love, care and support they receive from the adults around them. When Sonny Payne's family is able to put old resentments and selfishness behind them and do what is best for Sonny, he will feel like he belongs.