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Saint Monkey
Cover of Saint Monkey
Saint Monkey
A Novel
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"[A] compelling debut...Townsend's writing [is] full of fresh turns of phrase and keen insights." —Ayana Mathis, New York Times Book Review

Fourteen-year-old Audrey Martin, with her Poindexter glasses and her head humming the 3/4 meter of gospel music, knows she'll never get out of Kentucky—but when her fingers touch the piano keys, the whole church trembles. Her best friend, Caroline, daydreams about Hollywood stardom, but both girls feel destined to languish in a slow-moving stopover town in Montgomery County.

That is, until chance intervenes and a booking agent offers Audrey a ticket to join the booming jazz scene in Harlem—an offer she can't resist, not even for Caroline. And in New York City the music never stops. Audrey flirts with love and takes the stage at the Apollo, with its fast-dancing crowds and blinding lights. But fortunes can turn fast in the city—young talent means tough competition, and for Audrey failure is always one step away. Meanwhile, Caroline sinks into the quiet anguish of a Black woman in a backwards country, where her ambitions and desires only slip further out of reach.

Jacinda Townsend's remarkable first novel is a coming-of-age story made at once gripping and poignant by the wild energy of the Jazz Era and the stark realities of segregation. Marrying musical prose with lyric vernacular, Saint Monkey delivers a stirring portrait of American storytelling and marks the appearance of an auspicious new voice in literary fiction.

"[A] compelling debut...Townsend's writing [is] full of fresh turns of phrase and keen insights." —Ayana Mathis, New York Times Book Review

Fourteen-year-old Audrey Martin, with her Poindexter glasses and her head humming the 3/4 meter of gospel music, knows she'll never get out of Kentucky—but when her fingers touch the piano keys, the whole church trembles. Her best friend, Caroline, daydreams about Hollywood stardom, but both girls feel destined to languish in a slow-moving stopover town in Montgomery County.

That is, until chance intervenes and a booking agent offers Audrey a ticket to join the booming jazz scene in Harlem—an offer she can't resist, not even for Caroline. And in New York City the music never stops. Audrey flirts with love and takes the stage at the Apollo, with its fast-dancing crowds and blinding lights. But fortunes can turn fast in the city—young talent means tough competition, and for Audrey failure is always one step away. Meanwhile, Caroline sinks into the quiet anguish of a Black woman in a backwards country, where her ambitions and desires only slip further out of reach.

Jacinda Townsend's remarkable first novel is a coming-of-age story made at once gripping and poignant by the wild energy of the Jazz Era and the stark realities of segregation. Marrying musical prose with lyric vernacular, Saint Monkey delivers a stirring portrait of American storytelling and marks the appearance of an auspicious new voice in literary fiction.

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About the Author-
  • Jacinda Townsend studied at Harvard University and Duke University Law School before receiving her MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She lives in Bloomington, Indiana, and teaches creative writing at Indiana University. Saint Monkey is her first novel.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    December 16, 2013
    Townsend’s debut novel chronicles the lives of two black girls growing up in the dusty Appalachian mountains of Kentucky in the era of segregation. As children, Audrey and Caroline are bound together by their unpopularity, and their friendship quickly deepens, as they buffer each other against the cruelties that their small world hurls at them. They share adolescent angst and their wild dreams for the future, but when Caroline’s father brutally murders her mother, Audrey and Caroline’s friendship is changed in ways neither girl fully understands. They grow apart during high school, colliding occasionally, but Caroline is busy with boys and Audrey recedes into a quiet life of reading and playing piano for her grandfather, later finding work as a jazz musician in Harlem. The freedom and energy of Harlem sing through Audrey as she trades her country sandals for stilettos and spends her evenings listening to legends like Thelonious Monk and Ethel Waters. Back home, Caroline struggles to take care of her ailing grandmother and bring some money into the house. There are some clumsy moments in the prose, but Townsend captures both the girls’ relationship and the desperation of the small, black community in Appalachia.

  • Kirkus

    December 15, 2013
    The friendship between two black teenage girls in Kentucky flags when one of them moves to Harlem in this low-energy first novel. In the 1950s, the small town of Mt. Sterling is strictly segregated. Audrey and Caroline are neighbors in the "colored" section. Audrey is only 11 when her beloved father, Lindell, enlists in the Air Force and dies his very first day in Korea (friendly fire). The shock drives her mother to drink; she works two jobs and is seldom home. Caroline's situation is far worse. For starters, she's plug ugly, inheriting unwelcome features from the white man who raped her grandmother. The horror comes when her mother disappears; she has been murdered and dismembered by her husband, known as Sonnyboy. He confesses but never explains why he killed his meek, faithful wife; Townsend's awkward handling of the episode is a tear in the fabric. Caroline refuses to speak to her father again (incredibly, he only does five years jail time) but moves right along: "Ain't like some big thing happened." She's first to snag a boyfriend, putting distance between the two friends. Audrey's ace in the hole is her skill as a pianist. Mr. Glaser, a talent scout from the world-famous Apollo, hears her playing at a funeral and insists she come to New York. This is Audrey's big moment--joining the Apollo house band at 17 and living in Harlem--but Townsend can't make it shine, even when the bassist, August, 11 years her senior, falls for her big time. There will be rough sledding ahead for the lovebirds and for the two childhood friends; it's Sonnyboy that has the smooth ride. Townsend has attempted a big-canvas novel, but it's only in the close-knit Mt. Sterling neighborhood that she seems at home.

    COPYRIGHT(2013) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    Starred review from January 1, 2014

    This remarkable debut immerses the reader in the lives of two African American teenagers growing up in small-town Kentucky in the late 1950s. Caroline and Audrey inhabit a borderland between the emancipated North and the segregated South at a time when the repressive Fifties are giving way to the more liberated Sixties. The two friends are tied together by loss: Audrey longingly remembers her father, an airman killed in the Korean War, and Caroline's mother is horrifically murdered. Caroline straddles the boundary between beautiful and homely and dreams of going to Hollywood, but it's Audrey, who inherited her father's musical talent and can play jazz piano by ear, who manages to escape to New York City. Discovered at 18 while performing at a funeral, she travels to Harlem, where she plays for a time in the Apollo Theater's house band. But both girls find it difficult to overcome racism and the family ties binding them to their hometown. VERDICT Townsend's descriptive prose, dense with imagery, portrays life in the Jim Crow South and Harlem's heyday with startling immediacy. This author is one to watch.--Reba Leiding, formerly with James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA

    Copyright 2014 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from January 1, 2014
    Caroline and Audrey, best friends and competitors, live across the street from each other in the African American section of little Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, during the fiercely segregated 1950s. Caroline, called Pookie, dreams of Hollywood. Audrey, called Poindexter because of her thick glasses, is a musical prodigy. Both endure crushing family tragedies. A chance encounter sparks Audrey's bold escape to Harlem, where, a penny-poor country gal in a thin cotton dress, she secures a gig with the house band in the famed Apollo Theater and finds love. While Audrey acclimates to speedy, sophisticated New York and the cut-throat music world, Caroline endures a scraping-by rural life, caring for her ailing grandmother and younger sister. The women take turns narrating, and stellar first novelist Townsend renders their opposite lives with stunningly sensuous and revelatory detail. Her characters' struggles form one long dance of need and denial, jealousy and longing that embodies the anguish of women's lives compounded by brutal racial prejudice. As Townsend intimately and indelibly illuminates the psychological traumas of the times, she asks profoundly personal questions about staying and going, sacrifice and ambition. This is a breathtakingly insightful, suspenseful, and gorgeously realized novel of cruelty and sorrow, anger and forgiveness, improvisation and survival, and the transcendent beauty of nature and art.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2014, American Library Association.)

  • Junot Díaz;The New Yorker This stunner of a novel—set in Kentucky just before Civil Rights blows Jim Crow to pieces—tracks the lives of two young black women, both outsiders, both searching, and the thorny friendship that holds them together.
  • Samrat Upadhyay, author of Arresting God in Kathmandu A novel of immense depth and tenderness. Townsend's prose recalls the music of Toni Morrison, and Saint Monkey takes us on a soulful and deeply satisfying journey into the heart of Appalachia, and beyond.
  • Jacinta Howard;Upscale Magazine Captures the imagination and the heart.
  • Philadelphia Tribune [A] novel to curl up with...Irresistible.
  • Roxane Gay, author of Difficult Women and Hunger An absolute marvel of a book. Jacinda Townsend is dazzling as she transports the reader to a different time and place.
  • Jonathan Odell;Star Tribune Takes us backstage at the Apollo and into the smoky, late-night clubs where the art of jazz is fashioned before our eyes...The reader is buffeted by the transformative waves of race and music in America.
  • Donna Seaman;Booklist (starred review) A breathtakingly insightful, suspenseful, and gorgeously realized novel of cruelty and sorrow, anger and forgiveness, improvisation and survival, and the transcendent beauty of nature and art.
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Saint Monkey
A Novel
Jacinda Townsend
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