The Two Lives of Sara

Written by Catherine Adel West
Review by Fiona Alison

Memphis, early 1960s. Sara King lives and works at a boarding house—a refuge for her wounded soul—owned by the indomitable Mama Sugar. Sara is a strong but damaged young mother, reluctant to show love even to the son she recently gave birth to, but as the novel progresses, her hard edges mellow through her recognition of a fierce protective affection for Mama Sugar’s grandson, who she escorts to and from school. It is there she meets Jonas Coulter, teacher, photographer and amateur poet, who can see only good in her. As she opens her heart to discover love for her son and her newfound family, romance blossoms despite some misgivings, but at the height of their happiness the couple is thwarted by tragedy arising from Mama Sugar’s past.

The Two Lives of Sara is a portrait of Black life during the Kennedy Administration, and an ode to love in its many manifestations. It is a time when racial tension ran high and talk of equality was cheap. The author writes an unflinching portrayal of how being Black makes you different in a world where the colour of your skin robs you of value. Sara’s backstory is woven sympathetically through the tapestry of everydayness at the boarding house; music and food are strong themes; characters are diverse and intriguing. When Sara’s world is upended, she forsakes all those who love her, but finds the strength to readdress her past and to make unexpected choices, leaving the novel on a contemplative note. West’s illustration of how our experiences continually reshape us resonates deeply as we share Sara’s road to redemption and forgiveness. A poignant and moving story which gives readers a solid glimpse into the racial reality of the times.