Criticism & Features

John Leonard Nominations

Leonard Prize Reviews: ‘A Kind of Freedom’ by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

By Jane Ciabattari

In November, National Book Critics Circle members will begin nominating and voting for the John Leonard award for the first book in any genre that has been published in the US in 2017. In the run-up to the first round of voting, we'll be posting a series of #NBCCLeonard reviews on promising first books. 

The John Leonard Prize is our annual award based on member nominations and chosen by a panel of member volunteers. Named for the longtime critic and NBCC co-founder, John Leonard, the prize is awarded for the best first book in any genre. Previous winners include: Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (2013), Phil Klay's Redeployment (2014), Kristin Valdez Quade’s Night at the Fiestas (2015), and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (2016).

A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton. Reviewed by Jane Ciabattari and adapted from her “Between the Lines” column for BBC Culture.

New Orleans, from World War Two through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, is the backdrop for Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s powerful and timely first novel, which traces the complex downward spiral of a black family over three generations. Evelyn, a Creole debutante, falls for Renard, from a lower-class family, in 1944, still a time of Jim Crow segregation. Her family objects, but as Renard heads to war, their bond is set. In the 1980s their daughter Jackie struggles to raise her son after her once promising husband Terry loses his pharmacist job and begins using crack cocaine. His struggles with rehab leave her in despair. By 2010, their son TC is released from Orleans Parish Prison after a stint for drug possession, eager to redeem himself but surrounded by temptation. Wikerson creates a series of robust and memorable characters with distinct voices and all too human desires. Despite the struggles, A Kind of Freedom glimmers with hope.