Baldwin’s powerful account of the repercussions of a false rape allegation on a Black couple eschews the poetry of his earlier novels in favour of a sense of rawness, as the sight, smells and sounds of earl 1970’s New York seep into the consciousness of the reader as they become increasingly drawn into the lives of Fonny and Tish. The racism which Baldwin explores in the book is more focused on how deeply it runs within the veins of American society, which pulsate with the institutionalised prejudices which run through the lifeblood of the American dream. It impacts on the characters in every aspect of their lives, from their social interactions, to their prospects of finding somewhere to live, to the probability of-as with Fonny and another character in the story, his friend Daniel, of being incarcerated under false charges and the psychological impact it has on them.
The narrative frequently switches between past and present as the reader slowly builds a picture of both the story behind the false rape accusation and the relationship between Fonny and Tish. This reader therefore slowly becomes increasingly invested in not just the couple, but their wider families, whether it be Fonny’s acerbic and repressive one or Tish’s warmer family. This emotional investment pays off, as we slowly build and fit together the jigsaw pieces behind both their love and the vindictive police officer who seeks to tear their lives apart.
‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ is rendered extraordinary in the very sense of ordinariness it is portraying; there is nothing ostensibly special about any of the characters, there are just people trying to navigate life and its many barriers, but it is the fact that so many of these barriers exist purely because of the colour of their skin that underpins the the undercurrent of tragedy which runs through the novel.