Book Review: Allegedly
Published by HarperCollins on January 24th 2017
Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary
Buy from: Amazon • Book Depository • Wordery
Orange Is the New Black meets Walter Dean Myer’s Monster in this gritty, twisty, and haunting debut by Tiffany D. Jackson about a girl convicted of murder seeking the truth while surviving life in a group home.
Mary B. Addison killed a baby.
Allegedly. She didn’t say much in that first interview with detectives, and the media filled in the only blanks that mattered: a white baby had died while under the care of a churchgoing black woman and her nine-year-old daughter. The public convicted Mary and the jury made it official. But did she do it?
There wasn’t a point to setting the record straight before, but now she’s got Ted—and their unborn child—to think about. When the state threatens to take her baby, Mary’s fate now lies in the hands of the one person she distrusts the most: her Momma. No one knows the real Momma. But does anyone know the real Mary?
Content warning: Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson contains content that some may find triggering or difficult to read, including descriptions of child neglect/abuse, violence, animal cruelty, and sexual assault/rape. Furthermore, the narrator makes comments that are racist and colourist, homophobic, ableist, and fatphobic. Proceed with caution for both book and review.
Every so often a book comes along that stays with you long after you turn the last page. Perhaps it is the beautiful writing, or the fascinating characters, or perhaps the message of the story itself. Allegedly is one of those books, still sticking with me after several days since I put it down. Allegedly grabbed me from the very first pages and wouldn’t let me go until the very last – and that was at 1am, after a very gripping two hours of fiction.
(I’m a fast reader, especially when so captivated by something.)
Allegedly poses two main questions going into it it: Did Mary kill baby Alyssa? And if she didn’t, who did? It’s an immediately captivating premise – did a little girl commit the ultimate crime, or is she just another victim of the killer? – that plays into the part of us that reads true crime, speculates on what really happened to JonBenét Ramsey, and avidly watches shows like Law and Order, CSI, and their many spin-offs in the comforts of our homes and the assurance that these are the good guys who follow the rules, listen to victims, and will get the real bad guys by the end of the hour.
But this is not Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and we are not watching Olivia Benson sit with Mary in a room, listen to her story, and make sure she is safe. Dr George Huang is not going to have one session with her and find out if she really is the monstrous sociopath the public things she is. Rafael Barba is not going to stand up from his seat in the courtroom, do up the buttons of his suit jacket, and go to war for Mary. Because this is not a thriller or a mystery. This is about the problems with the justice system, and the problems with society.
This is a book about a system that saw a black girl and a dead white baby, and saw the black girl as a monster. That saw a black girl as a monster and – despite the oft-repeated “innocent until proven guilty” – condemned her from the start. That failed her before, during, and after her incarceration, again and again and again – and threatens to do all over again to both Mary and the baby she is carrying. While the events of the novel and Mary’s own recounting of her experiences make this very clear, the extracts peppered through the novel – psychiatric reports, interviews with teachers, a few paragraphs from a true crime book about the case – make it harshly clear just how mistreated and misjudged Mary was, and how little the adults who were supposed to do the right thing cared.
And that’s regardless of whether or not Mary is guilty.
That is what makes Allegedly such an important novel. I am a white woman who is not from the US, and so how the justice system and society would treat me is a far cry from what they would someone like Mary: black, lower class, from a single-parent home. It’s easy for me to watch something like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit because I’m conditioned to see the system as on my side; police officers are unlikely to be a threat to my safety and life. Nine year old me is not being branded a sociopathic killer, fifteen year old me isn’t in a home filled with violence and people who aren’t really helping me at all. I have never had to sneak out to go take a basic test, nor resorted to survival sex because I’ve hit eighteen and that’s it, the system doesn’t care about me now. This is a harsh but necessary read, because so many of us need to hear this voice and until now we have not been listening. The stories of incarcerated/recently released women and girls are not reported as often and as well as they should be, especially when it comes to their reproductive rights. In one scene, Mary recounts witnessing another inmate bleeding and suffering and being left unattended when she went into labour, and her grief at her baby being taken away from her immediately. It’s no wonder then that Mary will do anything to protect her Bean.
Honestly, it’s quite shocking that this is Jackson’s debut novel. Every twist and turn is deftly handled with the skill you’d expect from someone with multiple books under their belt, continuously upending me as a reader, and leaving me needing to reread that ending several times to process it – because, to my shock, I was right. I’m normally that annoying reader/viewer who figures it out early on (and not just because I “narrowed it down to the guy I recognise”) so leaving me unsure (in a good way, not in a “that doesn’t make sense at all” way) and contemplating it still days later clearly meant it had left its mark. Mary’s character and voice are both vividly realised, and the while the world around her is shocking, vicious, and dramatic it did not feel cartoonish. Instead it was like a splash of red paint on a white wall – stark and demanding your attention.
Before I end this review, I would like to point out that there are some moments in Allegedly – and in particular Mary’s own narration – that we as readers would deem problematic. In her narration Mary makes fat-shaming comments about one of the women in charge of the group home, colourist comments about another black girl, racist comments about non-black people of colour, homophobic comments and slurs, ableist comments regarding mental health, and so on. It is clear that much of this stems from Mary’s own ignorance and lack of education (which is unsurprising considering the complete and consistent denial of opportunity she has had), as well as the human influences around her. One comment about an Indian woman – “And she is Indian, like the ones Momma says take all the jobs overseas.” – confirms that at least some of her thoughts are parroted from/heavily shaped by her mother, despite everything she has done (or not done) for Mary. While this is true to both character and reality, this is something that readers should be aware of going in.
Overall, Allegedly is a powerful, gripping read that lures you in with a simple pair of questions – Did Mary kill baby Alyssa? And if she didn’t, who did? – and leaves you at the end thinking about more than just a whodunnit. For me, it was truly unputdownable, not even after midnight, and still has me trying to process it days later. For me, that is truly the sign of a brilliant novel. An absolute must-read.