Caul Baby by Morgan Jerkins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Caul Baby by Morgan Jerkins explores the relationships between women in two families intertwined by a broken promise that haunts a community over the alleged power of the caul.

Set in Harlem, the novel introduces us first to Laila, a Black woman who seems to have it all in her perfect brownstone where she lives with her perfect husband. But she can’t carry a baby to term, her miscarriages becoming the talk of the town. Then one day, she’s pregnant again but constantly worries about losing the baby. A man at her church named Landon approaches her about the opportunity to make sure her baby will be born alive and full term. Landon, who happens to be Laila’s niece Amara’s godfather, seems to be someone who can be trusted. He offers Laila a piece of caul, a rare layer of skin purported to have protecting powers. Laila ponders about buying the caul for her unborn child when she meets Josephine, a clerk at the convenience store. She sees Josephine get a paper cut and instantly heal with the caul she tries to hide. This magnetizes Laila to Josephine Melancon, who also says she’s had a history of miscarriages. Once Laila decides to buy the caul, Landon says the deal is off. This drives Laila to insanity as she loses her baby.

Laila ends up losing her husband and her home and lives with her sister Denise. Denise’s daughter, Columbia University student Amara, sees her aunt Laila unable to recover from the breakdown. The attention on Laila saves Amara, who is keeping her own pregnancy a secret. When she meets her godfather Landon at the church, Amara falls but rebounds. Landon notices this power and the pregnancy and offers Amara a place to hide out. Amara stays with Landon and his family until she gives birth to a girl named Hallow. Born with a caul, Hallow is raised by Landon and his mistress Josephine and is groomed to continue the profitable Melancon family business of selling caul to wealthy White people and denying caul to the Black people in their community.

Years later, Amara is preparing for a run as district attorney, but what the Melancons did to her family still gnaws at her. Laila’s tragedy becomes her driving force to be a successful lawyer, and she feels she finally found the legal solution with shutting down the Melancons’ caul-selling empire. In the back of her mind, she’s also thinking of the daughter she gave up and wondering what happened to her.

The novel is centered on the folklore of caul and how it would be sold through centuries to people who sought protection from danger. It also blends in family, fertility, race, class, and gentrification, spanning over 20 years in an evolving Harlem. Female-centered families anchor the story with most of the focus on the Melancons with matriarch Maman, oldest daughter Josephine, and youngest daughter Iris, who also lost her mind from having to be cut for her caul to protect anyone who pays for it. Iris’ daughter Helena had an accident as a child making her unfit to donate caul, which makes her an unruly companion to Hallow, who’s considered the perfect caulbearer. Josephine also feels stuck in the business but sees her affair with Landon as a way out. As the Black residents of Harlem see a mysterious family in the brownstone, the Melancons inside are in constant conflict about the business they refuse to share with the community because the community cannot afford the caul services. If one has the remedy, then why not share it with your community? That’s the question that plagues the outside where residents like Laila and Amara have a vendetta against the Melancons.

Overall, the first novel from journalist and nonfiction author Morgan Jerkins is a smooth literary fiction read that takes an element of magical realism and mixes it with the changing times around race and gentrification.

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