The Warmest December by Bernice McFadden

The choice to forgive is yours.

Serious synopsis: 
The Warmest December by Bernice McFaddenis the incredibly moving story of one Brooklyn family and the alcoholism that determined years of their lives. Narrated by Kenzie Lowe, a young woman reminiscent of Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John, as she visits her dying father and finds that choices she once thought beyond her control are very much hers to make. Bernice L. McFadden is the author of seven critically acclaimed novels.

My two cents

The book in one sentence: A young woman strives to make sense of a life touched by alcoholism and abuse. 

This is one of those books that you don't really know what to expect ... and come away feeling that you got more than you bargained for. In an astounding way. I have never read any of McFadden's work, I have never heard of her period. So I didn't come in with any expectations. But I was blown away by both the story and the writing.

This is a story of a young black woman, Kenzie, who is inexplicably drawn to the deathbed of her father. In her head she didn't want to be there, filled with hate after having suffered -- with her martyred mother and her brother Malcolm -- a childhood of consistent abuse in his perennial alcoholic haze. The story alternates between past and present as she tries to make sense of her life, her relationships with her mother and her father, and the impacts on her life.

She witnessed how her mother had fallen to the addiction in a bid to assuage the pain; Kenzie too was not spared by the grip of alcoholism. Getting into Kenzie's head is painful -- Kenzie's voice is loud and strong, as she struggles with her anger and resentment, so she struggles with the pain and that "hole in her heart."

"Now and then I forget things, small things that would not otherwise alter my life. Things like milk in my coffee, setting my alarm clock, or Oprah at four. Tiny things. 
"One day last week I forgot I hated my father, forgot that I had even thought of him as a monster, forgot the blows he'd dealt over the years [...]
- p. 16

What I needed was to get to the meeting and share the pain; distribute it among the others, thinning it until it disappeared. What I wanted was a drink. I could pour the liquid down my throat and let it filter into the hole and extinguish the pain that lived there.
- p. 56

But rather than succumbing to the victim mentality, Kenzie is allowed insight into her father's own painful childhood and she comes to the realization that forgiveness and her healing are within her reach -- if she so chooses. An otherwise vicious cycle that can be simply be allowed to perpetuate can be stopped: this is the heart of McFadden's message. This is captured in the latter part of the novel -- which I re-read not once but twice, and with each reading, I kept thinking if I had the strength of character to totally forgive someone who has caused so much pain.

Bernice McFadden's writing style is simple yet powerful ... because she herself lived it. Writing the truth speaks volumes more than the most flowery prose. She describes the process of writing thus:

"I suppose, The Warmest December came out of my need to understand and forgive. It was probably the most difficult and most freeing thing I've ever written. If bloodletting could be translated into words - for me The Warmest December would be just that.
- via the author's blog on Goodreads

Read more about Bernice McFadden and her work on her website.


If your life has been touched by alcoholism, this book will speak to (nay scream at) you. If not, it will shed a very personal light on this societal problem that many merely dismiss as a statistic. I can only express my gratitude for McFadden's courage to write about alcoholism at its ugliest and forgiveness at its finest.

First line: Now and then I forget things, small things that would not otherwise alter my life.

Last line: "I'm sorry for both of us," I said and looked out into the warm December day.

Other reviews:
"McFadden's reissued second novel takes an unflinching look at the corrosive nature of alcoholism...

This is not a story of easy redemption ... McFadden writes candidly about the treacherous hold of addiction."
-Publishers Weekly 

"Riveting. . . . So nicely avoids the sentimentality that swirls around the subject matter. I am as impressed by its structural strength as by the searing and expertly imagined scenes."
-Toni Morrison, author of Beloved 

"This is a story that cuts across all race and social strata in its need to be told."
-The Dallas Morning News 

I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers

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© guiltless readingMaira Gall