Book Picks: Palmares

The novel's cover art with parrot and palm leaves

Palmares is marvelous. Magical realist and at times even Biblical, Gayl Jones’ novel is set in a fictional Brazil at the end of the 17th century. It opens with the young first-person narrator Almeyda, observing Mexia, a mixed race woman. She serves as a model for a particular type of femininity: quiet, alluring, and outwardly obedient. This divide between inner and outer worlds—appearance versus substance—lies at the heart of the novel. 

Jones creates many things from the materials of Brazilian history and her own imagination: a Bildungsroman, a slave narrative, an epic adventure, a romance, and a political novel. It is also a sort of anthology for the many voices that attempted to define Brazil before it was independent of Portugal. There are excerpts from an Englishwoman’s notebook, a collection of narratives written by a Black man, a European writer drafting the first dictionary of Brazilian Portuguese, a European painter who insists on painting (and assaulting) Black women—and yet in this horde of writers, sociologists, and artists is not one Black woman.

I couldn’t help but think of the literary theorist Bakhtin and his concept of heteroglossia—a multitude of voices necessary to the novel, not just for verisimilitude but as an exploration of the ideologies embedded in language itself. Nothing could be more urgent for a young enslaved Black girl. 

Almeyda’s story itself presents a corrective to this absence of Black women from the historical record. Everywhere she goes there are Black women—often paired as sisters, lovers, or mothers and daughters. And these women tell their stories—the parts they can bear to say: the men who’ve disappointed them, the men who’ve empowered them, the jobs they’ve held, the skills they’ve learned, the freedoms they’ve won.

At first, Almeyda is a watchful child who absorbs the world around her as slavery thrusts her into one situation after another. It is not until the free city of Palmares, loosely based on a historical place founded by escaped slaves that endured for almost a century, that Almeyda begins to come into her own. When the battle that destroys Palmares also separates her from her husband Anninho, she sets off on a quest to find him, and we witness the fierce, canny, and ultimately hopeful woman Almeyda has become. 

Jones’ novel has much to say about the cycles of resistance, destruction, exodus, and return that have defined centuries of Black liberation throughout the Americas. Her novel also revisits characters she wrote of decades earlier in her book-length poem Song of Anninho. This is a story of magic and myth, particularly the kind that heals and connects Black and Indigenous people to the generations before and after. Above all, it is a story about Almeyda asserting herself as the authority of her own history, in her own language. A remarkable book.


Published by M.C. Easton

Novelist and teacher.

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