The trouble with reviewing a book like Bridgett M. Davis’ Shifting Through Neutral is that Davis’ first novel contains such elegance and subtlety that any attempt to analyze it is like explaining the punch line to a joke. The normal business of the reviewer becomes as meaningless and gauche as watching Anna Pavlova dance with Tigger. In looking for themes, for an angle to glom onto and extract, I feel like I am committing the waste observed by Davis’ narrator as the auto manufacturers submit their models to corrosion testing, “defacing a thing of beauty in order to see how much abuse it could take."
This novel doesn’t just tell a story. In fact, it’s short on plot and very character-driven. It exposes the soul of a middle-class black family in 1970's Detroit through the eyes of young Rae Dodson. Her father is disabled by crippling migraines, and her emotionally-distant mother is popping Valium when her older half-sister, Kimmie, returns from New Orleans, where she vanished years ago to live with her father, their mother’s one true love. Kimmie’s return stirs in Rae a desire to understand her splintered family, to understand the mixed blessings of coming into womanhood, and to find what freedom truly means to her. But when Kimmie’s father comes for them, Rae is forced to confront the price of freedom and define the kind of person she wants to become.
Davis’ work is all the more impressive given how badly it could have failed. A novel without a strong plot runs the risk of being a phenomenal bore. Yet she combines a beautiful, haunting prose with fully developed characters who are engaging and have depth while making it all seem effortless. The characters are three-dimensional, coming to life off pages of evocative imagery and very little exposition. Davis doesn’t describe Rae; she allows the reader to come to know Rae.
Subtlety is by far Davis’ strongest gift as a novelist. She uses her central images of cars, driving, and the road for the full range of those metaphors without ever manipulating the reader emotionally or, indeed, ever even allowing us to see the mechanics of what she’s doing. The impact of Rae’s observations about her family, about her job at the GM Proving Ground, about her awkward and tumultuous early love affairs, brush over the reader’s senses like gossamer cobwebs on sensitive flesh.
For this reason alone, Davis deserves recognition for writing important literary fiction and important African-American fiction specifically. Rae’s voice as the narrator is undeniably the voice of a Midwestern black girl describing the lives of a black family with a realism and poignancy rarely found in popular fiction. She masterfully focuses on race while utterly transcending it – never portraying black families in the way white readers expect or want to hear, yet never allowing her readers to think the Dodson family “just happens to be black." This is both a black novel and an American novel, and to place one over the other would be a disgrace to Davis’ work.
Living in Motor City and watching those she loves take to the open road gives Rae a passion for cars and the independence they represent for her. Her story is that of the capricious nature of fate that comes with freedom. Sometimes thrilling, often cruel, and always unpredictable, Shifting Through Neutral exposes part of what it really means to be human, to love and be loved by an imperfect family, and to step fully into life.